Soli Sorabjee, Eminent Indian Jurist and Jazz Lover, Dies at 91

This obituary is part of a series about people who have died in the coronavirus pandemic. Read about others here.

Soli Sorabjee was 18 when he walked into a record store in Bombay, as Mumbai was then called, and asked for a recording of the Hungarian Dances by Brahms. At home, he took a listen.

“I found it nothing like Brahms at all,” he told a television interviewer. “So many different sounds.” But he liked the tune on the presumably unlabeled or mislabeled record and played it again, and then a third time. “It happened to be ‘Tiger Rag’ by the Benny Goodman Trio,” he said. “The bug had bitten.”

Mr. Sorabjee became a passionate and lifelong jazz fan — as well as one of India’s leading jurists, a two-time attorney general, a constitutional expert and a champion of free speech.

He died on April 30 at a hospital in New Delhi. He was 91. The cause was the coronavirus, his son Hormazd Sorabjee said.

Soli Sorabjee was considered such a good lawyer that the courtrooms where he appeared were frequently packed, and colleagues sometimes joined in standing ovations for the eloquence of his arguments. In recent years, young lawyers gathered around him to hear how he handled celebrated cases. Some of the nation’s best legal minds came out of his law offices.

He often laced his court presentations with wit, and he spoke with few notes — an approach he likened to jazz improvisation. It was important, he said, to stay nimble on your feet.

One colleague, Sanjay Hegde, a lawyer who practices before the Supreme Court and knew Mr. Sorabjee for 20 years, said: “He was a spectacular performer. And he enjoyed every bit of attention.”

He was the nation’s attorney general from 1989 to 1990 and then again from 1998 to 2004. He served as a member of the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague from 2000 to 2006. The United Nations appointed him a special rapporteur for human rights in Nigeria in 1997.

As a lawyer, he helped provide legal assistance to political prisoners when India was under emergency measures from 1975 to 1977. He was also involved in cases that protected local elected officials against dismissal by higher authorities and upheld the right of minorities to establish their own schools.

In 2002 Mr. Sorabjee, who made frequent television appearances as a commentator on law and politics, was awarded the Padma Vibhushan, the country’s second-highest civilian honor, for his defense of freedom of speech and protection of human rights.

Soli Jehangir Sorabjee was born in Bombay on March 9, 1930, into a wealthy Parsi family. His father, Jehangir Sorabjee, was a businessman who died when Soli was 20; his mother, Khorshed Sorabjee, was a homemaker.

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