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Shaikh Mohammad Idrees is a self-taught polymath, innovator and multi-instrumentalist based in a small town in Karnataka, quietly carving out a niche for himself. Image Credit: Shafaat Shahbandari

Bengaluru: They say, curiosity kills the cat, but for this young innovator and self taught polymath, it is the overdose of this curiosity that has given him life.

Shaikh Mohammad Idrees was always curious about the devices he saw and the tools people used around him. As a child he didn’t like to play with toys, he would rather open them up to have a look at the mechanism underneath. From a young age he was always keen to known how things worked.

Over the last three decades, his curiosity has taken him places, from libraries and laboratories, to workshops and garages, and his works have been showcased across the world.

But, to get here, Idrees has spent time in the oddest of places, doing weirdest of things - his only objective being learning.

His constant endeavour hasn’t been futile. His obsession to learn new things, uncover the mysteries and unravel the minds of experts has finally helped him set up his own workshop of wonders, where he makes handcrafted papers made of a range of plant fibre, as well as parchments, natural ink and perfumes. He also makes machines and giant telescopes using scrap material.

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Working with multiple natural material such as wasted plant fibre, leather and scrap metal, he produces a variety of objects including parchments and paper. Image Credit: Shafaat Shahbandari

Self learner

Working from a peaceful little village outside the small city of Shivamogga, the self-taught polymath plays multiple instruments, dabbles in calligraphy, paints as well as restoring antique machines, ancient coins and manuscripts.

One would wonder, how does a 32-year-old pursue such a wide range of domains and master them all? The usual conclusion would be, “He must be naturally gifted!”

But, Idrees is not too keen on accepting the concept of natural gifts.

“There is no alternative to hard work and passion to pursue excellence. One might be having some gifts but without dedication, focus and constant pursuit of knowledge one cannot achieve anything in life. We all have our passions, but how many of us pursue those passions and develop our skills to the level of expertise? Very few of us do that,” said Idrees, adding that learning is a continuous and diverse process and should not be confined to any one method, medium or age.

A passionate learner from a young age, Idrees was always driven by curiosity and he never lets his sense of wonder and awe dim at any moment.

“When we are young, we are all very curious. Children have a great sense of wonder and appreciation. They want to know about everything that they see or touch, they want to keep exploring and discovering new things that appear around them. But this sense of wonder dims as we go through the process of conditioning which is called growing up or education,” added the innovator, who is still as curious as a toddler.

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An internationally acclaimed calligrapher and painter, Shaikh Mohammad Idrees believes in innovation in every field. Here he showcases a calligraphic work based on his fingerprint using the verse of the Holy Quran that mentions the uniqueness of human fingerprints. Image Credit: Shafaat Shahbandari


A Phsyics graduate, Idrees is now a successful entrepreneur, selling handmade papers and parchments to museums, scholars and artists in India and 30 other countries. He is also a very successful painter, calligrapher, woodworker, metalworker and stone-carver, creating items of art using numerous natural material.

Apart from making handmade papers and parchments, he restores old Victorian era machines and centuries old mechanical devices, as well as ancient manuscripts and coins, all in a natural way.

So, how did Idrees find time to acquire mastery over so many skills?

The self-taught polymath has a simple formula - courage to pursue the thirst for knowledge at all cost.

“When you have the thirst and when you seek ways, the Almighty will open up paths for you. You should have the willingness to go the extra mile and leave your comfort if you want to achieve anything out of the ordinary in life. For me books have been the single biggest source of learning. I took lifetime membership of the Shivamogga Central Library at the age of eight when other kids very busy playing on the street and that made the difference,” said Khalid, revealing his secret for success.

Khalid got the idea of making papers from discarded plant material while reading Egyptian history, who were the pioneers in making paper.

He has successfully produced handmade paper using 50 different kinds of plant waste, like cotton, pineapple, mulberry, hemp, rice husk, elephant foot grass etc. His papers are certified with a guaranteed lifespan of 645 years.

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Idrees uses leaves and waste from 50 different plants to produce handmade paper. Image Credit: Shafaat Shahbandari


“Library was my address. From the age of around 8-9 years I used to spend hours poring over books, especially books about history, science and arts. I got most of my ideas from my readings in the library. When I found an idea, I was always interested in trying those ideas. I was curious about machines, when my interest in machines grew, I took up apprenticeship with a diesel mechanic in town and learnt everything about engines and motors. The best way to learn is to sit with the experts and get your hands dirty,” added Idrees, detailing the highlights of his learning journey.

He says that with the advent of the Internet and social media it is now very easy to learn anything one wants, but there is no alternative to learning from an expert or through books.

“I have always made it a point to sit with senior citizens and draw lessons from their wisdom. When I come across an expert in any field I seek to sit with them and learn from their expertise, this is how I learnt calligraphy. If you look for experts, you will find people of every field around you. There are also books written on every subject, you don’t even have to buy them, just spend some time in the library and you will come out as a transformed individual,” said Idrees, explaining that the old ways learning from experts or through books are still the two best ways of gaining knowledge.

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The colonial era machine used by the British East India Company is currently under restoration with Shaikh Mohammad Idrees. Image Credit: Shafaat Shahbandari


Apart from building things and producing objects, Idrees loves restoring antique pieces. Among the antiques he is currently restoring is a machine used by the British East India Company, as well as some rare coins minted by Tipu Sultan and some ancient scriptures handwritten on palm-leaf scrolls.

In the past, he has restored coins minted by Alexander the Great; a manuscript written by Basavanna, a 12 century Indian philosopher; and a letter written by Abraham Lincoln.

He is also a huge collector of old mechanical clocks, some of the earliest phones and cameras and brings them back to working condition.

Amidst all these diverse endeavours he also finds times to relax and reflect, playing traditional instruments such as Rubab, Violin, Harmonica, Duff and Ney, a flute-like Turkish instrument, used primarily in Sufi music.

Now, that is what you call a true master of all and jack of none!

-- Shafaat Shahbandari is a freelance journalist base in Bengaluru and Founder-Editor of Thousand Shades of India