Ralph Russell, noted Urdu scholar, and head of Urdu at SOAS from 1949-1981, has passed away.
I am re-printing, with his permission, Professor C. M. Naim’s thoughts:
Anyone who came in contact with Ralph Russell (1918-2008) always remembered him as a remarkable man. Mostly because he not only knew Urdu so well but insisted on using it. You either used English or talked in Urdu with him; no mixing of the two, certainly not the way most of us do. Then there was his knowledge of Urdu literature. He had read much and digested it better than most. So, talking about some literary topic, he could surprise you by referring to something that you of course knew but had not occurred to you as relevant. But those who got to know him slightly better also found him remarkable on other accounts. For me the reasons were his intolerance for humbug. He spoke frankly and firmly, but never arrogantly. I never heard him make fun of someone just for the heck of it, while he always showed readiness to laugh with you at some foible of his own. Simultaneously, he was a principled man, and always ready to a take a position, if he thought it was right, against popular acceptance. His ‘progressivism’ was that of a true subaltern and not of the coffee-house type that prevailed in Urdu circles for decades.
His contributions to Urdu are many and lasting. In terms of real influence and effectiveness, the prime place goes to his Urdu pedagogical books and his years of teaching Urdu to hundreds of non- academic men and women in England, people who then used the knowledge in their professional work with the South Asian community in U.K.
Ralph was the first, and perhaps the last, Urdu academic to think of undertaking that very important work.
Ralph’s initial academic work was done in collaboration with Khurshidul Islam of Aligarh Muslim University, who taught at the School of Oriental & African Studies, London, for a number of years. The first fruit of that collaboration was Three Mughal Poets: Mir, Sauda, Mir Hasan (1968) It still remains the best introductory book to put in the hands of any student interested in Urdu poetry. Scholars may differ with some of their conclusions but the overall usefulness and excellence of the book cannot be denied. The second book the two put out will last a long time. Entitled, Ghalib: Life and Letters (1969), it is a biography of Ghalib in English using Hali’s book on Ghalib and Ghalib’s own letters, woven together with excellent commentary. It’s a beautifully conceived book, and can be read for pleasure and instruction alike. Though done in collaboration with K. Islam, they were in fact dominantly Ralph’s books both in conception and execution. Ralph did two more books on Ghalib, including one of translations from Ghalib’s Persian poetry.
Ralphs wrote numerous essays and finally put most of them together in two volumes: The Pursuit of Urdu Ghazal (1992) and How Not to Write the History of Urdu Literature (1999) Ralph was a superb translator.
Very early on, he published an exquisite translation of Aziz Ahmad’s novel Aisi Bulandi Aisi Pasti, with the title The Shore and the Wave (1971). Later he put together his other verse and prose translations into a book titled Hidden in the Lute (1995).
More recently Ralph had started writing an autobiography, of which one volume entitled Findings keepings: Life, Communism and Everything came out in 2001. (The second volume was in progress, as I understand. An Urdu translation of the first volume has been done and will soon
come out from Karachi.)
Ralph’s younger colleague Christopher Shackle organized a book to honor Ralph. Published in 1989, it is titled Urdu and Muslim South Asia: Studies in Honour of Ralph Russell. It contains a useful bibliography of Ralph’s writings to that date.
– C. M. Naim (Sep 15, 2008)