Slow acceptance of a major breakthrough: Computerised calligraphy

By Zubeida Mustafa

IT IS now eighteen months that computerised Urdu nastaliq calligraphy has been in use in the country but it has yet to produce the impact on Urdu printing it could have been expected to. Only one machine is currently being used in Pakistan to bring out an Urdu daily from Lahore.

Why this delay in response? Not that the inventor, Mr Ahmed Mirza Jamil, has not received recognition. He was awarded the Tamgha-i- Imtiaz on Independence Day 1982. The Government and the citation described the system of computerised Urdu calligraphy he devised as “an invention of considerable originality and national importance”. The Peshawar University and the PAPGAI have also presented shields of honour to him. But the full potential of his invention has yet to be realised. Ahmed Mirza Jamil puts it modestly that transition from the traditional to the very modern takes a long time.


But this is certain that ultimately mechanised Urdu typesetting in nastaliq should revolutionise the Urdu language. For after all the naskh script which could be adapted for mechanisation of Urdu composing has failed to win general acceptance in our society. Ever since nastaliq was developed by combining the naskh and taliq styles of calligraphy, it had gained widespread popularity. It was introduced in the subcontinent during the Mughal period and it has been next to impossible to dislodge it.

When lithographic printing was introduced, Urdu books in nastaliq moveable type were printed at the Fort William College press in the early nineteenth century but it proved to be a short-lived experiment. As a result printers had to retain the traditional method of calligraphic composing by hand, adopting lithographic system of printing.

Mechanised Urdu calligraphy, or Nuru Nastaliq as it has been named after Mirza Noor e father of Mirza Jamil who was an eminent calligrapher in his own right, offers all the advantages of computerised typesetting. It saves time and space. It places at the printer’s disposal a variety of type faces and type sizes, of which there is no concept in calligraphy done by hand. The computer has the capacity to adjust column width and space between lines and words with a press of the button.

Corrections and insertions are possible without disturbing the entire passage. Matter can be stored away for future use in floppy discs. But most significant of all, the beauty of the centuries-old nastaliq style of calligraphy has been preserved. For many years, nastaliq defied mechanisation. Although calligraphy by hand was a cumbersome process it could not be abandoned since no alternative was available. It made Urdu the only language in the world in which matter had to be calligraphed by hand before being printed by a mechanical process.

In fact, once a foreign journalist even remarked that if one wishes to take a souvenir from Pakistan, he should acquire a copy of any Urdu newspaper which is published every morning after having been written by hand the night before! So anachronistic has been the method used for printing in nastaliq that no progress in the field of education and literacy could be visualised until mechanisation was introduced.

Hence it was a major breakthrough when Mirza Jamil, Chairman of Elite Publishers, one of the leading printing concerns in the country, and his friend of long-standing, Mr Matlubul Hasan Saiyid, hit upon a method to capture the nastaliq style in computerised typesetting. When Mr Jamil set up his own printing organisation in 1952, he came to realise the problems in getting the nastaliq script composed by hand for printing.

His mind set to work on devising a system to cope with this problem. The key to his ultimate success lay in that he did not concentrate on the joints between the letters, as others working in the field had tended to do. This Mirza Jamil realised was making it impossible to mechanise nastaliq printing. Each joint between the letters is quite distinct in itself. The word setting, plane and plinth, rise and fall, angularity and shape of the letters change according to the combination of the letters.

Mirza Jamil began to work on the ligatures which he felt would be more manageable than the joints. His conclusion was that if the ligatures (which can comprise a single letter or a combination of anything upto eight letters) used in the Urdu language are identified it should be possible to reproduce the nastaliq script by machine.

Mr Saiyid set about the mammoth task of scanning the language and compiling a comprehensive lexicon of ligatures which combine to make Urdu words. This was the Noori Lughat.


 The next task was to find the appropriate machine for the job. What really helped was the coming of the age of electronics in printing. Mirza Jamil had discovered earlier that printing by joining the negatives of the ligatures would be a time-consuming process. But the introduction of the digitised system in which the image was magnetically placed on a disc opened new avenues. The same task could now be performed at a phenomenal speed: 29 characters could be set in a second.

At an exhibition in Singapore in 1979, Mr Jamil came across the Lasercomp, manufactured by the Monotype Corporation, a British company. This appeared to be just right for the kind of job he had in mind. Its 80 megabite memory would not be sufficient to store all the ligatures. But its capacity could be increased by installing two memories.

It was by no means an easy task persuading the company to undertake the assignment which was essentially of an experimental nature. Once Monotype agreed and samples were satisfactorily produced in August 1980, the ball was in Mirza Jamil’s court. It was his responsibility to get the ligatures, 17,000 of them, set in nastaliq calligraphy. There was no question of feeding words into the computer. They would have run into millions and no machine has been so far invented with a memory of that capacity.

Mr Jamil’s original plan was to commission 20 top-ranking kaatibs to calligraph the ligatures. On that calculation he promised to send the blueprints of the characters within six months, even though the British manufacturers had estimated that it would require at least five years. Impatient as he was to see his ideas put into practice, Mirza Jamil returned enthusiastically to Karachi. But disappointment was in store for him.

He found it impossible to get twenty kaatibs to work for him for six months, in spite of the attractive wages he offered. He also realised that if there was to be uniformity of style, only one man would have to do the job. The calligrapher who agreed estimated that it would take him two days to complete one ligature of the size of 10 inches by 10 inches calligraphed with a 3/4 inch pen.

The project appeared heading for failure, until Mr Saiyid, whose contribution in the shape of the lughat was a major one, told his friend, “Jamil do the calligraphy yourself or forget everything. We cannot wait for five years.” A graduate from the J.J. School of Arts, an artist who had exhibited his paintings since the age of seven until they were destroyed in 1947, with thirty years of experience of graphic arts and with calligraphy in his blood, Ahmed Mirza Jamil was professionally fully qualified to calligraph the ligatures.

But could he do the job singlehandedly in six months? Here Mr Jamil’s determination, courage and will power took over. What lie set out to do and actually accomplished was the work of 20 people. It was nothing short of a miracle. “For six months I was in a trance. I did not know what I was doing apart from calligraphing ligatures in nastaliq day in and day out. Sometimes I slept for only an hour or so. The challenge of completing the job on time drove me on.

God gave me strength, for this kind of work schedule is not easy to follow at the age of sixty. I survived without any ill-effects,” says Mirza Jamil recalling those crucial months of 1980-81. He is also grateful for the assistance and cooperation he received from his colleagues.

Calligraphy was not the only job to be done. There was also the task of giving each ligature its unit value to feed it into the computer and assigning each alphabet a code number to make it comprehensible to the Englishmen who would be handling it later. There were 75,000 numbers ‘ which had to be correctly noted and Ms Zainab Rizvi did a remarkably error-free job, while keeping pace with the calligraphy. The Lasercomp has stored about 17,000 ligatures in its memory and it still has a capacity for 5,000 more. In one year of operation, only 500 ligatures have been found wanting. Operating the machine is simple. It has a keyboard with a key for every letter of the Urdu alphabet. The print operator is simply required to press the required key and where the ligature ends he has to press the end of ligature key.

For instance, the word “moojid” when written in Urdu has two ligatures — “moo” and “jid”. The operator presses “meem” and “wao” and the end of ligature key. Next he goes on to “jeem” and “dal” and then the end of word key. It is no exaggeration to say that Nuri Nastaliq should revolutionise Urdu printing in Pakistan. When its specimen printing was put on display at the IPEX exhibition in Birmingham in 1980, Iran and Afghanistan — both use the nastaliq script — had also shown interest in it.

It saves 15 to 30 per cent space compared with hand calligraphy. It has uniformity and consistency which no kaatib s work can possess for his style change with his moods and stamina. And most important of all Nuri Nastaliq saves time. A book of 500 pages can be set in a day by ten keyboard operators working in three shifts. This would take anything from six months to five years if the calligraphy is done by hand, since a book is calligraphed by one kaatib only. The National Language Authority, which initially displayed a lot of enthusiasm for the invention, persuaded the President of Pakistan to permit the import of ten machines duty-free. But only one has so far been imported and even that is being under-utilised. Although it has the capacity for forty keyboards, ten are in use.

Why have more people not turned to Nuri Nastaliq? Is it because as Syed Sibte Hasan once remarked, “We have lost the capacity to recognise epoch-making events and revolutions in our lifetime.”

Dawn, 1 April 1983