In the death on Sunday of Prof Ralph Russell, Urdu language has been deprived of the dedicated services of another ‘Baba-i-Urdu’, albeit of British origin, who as teacher and head of the Urdu Department at London University for close to 32 years passed on his passion, love and knowledge of the language to his students and friends and enriched the literature of the language with his scholarly research that earned him a unique and abiding place among great names of Urdu literature.
His death at the age of 90 will be widely mourned in the South Asian Subcontinent and abroad and by his friends and admirers among Urdu literatures and especially among progressive thinkers and workers of the Left.
Russell joined the Communist Party when he was only 16 and became its active member.
His romance with the Urdu language was also a product of his commitment to spread socialist thought among Indian soldiers of the British army that he had joined at the beginning of the Second World War.
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. He had earlier completed his education at Cambridge in 1940.
After the war he devoted himself to the study of Urdu language and literature.
He joined the London University in 1949 where he remained till 1981.
His published work include Three Mughal Poets written with Khurshidul Islam, Ghalib’s Life and Letters and A New Course in Urdu and spoken Hindi besides his English translations of Urdu poetry and contributions to Urdu literary journals.
According to BBC’s Asif Jillani, he spoke Urdu with a Pathan accent because the Urdu munshi from whom he learned to speak the language was a Pathan.
Expressing his grief on the professor’s death, Iftikhar Arif, chairman Pakistan Academy of Letters, who befriended the late professor during his long sojourn in England, said that an era had come to an end as professor Russel was perhaps the last Orientalist and veteran scholar of Urdu literature abroad whose services have left a permanent mark on the development of Urdu language.
The vacuum created by his passing will not be easy to fill. He said Russell accomplished some major works as the head of Urdu Department of the School of Oriental and African Studies of London University.
He wrote numerous research and critical essays in Urdu and made very popular and accomplished translation from the classical Urdu literature, which are read widely in the Western world.
The Urdu translation of his memoirs titled Joinda-o-Yabinda was published only recently. He established such a system of Urdu teaching in Britain, which facilitated the learning of the language across Britain.
He has left behind many illustrious students in Europe and America. Government of Pakistan conferred the Sitara-i-Imtiaz upon him in acknowledgement of his valuable services for the promotion of Urdu.
Literary circles in Britain have expressed their deep sorrow on his death.