Updated: August 31, 2021 6:05:23 am
The consensus among those who knew historian, scholar and queer rights activist Saleem Kidwai is that he never said no to share the “wealth of knowledge he possessed”. “His greatest quality was that he always encouraged people to explore their ideas and for that, he never hesitated in sharing his knowledge. He was very generous with his knowledge, which was immense and he was one of the most humble people I have known,” said author Rana Safvi, speaking after Kidwai’s death — due to heart-related complications at his residence in Lucknow’s Mahanagar area on Monday morning.
Kidwai, who was openly gay, taught medieval history at Delhi University’s Ramjas College for 20 years till 1993, before he returned to Lucknow after taking early retirement to focus on scholarship. He is survived by his three sisters – Azra Kidwai, Sufia Kidwai and Afsaha Kidwai. His burial was conducted in his ancestral village Badagaon in Barabanki district.
Kidwai was one of the first academics to publicly speak as a member of the LGBT community. He co-edited a book named ‘Same-Sex Love in India: Readings in Indian Literature’ with Ruth Vanita, an Indian academic who teaches at University of Montana. It was a collection of writings on same-sex love from over 2,000 years of Indian literature.
“The idea behind the book was to contradict this idea that homosexuality as a concept emerged from the west and was adopted by Indians…it was the British who came to India with their Victorian values who villainised it,” said Lucknow-based author and journalist Mehru Jaffer, who was a close friend of Kidwai. “I think one of his bigger contributions was that he encouraged people to be comfortable with their sexuality. He always told people from the LGBT community that they must accept themselves and must talk to people about it.”
Authors such as Amitav Ghosh and Devdutt Pattanaik, among others, also mourned Kidwai’s death.
Mukul Manglik, Kidwai’s friend from Lucknow and a former colleague from Ramjas College, recounted his classes being hugely popular and students of other colleges flocking to his classrooms to learn from him. “The early 1990s was the time of the Babri Masjid and it upset him greatly, just as it upset many of us. But what struck me was that his upset was also deeply tied to his passion for the discipline. He was not just shaken by the implications of the events for the present but also for its implications for the discipline of history, about the instrumentalisation of the past, about what they were doing to the medieval past… After his premature retirement he began doing research and writing about a variety of different things, and in that too he always took pains to be true to the craft of history.”
Jaffer said Kidwai’s contribution to academia about Lucknow and its art is immense and he was a “sea of knowledge” about art and culture. “He was part of a generation that saw culture and knowledge excel in Lucknow city. He was among those people who surrounded himself by books and regularly visited libraries to read more about culture, art and the city.”
Born in Lucknow in 1951, Kidwai belonged to an influential family from Barabanki district’s Badagaon, a small kasba (town). He also knew Begum Akhtar very closely as she was his neighbour. “He was very fond of Begum Akhtar’s art and spoke about it often,” said Jaffer.
Kidwai’s friend Askari Naqvi, who is a performing artiste, and knew Kidwai for a decade, said, “When Kidwai sahab was alive, he told me how it had rained the day Begum Akhtar died and that was a way for nature to mourn her death. Today, when I am heading for his burial, there is intense rain and I am reminded of what Kidwai sahab had told me.”