Leaving behind an irreparable loss for the literary world, author, historian, translator and a stalwart of the Indian queer movement, Saleem Kidwai passed away in Lucknow, on Monday. Born and brought up in the state capital, Saleem'ji lived a life contributing extensively to the various facets of society. Famed for co-penning the book, Same-Sex Love in India: Readings from Literature and History, he would be remembered eternally as one of the pioneering gay rights activists in the country.
A revolutionary voice par excellence!
Born in August,1951, Saleem'ji spent the first seventeen years of his life in Lucknow and thereafter, moved to Delhi for pursuing higher education. After getting his post-graduation degree, he soon started working at the University of Delhi as a professor of History. Being a man of varied interests, he loved exploring the various dimensions of Indian history, Urdu and Persian literature, Islamic Studies, culture, music and a range of other fields.
After returning from a short academic episode in Canada, he rose to prominence as one of the maiden voices of the Indian Queer Movement. Co-authoring the revolutionary book, Same-Sex Love in India with Ruth Vanitha, Saleem'ji brought a narration of queer history from the lens of Indian culture and civilisation. It is one of the most significant attempts to counter the claims, that referred to queer behaviour and alternate sexualities as 'foreign imports'.
Notably, a copy of the book was presented in front of the Supreme Court while it was dealing with the petitions related to Section 377, a British-era law that decriminalised homosexual acts. Besides this, the book also garnered a place amongst the finalists for the Lambda Literary Award. Through his exceptional works, Saleem'ji leaves behind an unmatched legacy for the literary community, queer folks and the nation, at large.
'Songs Sung True', a soulful symbol of his love for music!
Post his retirement, Saleem'ji moved back to his hometown Lucknow and devoted most of his time towards his interests in literature and music. An ardent fan of Begum Akhtar, he enjoyed navigating through the different genres of Indian classical saragams. Such was his love for music that he travelled all the way to Lahore to meet Malika Pukharaj, a popular Ghazal and folk singer of Pakistan.
Later, he credited himself with Songs Sung True, a translation of Pukharaj's autobiography, which will always be a testament to his inclination for harmonies and rhythms. He also worked on documenting and reviving the history of tawaifs, the erstwhile courtesans, whom he considered as repositories of vocal art.
A life replete with courage, simplicity and honesty!
While the man will always be cherished for his books, he will equally be remembered for his words and actions amid the LBGT space. Ritwik Das, a member of Awadh Queer Pride Committee recalls Saleem'ji as a multifaceted personality.
"He was one of the first people to speak for queer rights decades ago when nobody spoke anything. During his last years, he returned to Lucknow and supported the queer community here, while he could have easily gone to some bigger city. Every time we spoke, he would always quote a range of books during our interactions. This is a big loss for us.", says Das.
In one of Kidwai's interviews for Project BOLO, he said, "If I was to believe in rebirth, I would want to be born gay again, believe it or not." Unwavered by the clutches of societal norms and expectations, Saleem'ji sketched an inspirational life journey, replete with courage, simplicity and honesty. Through the treasure chest of his words and deeds, he will continue to inspire generations to take 'pride' in who they really are!