Prof. Ralph Russell, who died in London on September 14, was a remarkable person. He was an unrepentant communist, an aficionado of Urdu and a man of subaltern tastes. He combined all this while living in Britain. He taught Urdu to a wide variety of British people who needed deploying their Urdu skills while working or interacting with South Asian diasporas in professional work in the United Kingdom.
Russell's forte lay not only in knowing or writing Urdu, but in insisting on its use for conversation. With him, one either spoke Urdu or English. He was intolerant of those who mixed the two. So was his penchant for communism. He spoke Urdu with a Pathani accent. This was, as it appears, because he learnt it from a Pathan Urdu munshi while posted in NWFP. He would take position on issues, regardless of being unpopular.
He taught Urdu at the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) for close to 32 years between 1949 and 1981. Among Russell’s many famous works is his translation of Mirza Ghalib’s poetry. He spent three-and-a-half years in India during the war and learned Urdu to be able to converse with the soldiers 'to awaken their political sense'. After the war he devoted himself to the study of Urdu language and literature. He had earlier completed his education at Cambridge in 1940. His published work include Three Mughal Poets (on Mir, Sauda and Mir Hasan) written with Khurshidul Islam of Aligarh Muslim University, Ghalib’s Life and Letters, How not to write the History of Urdu Literature and A New Course in Urdu and spoken Hindi besides his English translations of Urdu poetry and contributions to Urdu literary journals. The Urdu translation of his memoirs titled Joinda-o-Yabinda was published only recently. He established a system of Urdu teaching in Britain, which facilitated the learning of the language across Britain. In his own words A New Course in Urdu and spoken Hindi was designed for adults who wished to communicate with Urdu-speaking community and their children but had no time in the first instance to acquire more than the everyday spoken language. The course is in four parts, and worked on the principle of helping people to learn what they wanted and needed to know, and not burden them with information they neither wanted nor needed. He won the sobriquet Bartanvi Baba-i-Urdu (British Father of Urdu). His contributions to Urdu are many and lasting. Ralph was the first, and perhaps the last, Urdu academic to think of undertaking that very important work.
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 honour 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. Russell would point out that Urdu poetry, unlike poetry written in English, is meant to be primarily recited and not read (he was referring to the tradition of Mushaira whereby a group of several poets recite their poems in front of an audience – sometimes all-night long). Bangalore based Urduphile and former Chief Secretary to Government of Kanrataka T. P. Issar, who authored Divan e Ghalib : English Renderings had wide consultation with Prof. Russell prior to penning his magnum opus. Just like every progressive, Russell started his quest by adopting atheism, which led to humanism. The opposition to poverty, war, oppression, colonialism, censorship, imperialism bound him to communism for life. He was sharply critical of the degeneration of communism in Soviet Union and China. He never accepted their adoption of totalitarianism which is anathema to Marxist thought.