The Persian and Urdu translator has left a lasting mark on the community of scholars researching South Asia.
Several epithets could describe the Kashmiri gentleman Firdous Ali Najaf – a respected Persian and Urdu translator, scholar of South Asian music and early cinema, television and music producer, culinary genius and a legendary raconteur – but none can do justice to the extraordinary human being that he was. On October 21, Najaf passed away at the Hillingdon Hospital in Hayes, London. He had undergone a successful surgery to treat a newly-detected tumour, but a cardiac arrest claimed his life two days later. He was 75.
His sudden demise has left the community of scholars researching South Asia in shock and grief. Najaf was a regular visitor to the Asian and African Studies Reading Room at the British Library on Euston Road, and his presence a source of encouragement and joy to many scholars, young and old. Firdous sa’ab went out of his way to assist budding scholars, especially of South Asian culture, sharing with them important clues and nuggets of information, and guiding them through the vast labyrinth of sources housed in the British Library. He was called upon often for help with translating some tortuous Urdu or Persian passages.
Najaf was extremely generous and always had a date sandwich and a story to share over lunch. He had grown up in Kashmir, where he was inspired by the far-reaching intellectual curiosity of his grandfather. He then went to Kolkata to study dentistry. He qualified but never practiced, and instead he moved to Bombay, where he developed a deep interest in cinema and the music industry. Having relocated to the UK in the mid-1970s, he began a long career in the creative industries, including producing path-breaking programmes on South Asian music and culture with Channel 4. He was also deeply involved with community and council projects in Brent, where he put on a series of concerts in the Brent Town Hall, inviting some of the most celebrated artists of Hindustani classical music to perform there.
In his retirement, he pursued his passion for Urdu literature. For decades he alternated between uncovering long-forgotten 19th century books in Urdu, Persian, Punjabi and Kashmiri in the British Library, and developing innovative recipes or practicing exquisite calligraphy at home. He was often interrupted by a passer-by in the reading room, who wanted to admire his beautiful penmanship. He refused to sit idle for a moment, and always had several projects on the go: Hamlet in Urdu; marsiyā poetry; and anthologies of courtesans’ ghazals.
He was especially interested in preserving the intellectual heritage of South Asian Islamicate culture, and documenting the long history of female litterateurs. His recent book, Bāzār-i Husan kī shā’irāt (Lahore, 2012), was a culmination of years of research and reflects his passion for poetry and music: he collated extracts from different Urdu and Persian anthologies of women poets to put their verses and lyrics into mainstream circulation again. Najaf also donated his collection of poetry recitals and Indian classical music concerts to the Sound Archives at the British Library, where they are housed under the label ‘Firdous Ali Collection’.
Perhaps nothing illustrates the indefatigable and large-hearted researcher that Najaf was than a story narrated by Khurshid, the wife of his friend and Tooting-based writer and musicologist, Ayub Aulia. Khurshid Aa’pa, also the sister of famous tabla wizard Zakir Hussain Khan, was like a sister to Najaf. She recounts with gratitude how he helped her family locate missing recordings of rare songs recorded by her father, the great Ustad Allah Rakha Khan. Apparently, the only copy of Punjabi film Madari (1950), including songs composed by Allah Rakha that were immensely popular, had perished in a fire at the Bombay archives. Attempts to locate the film in Pakistan (where the film had been equally popular) proved futile. Ultimately, it was Firdous sa’ab who located rare recordings of the songs in Southall and presented them to Khurshid, who passed them on to her father in Bombay. Ustad Allah Rakha’s joy knew no bounds. Similar stories can be repeated ad nauseam by his friends and students.
Najaf was extremely warm and generous, but also uncompromising and vocal in his opinions. He was always happy to help anyone interested in South Asia, but also found the pretensions of the professional academy stifling and laughable. He valued humility and respect, and was deeply troubled by the injustices of the world. He pursued his research in forgotten literatures and his artistic skills with a passionate steadfastness that is hard to come by.
Richard David Williams is Lecturer in Ethnomusicology at SOAS, University of London. Radha Kapuria is a Commonwealth Scholar writing her PhD on ‘Music in Colonial Punjab’ at King’s College, London.