Poet who made ancient India sing for moderns

The Oxford India Ramanujan
September 10, 2004

There is a story of a young Indian writer coming to Chicago in late 1991 to meet A. K. Ramanujan, a professor in South Asian languages at the University of Chicago and one of the world's most respected scholars of South Asian studies. Arriving at the bus terminal, the young man was received by Ramanujan. Lugging his suitcase, he followed the professor for a few paces before discovering that Ramanujan did not own a car; he had never owned one, he said, as they walked on in the cold. Then it began to snow. Ramanujan noticed the fatigue on his visitor's face and hailed a cab, which took them to his apartment. This, the writer noted, was "unembellished, like his poems". Two years later, aged 64, Ramanujan was gone. He had entered hospital for minor surgery on a small cyst to sort out his "peripetia", the restlessness that was hampering one of his favourite activities: walking. But he was allergic to general anaesthesia and died within moments of the operation's start.

Ramanujan was a bilingual poet, a trilingual translator, a linguist, a folklorist and an essayist covering a wide span of history. Born in Kannada-speaking Mysore of Tamil parents, he gained his BA and MA in English literature in Mysore before moving to Pune for a diploma in linguistics and then on to Indiana University for a PhD in linguistics. He joined Chicago in 1962 and remained there for the rest of his life.

He left a major body of work, published and unpublished. Now, finally, we have an omnibus of his poetry in The Oxford India Ramanujan , edited by Molly Daniels-Ramanujan. It is organised in two sections: first his five collections of poems, introduced by Vinay Dharwadker, a former student; then his translations from Tamil and Kannada poetry. But for one essay on translation and an interview, the book contains nothing on his prose works.

The introduction tells of how, one afternoon in 1962 in the university library, Ramanujan discovered two Tamil classics in manuscript two millennia old that would determine the future direction of his life.

The Kuruntokai , an anthology of love poetry from the 1st century AD of the Cankam or the Sangam period, led him to translate classical Tamil poetry, while the Tolkappiyam , a grammar of composition, influenced his own poetry in English. Ramanujan had never learnt Tamil at school; it was "his kitchen language", his mother tongue. Yet in the presence of these two ancient Tamil works in Chicago he "found himself trembling".

With this serendipitous discovery, Ramanujan joined the ancient "trail of influence" that began with the Cankam poets. They wrote within two traditions: akam poetry, about love, and puram poetry, about the public world. This akam poem is elegantly simple: "What could my mother be/ to yours? What kin is my father/ to yours anyway? And how/ did you and I meet ever?/ But in love our hearts are as red/ earth and pouring rain:/ mingled/ beyond parting." The 500 Cankam poets left 2,381 poems to posterity.

Ramanujan translated a large number of them before moving on to the later bhakti , or devotional, poetry. In the main, he selected the intense vachanas from this strain - vachana meaning simply "what is said".

At a performance of Haydn's Creation conducted by Salieri in the composer's presence, it is said that the audience burst into applause at the breaking forth of the words "And there was light" - upon which Haydn raised his hands on high and exclaimed, "It came from there!" Readers from around the world of Ramanujan's Speaking of Siva , Kannada vachanas translated from four medieval saints, have displayed an almost comparable ardour: Joop Voorn, a Dutch composer, set the work to music with a chorus and orchestra.

Ramanujan himself spoke of an inner shift when translating them, of how their wandering mendicant composers "took possession of his writing-self".

At poetry readings, his voice apparently resonated when uttering the vowels in the epithets for Siva, which immortalised both God and the translator:

"The rich/ will make temples for Siva./ What shall I,/ a poor man,/ do?/ My legs are pillars,/ the body the shrine,/ the head a cupola/ of gold./ Listen, O lord of the meeting rivers,/ things standing shall fall,/ but the moving ever shall stay."

If there was seemingly divine energy coiled in Ramanujan's translations of bhakti poetry, his work on folk literature had an earthy muscularity. While he was alert to the fact that the vocabulary of regional languages was drawn from Sanskrit, he was also alive to what he called their "native woodnotes". Rabindranath Tagore, the Bengali poet and Nobel laureate, once said: "These folk rhymes belong to an independent realm in which there are no rules and regulations, like cloud-cuckoo-land. Unfortunately, the mundane world always catches up." It would have pleased Tagore to know that a fellow lover of the folk tradition, from India's south, would transport it beautifully to a wider world and readership.

An essay on Ramanujan's prose might have given this volume a better sense of his range and impact. He traversed great distances and many centuries in his life and his work. His description of himself as the hyphen in the label "Indian-American" is a measure of the man. Discovering the contemporary voice in classical Tamil and medieval Kannada poetry, fusing in his research the traditional and the modern, and in his poems India and the world, Ramanujan was until the end unassuming.

In his lifetime, he gave glory to India's ancient poetry and folklore. This omnibus maintains that tradition in its second section. His own poems, however, in the first section, while allowing us generously into his world of stark imagery, sensuality, anxiety and, above all, frailty, are not enhanced by the introduction written by his estranged wife. One accepts that, as his editor, hers is a rather curious position, but its privileges, not least her knowledge of languages, have not been translated into insights for the reader, and the effect is diffuse.

Dipli Saikia holds a PhD in postcolonial literature from Bristol University.

The Oxford India Ramanujan

Editor - Molly Daniels-Ramanujan
Publisher - OUP India
Pages - 1,162
Price - Rs875
ISBN - 0 19 566478 9

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