11 June 2017

The Poet-Scholar: A.K. Ramanujan

A conversation about the legendary late poet, translator and scholar AK Ramanujan, occasioned by a fine new book by Prof. Guillermo Rodriguez: When Mirrors are Windows: A View of A.K. Ramanujan's Poetics (Oxford University Press, 2016).

An excerpt from this interview was published in the Jan-Mar issue of the wonderful Indian Quarterly.

A.K. Ramanujan, location unknown (1983). Copyright: The Estate of A.K. Ramanujan
1. How did you first encounter the work of A.K. Ramanujan?

In the summer of 1993, after an overland trip from Spain to India, I was living on a houseboat in Benares and among the first books I picked up at a bookshop were A.K. Ramanujan’s volume of translations of medieval Kannada mystical poems, titled Speaking of Siva, and R. Parthasarathy’s anthology Ten Twentieth-Century Indian Poets, which included several poems by Ramanujan. 

I was immediately struck by the unusual imagery and magical power of suggestion of his poems, as well as by the mysterious quality of the translations which contained ancient wisdom in a surprisingly provocative fresh language and almost riddle-like form. So it was the poetry – original and translated verse –which drew me first to his multi-disciplinary genius. I wanted to know more about their hidden meanings, layers and tricks. It was only gradually that I learnt about Ramanujan's other facets as a folklorist, essay writer, scholar and mentor.

In an odd coincidence, the same summer I learnt of him, he passed away unexpectedly in a Chicago hospital (on 13th July 1993). His collection Folktales from India was published the same year, but The Collected Essays, edited by Vinay Dharwadker, came out much later in 1999, when I had already started my doctoral research on Ramanujan's poetry in English.

2. What made you decide to work on him for a PhD, and what is it about him that sustained your interest for so many years?

I made up my mind to undertake serious research on contemporary Indian poetry in English in the mid-1990s, when I was living in Chennai. I first enrolled in an M.A. course at Loyola College and completed my master's dissertation there in 1997, which was a stylistic and symbolic study of a single poem by AKR titled “Snakes” from his first poetry book The Striders (1966). I was fascinated by the way the “meaning” of the poem comes to the reader in its design, in the particular way the poet-narrator renders the “experience” through the linguistic structure, while the symbolism of the snake allows for interpretations from the psychological (Jungian), philosophical and mythological (Hindu) perspective. That was Ramanujan's trademark style. His multi-layered art and poetics came from his being exposed to, and having absorbed in his poetry, multiple traditions and disciplines, living in India during his first thirty years and then in America.

My discovery of AKR’s other talents as an influential scholar and essay writer, besides his work as a translator of classical and medieval South Indian poetry, folklorist and bilingual poet (English and Kannada), further challenged my view of his poetry in English. This prompted me to focus on his aesthetics and poetics as the topic of my Ph.D. research under the University of Kerala and the University of Valladolid, Spain. As I travelled all over India for my research, at a crucial moment I met Girish Karnad, who had been Ramanujan's friend since the 1950s.

Girish encouraged me to travel to Chicago to research the A.K. Ramanujan Papers that had been deposited at the University of Chicago in 1994. These had never been described before in any publication, and contained a treasure trove of data and unpublished notebooks, diaries, journals and letters which enriched my understanding of AKR as a poet-scholar and spurred my intellectual curiosity. The Papers are indeed a repository of the contribution to the fields of linguistics, anthropology and Indian folklore, culture and literature by one of India's most versatile and seminal intellectuals and poets.

3. Your book is titled When Mirrors Are Windows, which I believe is also the name of an essay by AKR. Why did you choose this phrase as the title?

AKR’s essay, published in 1989, is in fact titled “Where Mirrors Are Windows: An Anthology of Reflections on Indian Literatures.” In this imaginative paper he gives some examples of how the concentric concepts of akam (love poems, domestic) and puram (war poems, public) operate in classical Tamil Sangam literature (first century BC to third century AD), and also points to different types of co-relations (“responsive,” “reflective” and “self-reflexive”) between and within structures and systems in Indian languages and literatures. I changed this phrase slightly and chose “When Mirrors Are Windows” for the title of my book, borrowing it as a fitting metaphor and critical tool to assess AKR’s own (private and scholarly) writings and their intertextuality.

In another sense of the phrase, it was only now that readers could get a glimpse of his unpublished diaries and other private writings. So by exposing them in my book, these diaries, originally meant for no one else but himself (self-reflexive “mirrors”), had become “windows” -- opening up new vistas into AKR`s intimate world and creative process.

Moreover, AKR was quite obsessed with the metaphors of glass and mirror. They appear throughout his poetic oeuvre, such as in the famous “Self-Portrait” poem which I reproduce in manuscript form in the opening of my book. Ultimately, the mirror/window-glass metaphor stands for the self and for poetry, for as AKR observed: “Poetry contains, transforms, and returns our reality to us, and us to reality, in oblique ways.”

4. Your book contains a quote from Ramanujan that runs: “I write in two traditions and I belong to at least three.” He seems to bring together the Indian classical, the regional and the Western traditions in a way that might be unique. Could you say a little about these different influences on him, and how they emerged in his work?

As a Tamil Brahmin who grew up in Mysore, AKR was surrounded by four languages (Kannada, English, Tamil, Sanskrit) and received a trilingual formal education (Kannada, English, and to a less extent Tamil). He did not learn Sanskrit formally, but absorbed it as a religious language from his father. He wrote poetry in two languages -- English and Kannada -- and translated mainly from Kannada and Tamil into English. His father was a mathematician and was also steeped in Indian philosophy. Kannada was AKR's first literary language and he wrote plays in Kannada in his early college days in the 1940s, before becoming part of the navya (new) modernist poetry scene in Kannada in the 1950s. He was also deeply influenced by the oral literatures and the medieval Virasaiva Kannada bhakti poetry which appealed to his rebellious nature in his youth. By the time he was 30 he had become somewhat tired of being a professor of English in Indian provincial towns, and in 1959 he went to the US as a Fulbright scholar to pursue his studies in linguistics. It was there that he studied Tamil formally and learned to translate the Tamil classics.

As I state in the book, many Indian writers of the twentieth century had been brought up in a similar milieu of multiple layers (regional, pan-Indian, English). What is unique about AKR is how he made use of these traditions in a profoundly rich, yet apparently simple, natural way; how he creatively absorbed and displayed these layers in his English-language poetry; and the success with which he translated between these languages (of different cultures and literary periods). More so, he relentlessly encouraged others to do the same, at a time when no one paid attention to some of the lesser-known Indian regional and oral traditions.

5. How do we think about his Brahminical upbringing – including his fathers Sanskrit training – with what he himself chose to study as a scholar: Dravidian linguistics and folklore? Was it an oppositional stance?

AKR renounced his Brahmin-ness as a teenager in 1946, throwing away his sacred thread. As a young student he evinced an innate urge to compare and contrast divergent points of view and he never embraced any particular dogma. As U.R. Ananthamurthy once told me, Ramanujan was “a man of ideas, not of ideology... he liked to play with opposite ideas.”

From his formative years, he was drawn to what he called the 'mother-tongue’ traditions, including folk wisdom, women's tales and diverse oral literatures. And he was fascinated by the anti-establishment of the Kannada poets of the medieval Virasaiva bhakti tradition.

But I would not define this as an oppositional stance. Throughout his life and career, AKR strove to come to terms with his (father's) Brahminical heritage and explored the complex issues of identity as an Indian living in a modern western world. In fact his entire scholarly work aims to project a model for Indian literature that is not based on opposition but on dialogue (which includes quarrels, of course), permeable membranes and intertextuality in a cross-fertilising network of traditions. And I think these issues are still very relevant today in Indian literary and cultural studies.

6. How did his multilinguality – or what he calls his multiple monolinguality -- affect his worldview and his work? How did he fit languages to genres he wrote in, or vice versa? What we might be in danger of losing as a younger generation of poets and scholars in India seems to be becoming increasingly monolingual?

In the interviews and notes AKR explains how each of his several languages “specialised” in a particular “area of experience” and simultaneously engaged the other in a continuous dialogue. The practice of reading and writing in Kannada and English in such dissimilar cultural contexts as India and the US implied a degree of code-switching and exchange in his writing (structural, stylistic, thematic) that is yet to be addressed by critics of his work in English and Kannada. Though AKR felt like an “alternating monolingual” in each of the languages he wrote in, it was not his aim to separate them: “All my writing, of course, is concerned with the three languages I have… they are constantly interacting,” he said. And it was more of a cultural, rather than purely linguistic, interface between the three languages he worked in. It was both an unconscious and conscious process.

As a poet, for instance, he believed that the use of one language or another was determined by a complex combination of personal, cultural and contextual factors. Writing a poem in a particular language was not a question of choice or control, as poems could not be willed into one language or another. They were originally triggered by a particular situation, an incident, a real experience. And then, once the poem was nurtured, groomed and polished, it had a delightful mosaic-like quality, wrapped up in a deceptively simple, conversational style. It is this richness of cultural reverberations in his verse that present-day Indian writers who may not be exposed to more than one language, or one culture, are in the danger of losing.

7. You've studied both Ramanujan's poetry in English and his English translations of the Sangam poets and the poetry of Nammalvar (from Tamil) and the medieval mystic Virasaiva poets (from Kannada). How did his poetics inform his translations – and vice versa?

There are multiple techniques, images, motifs, styles and themes that AKR absorbed into his English-language poetry which derive from the Indian poetic traditions he translated. To name just a few, he imitated conventions from Tamil classical literature such as the Sangam poetics (metonymic “inner landscapes,” understatement, poetic economy, dramatic scenes, poetry cycles etc.), the Tamil prayer forms (in mock prayer-poems such as “Prayer to Lord Murugan”), and the fourth century Tamil Kural (in the couplets used in poetic sequences in his collection Second Sight). He also emulated the meta-poetic play with words as “body,” poetry as possession, and the changing “flow” of forms and metaphorical “immersion” of the Tamil Alvar saints. And much of his poetry was preoccupied with the concept of “grace” and anubhāva (mystical experience) found in the medieval Kannada Virasaiva poets, and the paradoxical notion of poetic inspiration as an “ordinary mystery”.

On the other hand, his double vocation as a poet and linguist was decisive in his translation work. Though he believed that “only poems can translate a poems”, his training in linguistics was fundamental to “transpose” the original faithfully into a new “poetic body” making use of syntactic devices, modulation, but also structural and visual design, texture, and images.

Some have charged AKR with infusing his translations, especially the early 1970s renderings of the Virasaiva vachanas (sayings) with a modernist, ironic style which distorts the original voices. These critics say he could not free himself from his Western modernist attitude a la Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens and Ezra Pound. But we should not forget that he was living in Chicago and translating into the idiom of the American reader of the 1970s. His translations, widely admired as marvels of exquisite craftsmanship, were said to communicate the spirit of the original as only true poetry can. They made these unknown South Indian poetic traditions come alive in a contemporary language. Even the British poet Ted Hughes was profoundly influenced by them. And his translational technique had an enormous impact on a whole generation of translators.

8. Would you explain the Akam-Puram divide, and how and why you find it useful in analysing Ramanujan's body of work?

Akam and puram traditionally denote two poetic genres in Tamil Sangam poetry, poems of love and poems of war, but the terms also stand for the private and public spheres in life, that is, for the world of the self and that of others, and for the codes of conduct and expression appropriate to one or the other.

I adopt these concentric concepts as two converging approaches to analyse AKR. He was a scholar and a poet, and his writings contain personal matters (private diaries, journals etc.) and academic material (published essays, linguistics etc.).The akam-puram paradigm is therefore not a divide, but a conceptual model that provides two different entry points into the same world of mirror reflections and textual interplay in AKR`s work. One can look at AKR`s aesthetics and poetics through his “inner” forms (life experience, his first thirty years in India, family, etc) or through the “outer” forms (linguistics, anthropology and other scholarly disciplines). Yet, as he himself observed, “they are continuous with each other” -- and more often than not, he could not “tell what comes from where”.

9. A related binary that Ramanujan occupied both sides of was the scholarly and the creative. You suggest that there were several instances in his lectures and scholarly texts where “biographical and domestic elements enter the public sphere”. Did the academic self ever percolate into his poetry?

Indeed in his classroom presentations and public lectures it was quite typical of AKR to disclose personal details and autobiographical stories to place himself as the specimen, the object within the scholarly exposition. He used this method also in some of the published papers where he discloses incidents about himself and his multilingual upbringing, his childhood, the family house, mother or father, to illustrate an idea. In the inverse direction, AKR occasionally muses over academic issues and scientific questions in his private journals and diaries.

But the “academic self” enters his poetry only in as far as the act of writing is a natural extension of a person's entire learning: “A poem comes out of everything one learns, not just a little part of you,” was AKR's conviction. As a linguist he was of course very much aware of the language structure and texture, and it shows in his clinically polished verse. But according to him, there cannot be anything like “academic” poetry; it would not be poetry. Most of the poetic process was not a self-conscious act, though “the conscious and unconscious elements are very hard to de-segregate.” This unrelenting openness to miscellaneous areas of knowledge (academic and scientific matters, life experiences, stories, even television) kept his scholarly mind as well as his poetic creativity in constant motion.

10. Did moving to the US shaped Ramanujan's writing, or his sense of self?

It was linguistics that took AKR to America in 1959. He became Professor of Dravidian Studies at the University of Chicago in the early 1960s. His was a self-chosen exile, and he took it as a mediating role between Indian and American scholarship and as a dialogue in himself. Being suspended between two worlds was both a double resource and a source of tension for him. Despite inevitable disconnections from his native culture, family relations, etc, he believed that no part of the self could be isolated from the other. And this notion permeates his creative writing, where the different components of his cultural knowledge (America, English literature and diverse Indian traditions) interacted in a creative give-and-take. He even called himself half-seriously “the hyphen in Indo-American Studies” to illustrate the “splits and connections” that nurtured his existence as a poet and scholar equally at home in America and India.

In fact, the experience of being between worlds added another skill to his “miscellaneous criss-crossing:” he became an expert in the art of translating little-known ancient texts into a contemporary English idiom, or rather, a specialist in 'transposing' his readers – and himself -- into other cultures, voices and literary traditions. At the University of Chicago his two-fold academic and poetic vocation was able to thrive in a natural extension of the early environments of his past. And ironically, it was in the US that AKR discovered Tamil classical poetry when, in 1962, he chanced upon an anthology of Sangam poets in the basement of University of Chicago Library. That’s his story of creative twists and turns, just like a good folktale, or poem…

11. And finally, which of his writings would you recommend as a starting point -- for someone who has never read any Ramanujan?

Among the essays, I would start by recommending “Where Mirrors Are Windows: An Anthology of Reflections on Indian Literatures” (1989) and “Is There an Indian Way of Thinking. An Informal Essay” (1989). These are two of his most influential essays and the opening pieces in his Collected Essays (OUP, 1999). Lovers of folklore and popular wisdom should not miss his marvellous collection Folktales from India: A Selection of Oral Tales from twenty- two Languages, first brought out by Penguin in 1991. Of his books of translation Speaking of Siva (first published in 1973 by Penguin) quickly became a backpacker's favourite -- and has by now turned into a classic. One should not fail to read the introduction to this anthology, for its insights into bhakti poetry as well as his own poetic preoccupations.

The Collected Poems of A.K. Ramanujan (OUP 1995) covers all of the poems published during his lifetime and some of the posthumous compositions. The poems do not need to be read chronologically, but it is interesting to observe how his early poems (for instance “Self-Portrait”, The Striders”, “Snakes”, “Anxiety” or “Small-Scale Reflections on a Great House”) share a common “language within a language” with the later poems, such as “Chicago Zen”, “The Black Hen” and “Children, Dreams, Theorems.” We find AKR in a continuous dialogue of selves, always quarrelling with the work of art, with memory/images, and with his multiple 'reflections'.

An excerpt from this conversation was published in the Indian Quarterly, Jan-March 2017 issue.

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