Scholar who gave us back our folklore
Usha Bande

“He lived with care, taught with care,
wrote with care. It was a sage-like
quality of attentiveness”

                               — Kirin Narayan

A.K. Ramanujan: Putting Indian folklore on world map
A.K. Ramanujan: Putting Indian folklore on world map

AK Ramanujan, known to the literary world as an Indian poet writing in English and a great critic-scholar has made immense contribution to the field of Indian and South Asian folklore, translation and Indian aesthetics. He revealed to us the beauty of our folklore and myths, their versatility and taught us to look at them with honor, not with shame. “Indian folk tale traditions are the richest in the world,” he said as he translated the Kannada folk tales into English and brought out the elegance of the Tamil Sangam poetry to the notice of the world.

Attipat Krishnaswami Ramanujan was born in Mysore in 1929. He died in Chicago on August 13, 1993. He was 64, active and writing when the call came. He was, as a moving obituary in the New York Times wrote, a trans-disciplinary scholar, working as a poet, translator, linguist, and folklorist.  Although he wrote primarily in English, he was fluent in Kannada, Tamil, Sanskrit and Malayalam. Ramanujan received his BA and MA in English language and literature from the University of Mysore and did his theoretical linguistics from Deccan University, Poona in 1958.  He taught at the Chicago University for 32 years and was a visiting Professor at various other U.S and UK universities.  At the University of Chicago, Ramanujan established the South Asian Studies program and worked in the departments of South Asian Languages and Civilizations.  In 1976, the government of India awarded him the honorific title “Padma Sri,” and in 1983, he was given the MacArthur Fellowship. So great was his impact in the field of translation that the A.K.Ramanujan Award for Translation has been instituted for best translation from Indian languages into English.

What makes Ramanujan stand out as a scholar is his empathy for different points of view and different genres. He wrote poetry with the flow of a river, he explored the multiplicity of Indian culture at the level of self, folklore, religion, gender, literature and history, he explored Indian aesthetics; he translated into English U.R. Anantmurthy’s Kannada novel Samskara; and his rendering into English of Kannada Bhakti poetry was published as Speaking Shiva. He brought to the notice of scholars the highly stylised symbol system of Tamil poetry in which different landscape features evoke emotional tones, meanings and relational qualities.

Ramanujan realised, when he started collecting the Indian tales that most of the earlier translators changed the very fabric of the tales. In his introduction to a collection of folktales he pointed out that most of the Indian tales lose their indigenous charm when translators “bowdlerise, ‘Victorianise’, and sentimentalise the earthy, often bawdy, Indian tales and render them fit for middle-class English nurseries.” He further lamented that in the “hands of ethnographers, the tale loses its style and spunk and acquires ‘italics and brackets’. Ramanujan gave us the tales in English rendering without letting them lose their Indian ambience.

He was, in a way, a link between India and America and he often called himself the hyphen in the Indo-American. Doniger, a scholar much impressed by him, wrote, “The paradox of him was that he lived in Chicago by choice and taught Shakespeare, but he felt the best part of him was Indian.” Ramanujan’s chief academic impact was in revealing that in addition to the great high-cultural tradition of Sanskrit, India had thousands of years of rich and sophisticated folk culture in Tamil, Kannada and other Indian languages. As an individual he had a feeling for the underdog, for people of color, for women, for the poor.

As a teacher he was dedicated and taught his subject with a relish. According to U.R. Ananthamurthy, “What was patronisingly and dryly taught as oriental studies changed with Ramanujan. The discipline became alive and creative, and that part of Chicago where he taught and lived became virtually a part of South India.” His critical and scholarly essays and papers on Indian ideology and aesthetics make a strong case in favour of the cultural context. The title of one of his essays “Is There an Indian Way of Thinking?” appears rather foreboding, particularly when he puts the question thus, with emphasis on different words:

Is there an Indian way of Thinking?
Is there an Indian way of thinking?
Is there an Indian way of thinking?
Is there an Indian way of thinking?

Explaining each line he goes on to say at the end that Indians do not think at all in the sense the Westerners take it and then proves through cultural examples how Indian ideologies and behavioural manifestations thereof show that Indian thinking is “context sensitive.” In his work in folklore studies, Ramanujan highlights the intertextuality of the Indian oral and written literary tradition.