Maulana Wahiduddin Khan | Al-Risala January 1988

A competition was once held to see who could write the largest and the most beautifully formed letters of the Urdu alphabet in the sand along the banks of the Yamuna. Among the many calligraphers who had gathered to compete was Ustad Yousuf Dehlavi (d. 1977), who was renowned for the extraordinary command he had over his art. Writing in the sand with a bamboo shoot, he covered a distance of one entire furlong with the first seventeen letters of the alphabets (from Alif to Shin), at which point he was requested to stop, as this was quite enough to demonstrate the superiority of his skill. He then asked for the letters to be coloured and photographed from a plane, so that they could be viewed all together on a reduced scale. He claimed that the letters in the photograph would look exactly the same as his own handwriting done on a normal scale. After this, none of the other competitors even dared to demonstrate their art.

After Partition, he left for Pakistan, where he continued to earn distinctions. On one occasion he was asked to write words of welcome on an arch through which Shah Saud, the King of Saudi Arabia was to pass, while on a visit to the country. The Governor General himself came to supervise the welcome arrangements, and during his inspection was amazed to see the truly majestic writing on the welcome arch. He sent for Ustad Yousuf, lavished great praise on his work and asked him how long it had taken him to complete it. “Seven days,” was the answer. The Governor General then instructed his secretary to give Rs. 7,000 to Ustad Yousuf as a token of his appreciation. A cheque for this amount was immediately handed over to him.

Once asked from whom he had learnt the art of calligraphy, he said that he had not learnt it from anyone-not even from his own father, who had also in his time been famous as a calligrapher. He explained that he had learned simply by copying from examples of the work of the great calligraphers of the Mughal period which are preserved on tablets in the museum at the Red Fort in Delhi. For a period of ten years, Ustad Yousuf used to visit the Red Fort daily to study these masterpieces. Each day, he would memorize one couplet and then try writing it in an identical style when he came back home. The next day, he would take his work to the Red Fort, compare it with the original and then, if necessary, correct his mistakes. In this way, his work was refined and perfected, without a teacher and without money having to change hands.

There is a lesson in this for anyone who aspires to perfection in any chosen field. Even without money, other kinds of resources or guidance, a man can achieve success, provided his desire to do so is keen enough, and his diligence matches his determination.