Ramanujan, Attipat Krishnaswami

Biography

A. K. Ramanujan, born in Mysore, India in 1929, came to the U.S. in 1959, where he remained until his death in Chicago on July 13, 1993. Not only was Ramanujan a transnational figure, but he was also a transdisciplinary scholar, working as a poet, translator, linguist, and folklorist. Although he wrote primarily in English, he was fluent in both Kannada, the common public language of Mysore, and Tamil, the language of his family, as well.

Ramanujan received his BA and MA in English language and literature from the University of Mysore. He then spent some time teaching at several universities in South India before getting a graduate diploma in theoretical linguistics from Deccan University in Poona in 1958. The following year, he went to Indiana University where he received a PhD in linguistics in 1963.

In 1962, he became an assistant professor at the University of Chicago, where he was affiliated throughout the rest of his career. However, he did teach at several other U.S. universities, including Harvard, University of Wisconsin, University of Michigan, University of California at Berkeley, and Carlton College. At the University of Chicago, Ramanujan was instrumental in shaping the South Asian Studies program. He worked in the departments of South Asian Languages and Civilizations and Linguistics and with the Committee on Social Thought. In 1976, the government of India awarded him the honorific title “Padma Sri,” and in 1983, he received a MacArthur Fellowship.

Major Works

Collected Poems, 1995

Collected Poems, 1995

A. K. Ramanujan’s theoretical and aesthetic contributions span several disciplinary areas. In his cultural essays, such as “Is There an Indian Way of Thinking?” (1990), he explains cultural ideologies and behavioral manifestations in terms of an Indian psychology he calls “context-sensitive” thinking. In his work in folklore studies, Ramanujan highlights the intertextuality of the Indian oral and written literary tradition. His essay “Where Mirrors Are Windows: Toward an Anthology of Reflections” (1989) and his commentaries in The Interior Landscape: Love Poems from a Classical Tamil Anthology (1967) and Folktales from India, Oral Tales from Twenty Indian Languages (1991) are good examples of his work in Indian folklore studies. His ideas about Indian sociolinguistics, language change, and linguistic creativity can be found in his 1964 essay written with W. Bright, “Sociolinguistic Variation and Language Change.” Finally, The Collected Poems of A. K. Ramanujan was posthumously published in 1995 and includes poems from several previously published volumes of poetry as well as some previously unpublished poems.

Contributions to South Asian Studies

“Is There an Indian Way of Thinking?” is an essay that appears in social anthropologist McKim Marriot’s India Through Hindu Categories (1990). Ramanujan’s ultimate answer to the title question is yes; it is what he calls “context-sensitive” as opposed to “context-free.” These terms, taken from linguistics, refers to different kinds of grammatical rules. In applying them to cultures or ways of thinking, Ramanujan relies primarily on a text-based analysis.  He cautions that they are “overall tendencies”: “actual behavior may be more complex, though the rules they think with are a crucial factor guiding the behavior” (47). “Context-sensitive” is, he suggests, the more appropriate term for what others have taken for an Indian tendency toward inconsistency and hypocrisy, as well as, perhaps tolerance and mimicry. Ramanujan cites Edward Said’s Orientalism here, suggesting a European source for these stereotypes created out of a necessity to essentialize and exoticize the Eastern world.

Context-free thinking, which Ramanujan attributes to Euro-American culture, gives rise to universal testaments of law, such as in the Judeo-Christian tradition and in the European philosophical tradition, such as the work of Hegel. Context-sensitive thinking, on the other hand, gives rise to more complicated sets of standards such as the Laws of Manu, by which appropriateness depends on various  factors, especially factors of identity and personhood, such as birth, occupation, life stage, karma, or dharma. Ramanujan stresses that this difference in philosophical outcome is not a symptom of irrationality, but a different kind of rationale.

Folklore Studies

Context-sensitivity is a theme that appears not only in Ramanujan’s cultural essays but also in his writing about Indian folklore and classic poetry.  In “Where Mirrors are Windows” (1989) and in “Three Hundred Ramayanas” (1991), for example, he discusses the “intertextual” nature of Indian literature, both written and oral. By this, he means that Indian stories refer to one another and sometimes to other versions of the very story being told.  He says, “What is merely suggested in one poem may become central in a ‘repetition’ or an ‘imitation’ of it.  Mimesis is never only mimesis, for it evokes the earlier image in order to play with it and make it mean other things” (1989, 207). It is important for Ramanujan to note that these intertextual influences do not occur in a unidirectional pattern.  He emphasizes that the oral and written traditions, the Sanskritic and local traditions are in dialogue with and mutually influence one another.

As a scholar and translator of works in the South Indian languages Kannada and Tamil, Ramanujan worked to make non-Sanskritic Indian literature acknowledged in the realm of South Asian studies. His translations include Interior Landscapes: Love Poems from a Classical Tamil Anthology (1967), Speaking of Siva (1973), Hymns for the Drowning (1981), and A Flowering Tree and Other Oral Tales from India (1997). In The Interior Landscape (1967), Ramanujan covers another sense of intertextuality which lies in the symbolic evocation common in Tamil poetry. Here, he discusses the highly stylized symbol system of Tamil poetry in which different landscape features evoke emotional tones, meanings, and relational qualities. Necessary to understanding any Tamil poem is knowledge of the symbolic context and tradition in which it was written.

Sociolinguistic Theory

Ramanujan’s work in sociolinguistics also critiques Sanskritic Indology. As shown in his 1964 essay with W. Bright, “Sociolinguistic Variation and Language Change,” Ramanujan opposes those who would posit a monolithic standard grammar for Indian languages. Rather, he seeks to legitimize the vast variety of linguistic dialects found in India. Specifically, here, Ramanujan and Bright compare a Brahmin Tamil dialect with a non-Brahmin Tamil dialect. The Brahmin dialect, they found, was much more inflected with Sanskrit loan words and styles, whereas the non-Brahmin dialect tended to shift by innovation on existing phonologic and morphologic features rather than by foreign adoption.

As pointed out in Rajendra Singh and Jayant Lele’s (1995) re-examination of the argument, Ramanujan and Bright do not address the political and economic ramifications of this differential grammatical shift. However, their point, in 1964, was only to acknowledge and legitimize linguistic innovation as it occurs in various social groups in India.

Ramanujan’s Poetry

Ramanujan wrote poetry almost entirely in English. Reviewer Bruce King called Ramanujan, along with two other transcultural poets, “Indo-Anglian harbingers of literary modernism” (cited in Patel 960). This description highlights several characteristics of Ramanujan’s poetry, perhaps less common in other transcultural poetry. Characteristics of his modernist style include an almost jarring realism and hints at a kind of confessional style. While reviewer Geeta Patel agrees with King’s description of Ramanujan’s work, she faults King for failing “to plumb the ramifications of exilic writing and the reconstruction or retrieval of the fantasies of tradition… that are characteristic of writing in a postcolonial transnational world” (Patel, 1992:961).

Themes of hybridity and transculturation are highlighted in the following two poems, both from Second Sight (1986). Ramanujan discusses the first poem, “Astronomer,” in “Is There an Indian Way of Thinking?” (1990). He says that this poem is about his father, who was a famous mathematician. He describes his father:

He was a mathematician, an astronomer. But he was also a Sanskrit scholar,
an expert astrologer. He had two kinds of visitors: American and English
mathematicians who called on him when they were on a visit to India, and local
astrologers, orthodox pundits who wore splendid gold-embroidered shawls
dowered by the Maharaja. I had just been converted by Russell to the ‘scientific
attitude’. I (and my generation) was troubled by his holding together in  one
brain both astronomy and astrology; I looked for consistency in him, a consistency
he didn’t seem to care about, or even think about. (4)

“Astronomer” is an attempt to make sense of his father’s seemingly contradictory image.

The following poem, “Chicago Zen,” exemplifies the theme of transnationalism and might be an attempt to imagine himself as another hybrid image.

“Astronomer” (Second Sight, 1986)

Sky-man in a manhole
with astronomy for dream,
astrology for nightmare;

fat man full of proverbs,
the language of lean years,
living in square after

almanac square
prefiguring the day
of windfall and landslide

through a calculus
of good hours,
clutching at the tear

in his birthday shirt
as at a hole
in his mildewed horoscope,

squinting at the parallax
of black planets,
his Tiger, his Hare

moving in Sanskrit zodiacs,
forever troubled
by the fractions, the kidneys

in his Tamil flesh,
his body the Great Bear
dipping for the honey,

the woman-smell
in the small curly hair
down there.

“Chicago Zen”  (Second Sight, 1986)

i
Now tidy your house,
dust especially your living room
and do not forget to name
all your children.

ii
Watch your step. Sight may strike you
blind in unexpected places.

The traffic light turns orange
on 57th and Dorchester, and you stumble,

you fall into a vision of forest fires,
enter a frothing Himalayan river,

rapid, silent.

On the 14th floor,
Lake Michigan crawls and crawls

in the window. Your thumbnail
cracks a lobster louse on the windowpane

from your daughter’s hair
and you drown, eyes open,

towards the Indies, the antipodes.
And you, always so perfectly sane.

iii
Now you know what you always knew:
the country cannot be reached

by jet. Nor by boat on jungle river,
hashish behind the Monkey-temple,

nor moonshot to the cratered Sea
of Tranquillity, slim circus girls

on a tightrope between tree and tree
with white parasols, or the one

and only blue guitar.

Nor by any
other means of transport,

migrating with a clean valid passport,
no, not even by transmigrating

without any passport at all,
but only by answering ordinary

black telephones, questions
walls and small children ask,

and answering all calls of nature.

iv
Watch your step, watch it, I say,
especially at the first high
threshold,

and the sudden low
one near the end
of the flight
of stairs,

and watch
for the last
step that’s never there.

Selected Bibliography of Ramanujan’s Works

Books

  • Ramanujan, Attipat Krishnaswami. A Flowering Tree and Other Oral Tales from India. New Delhi: Viking, 1997.
  • —. (with S. Blackburn, eds.) Another Harmony New Essays on the Folklore of India. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986. 294-344.
  • —. The Collected Poems of A. K. Ramanujan. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1995.
  • —. The Epic of Palnadu: A Study of Translation of Palnati Vinula Katha, a Telugu Oral Tradition from Andhra Pradesh, India. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982.
  • —. Folktales from India, Oral Tales from Twenty Indian Languages. New York: Pantheon Books, 1991.
  • —. Hokkulalli Huvilla, No Lotus in the Navel. Dharwar: Karnataka University Press, 1969.
  • —. Hymns for the Drowning. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981.
  • —. Interior Landscapes: Love Poems from a Classical Tamil Anthology. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. 1967.
  • —. (with Edwin Gerow, eds.) The Literatures of India. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974.
  • —. Mattu Itara Padyagalu And Other Poems. Dharwar: Karnataka University Press, 1977.
  • —. (with Vinay Dharwadker, eds.) The Oxford Anthology of Modern Indian Poetry. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1990.
  • —. Poems of Love and War. New York: Colombia U. Press, 1985.
  • —. Relations. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971.
  • —. Samskara. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976.
  • —. Second Sight. Oxford: Oxford University. Press, 1986.
  • —. Selected Poems. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976.
  • —. Speaking of Siva. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin Books, 1973.
  • —. The Striders. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1966.

Essays

  • Ramanujan, Attipat Krishnaswami. “A Story in Search of an Audience.” Parabola  17.3 (1992): 79-82.
  • —. “Classics Lost and Found.” Contemporary India: Essays on the Uses of  Tradition. Ed. Carla M. Borden. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1989.
  • —. “The Indian Oedipus.” Oedipus: A Folklore Casebook. Eds. Alan Dundes and Lowell Edmunds. New York: Garland Press, 1983.  234-261.
  • —. “Introduction.” Folktales of India. Eds. Beck et al. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.  xxv-xxxi.
  • —. “Is There an Indian Way of Thinking?” India Through Hindu Categories. Ed. McKim Marriott. London: Sage Publications, 1990.
  • —. “On Folk Mythologies and Folk Puranas.” Purana Perennis: Reciprocity and Transformation in Hindu and Jaina Texts. Ed. Wendy Doniger. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993.
  • —. “On Folk Puranas.” Conference on Puranas, University of Wisconsin, Madison, August, mss. 1985.
  • —. “The Relevance of South Asian Folklore.” Indian Folklore II. Eds. Peter Claus, J. Handoo and D.P. Pattanayak. Mysore: Central Institute of Indian Languages, 1987. 79-156.
  • —. (with W. Bright.)  “Sociolinguistic Variation and Language Change.”Sociolinguistics: Selected Readings. Eds. J.B. Pride and J. Holmes. London: Penguin, 1964.
  • —. “Some Thoughts on ‘Non-Western’ Classics, with Indian Examples.” World Literature Today 68 (1994): 68.
  • —. “Three Hundred Ramayanas.” Many Ramayanas: The Diversity of a Narrative Tradition. Ed. Paula Richman. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991.
  • —. “Toward a Counter-System: Women’s Tales.” Eds. A. Appadurai, F. Korom, and M. Mills. Philadelphia: University of  Pennsylvania Press, 1991.
  • —. “Two Realms of Kannada Folklore.”Another Harmony New Essays on the Folklore of India. Eds. Blackburn and Ramanujan. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986. 41-75.
  • —. “Where Mirrors are Windows: Toward an Anthology of Reflections.” History of Religions 28.3 (1989): 187-216.

Selected Reviews and Commentaries on Ramanujan

Book Reviews

  • Chandran, K. Narayana.  “The Collected Poems of A. K. Ramanujan.” World Literature Today 70 (1996): 762.
  • Venkateswaran, P.  “The Collected Poems of A. K. Ramanujan.” Choice 34 (1996): 121.

Essays

  • Dharwadker, Vinay. “A. K. Ramanujan: Author, Translator, Scholar.” World Literature Today 68.2 (1994): 279.
  • Jha, Rama.  “A Conversation with A. K. Ramanujan.”  Humanities Review 3.1 (1981).
  • Naik, M. K. “A. K. Ramanujan and the Search for Roots.” Living Indian  English Poets: An Anthology of Critical Essays. Ed. M. Prasad. New Delhi: Sterling Publishers Private Ltd, 1989.
  • Parthasarathy, R. “How it Strikes a Contemporary: The Poetry of A. K. Ramanujan.” Literary Criterion 12.2-3 (1976).
  • Patel, Geeta. “King, Three Indian Poets: Nissim Ezeliel, A. K. Ramanujan, Don Moraes.” The Journal of Asian Studies 51.4 (1992): 960.
  • Ramazani, Jahan.  “Metaphor and Postcoloniality: The Poetry of A. K. Ramanujan.” Contemporary Literature 39.1 (1988): 27.
  • Shulman, David. 1994.  “Attipat Krishnaswami Ramanujan (1929-1993).”  The Journal of Asian Studies 53.3 (1994): 1048.
  • Singh, Rajendra and Jayant K. Lele. “The Autonomy of Social Variables: The Indian  Evidence Revisited.” Explorations in Indian Sociolinguistics. Eds. Rajendra Singh, Probal Dasgupta, and Jayant K. Lele.  New Delhi: Sage Publications, 1995.
  • Venkatachalapathy, A. R. “Obituary: A. K. Ramanujan.” Economic and Political Weekly 28.31 (1993): 1571.

Works Cited

  • Patel, Geeta. “King, Three Indian Poets: Nissim Ezeliel, A. K. Ramanujan, Don Moraes.”The Journal of Asian Studies 51.4 (1992): 960.
  • Ramanujan, A. K. and W. Bright.  “Sociolinguistic Variation and Language Change.” Sociolinguistics:  Selected Readings. Eds. J.B. Pride and J. Holmes. London: Penguin, 1964.
  • —. Interior Landscapes: Love Poems from a Classical Tamil Anthology. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1967.
  • —. Second Sight. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.
  • —. “Where Mirrors are Windows: Toward an Anthology of Reflections.” History of  Religions 28.3 (1989): 187-216.
  • —.  “Is There an Indian Way of Thinking?” India Through Hindu Categories. Ed. McKim Marriot. New Delhi/London: Sage Publications, 1990.
  • —. Folktales from India, Oral Tales from Twenty Indian Languages. New York: Pantheon Books, 1991.
  • —. A Flowering Tree and Other Oral Tales from India. New Delhi: Viking, 1997.
  • —. “Three Hundred Ramayanas.” Many Ramayanas: The Diversity of a Narrative Tradition. Ed. Paula Richman. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991.
  • —.  The Collected Poems of A. K. Ramanujan. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1995.
  • Ramazani, Jahan. “Metaphor and Postcoloniality: The Poetry of A. K. Ramanujan.” Contemporary Literature 39.1 (1988): 27.
  • Shulman, David. “Attipat Krishnaswami Ramanujan (1929-1993).” The Journal of Asian Studies 53.3 (1984): 1048.

Author:  Candy Wagoner, Fall 1998
Last edited: June 2012

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