Who was A. K. Ramanujan?


1. Life

Attipat Krishnaswami Ramanujan was born in 1929 in the city of Mysore, India. His family was of Tamil origin, but he grew up in the Kannada-speaking milieu of Mysore (near Bangalore, and now in the state of Karnataka). His home, urban environment, and early education made him fundamental trilingual in Tamil, Kannada, and English. In later life, he became a writer and scholar in English, a writer in Kannada, a literary translator from English to Kannada, and the world's leading translator of Tamil and Kannada literatures into English.

Ramanujan received his B.A. and M.A. from the University of Mysore in English language and literature. He taught briefly at various colleges in southern India before receiving a graduate diploma in theoretical linguistics from Deccan University, Pune, in 1958. The following year, he arrived in the United States as a Fulbright Fellow, and went on to complete his Ph.D. in linguistics at Indiana University, Bloomington, in 1963.
He joined the faulty of the University of Chicago in 1962, where he remained a major presence in South Asian studies until his untimely death in 1993. As a brilliant teacher in the classroom, as a superb poet in English and Kannada, as a world-class translator of poetry, fiction, prose, and folktales, and as an interdisciplinary scholar in linguistics, literary studies, religion, and cultural history, Ramanujan influenced several generations of students, scholars, writers, and artists around the world. In 1976, he won the Government of India's Padma Sri award for his sevrices to Indian culture, and in 1983 he received the MacArthur Prize.

2. Major Contributions

As a scholar, translator, and commentator, Ramanujan brought together an unparalleled variety of languages, texts, genres, literatures, historical periods, and past and present cultures in his published work. He translated literary works mainly from various forms of Kannada and Tamil into English, and also from English into Kannada. With the help of collaborators, he rendered texts from Malayalam, Telugu, Marathi, and Sanskrit into English. He focused his attention on verse as well as prose, rendering epic and classical poetry from the ancient period (chiefly works composed between about 500 B.C. and A.D. 500), early and late poetic texts from the middle period (from the eighth to the eighteenth centuries), and poems, short stories, novelistic fiction, and numerous folktales from the modern period (the nineteenth and twentieth centuries).

During his lifetime, Ramanujan's reputation grew around seven finely-crafted books. Among these, The Interior Landscape (1967) and Poems of Love and War (1985) contained selections of his English versions of classical Tamil poetry. Both these books include scholarly commentary on the language and culture of the original texts, but the latter offers a larger and more representative body of work and a more comprehensive critical account of the tradition. Speaking of Siva (1973) brought together Ramanujan's translations of more than two hundred vachanas ("sayings") by four major bhaktas (“devotees,” in this case of the god Siva) in the "counter-cultural" Vira-saiva religious tradition in Kannada, from the early centuries of the past millennium. Hymns for the Drowning: Poems for Visnu by Nammalvar (1981) consisted of Ramanujan's renderings of nearly ninety poems by a tenth-century Tamil saint-poet in the very different Sri Vaisnava bhakti tradition, complementing in language, religious orientation, and poetic quality his versions of the Kannada vachanas in Speaking of Siva.

In Samskara: A Rite for a Dead Man (1976, 1978), Ramanujan produced a version of U. R. Anantha Murthy's existentialist Kannada novel which had been "Popular with critic and common reader alike since its [original] publication in 1965," and "was made into an award-winning, controversial film in 1970" (Samskara viii). Moving away from high culture and touching on a new boundary of translation in the last years of his life, Ramanujan presented in Folktales from India (1991) his retellings and edited versions in English prose of nineteenth- and twentieth-century oral narratives from twenty-two Indian languages.

At the time of his death in 1993, Ramanujan left behind several other translated works in various stages of completion, which have appeared posthumously. When God Is a Customer (1994), a small book co-translated and co-authored with V. Narayana Rao and David Shulman, offers a selection of Telugu bhakti poems by a single poet from the mystic-erotic temple tradition of the late middle period of southern Indian literary history. The Oxford India Anthology of Contemporary Poetry, which he co-edited with Vinay Dharwadker between about 1984 and 1992, brings together poems by one hundred and twenty-five twentieth-century poets writing in fifteen Indian languages and in English, most of them translated by over sixty contemporary translators, and includes Ramanujan's versions of more than thirty recent Kannada, Tamil, Telugu, and Malayalam poems.

During the last few years of his life Ramanujan also worked energetically on one of his longest-term projects, A Flowering Tree and Other Kannada Folktales(1998), a large collection of orally-narrated stories that he had recorded, transcribed, and translated over three decades of fieldwork in Karnataka, and which Stuart Blackburn edited for posthumous publication. By the end, Ramanujan had "translated," in various senses of the term, some three thousand individual texts from the full spectrum of Dravidian and Indo-Aryan languages into English.

3. List of Principal Works

  • The Striders (poetry). London: Oxford U. Press, 1966.
  • Interior Landscapes: Love Poems from a Classical Tamil Anthology. Bloomington: Indiana U. Press. 1967.
  • Hokkulalli Huvilla (No Lotus in the Navel; poetry in Kannada). Dharwar, 1969.
  • Relations (poetry). London, New York: Oxford U. Press, 1971.
  • Speaking of Siva. Harmondsworth, Great Britain: Penguin Books, 1973.
  • The Literatures of India (with Edwin Gerow and others). Chicago: U. of Chicago Press, 1974.
  • Selected Poems. Delhi, New York: Oxford U. Press, 1976.
  • Samskara: A Rite for a Dead Man (novel by U. R. Anantha Murthy, translated from Kannada). Delhi: Oxford U. Press, 1976, 1978.
  • Mattu Itara Padyagalu (And Other Poems; in Kannada). Dharwar, 1977.
  • Mattobbana Atmakate (novella, in Kannada). Dharwar, 1978.
  • Hymns for the Drowning. Princeton: Princeton U. Press, 1981.
  • Poems of Love and War. New York: Colombia U. Press, 1985.
  • Second Sight (poetry). New Delhi: Oxford U. Press, 1986.
  • Another Harmony: New Essays on the Folklore of India (with S. Blackburn, eds.). Berkeley: U. of California Press, 1986.
  • Kuntobille (poetry, in Kannada). Dharwar, 1990.
  • Folktales from India: Oral Tales from Twenty Indian Languages. New York: Pantheon Books, 1992.

Posthumous Works
  • The Oxford Anthology of Modern Indian Poetry (with Vinay Dharwadker, eds.). New Delhi: Oxford U. Press, 1994
  • The Collected Poems of A. K. Ramanujan (Ed. by M. Daniels-Ramanujan, V. Dharwadker et al.). New Delhi: Oxford U. Press, 1995.
  • A Flowering Tree and Other Oral Tales from India. (Ed. by S. Blackburn). New Delhi: Oxford U. Press, 1997.
  • The Collected Essays of A. K. Ramanujan (Vinay Dharwadker, gen. ed.). New Delhi: Oxford U. Press, 1999, 2004.
  • Uncollected Poems and Prose (Ed. by M. Daniels-Ramanujan and K. Harrison). New Delhi: Oxford U. Press, 2000.
  • The Oxford India Ramanujan (Omnibus volume; ed. by M. Daniels-Ramanujan). New Delhi: Oxford U. Press, 2004.
  • Poems and a Novella (Trans. from Kannada by Tonse N. K. Raju and Shouri Daniels-Ramanujan). New Delhi: Oxford U. Press, 2006.


The standard, authorized versions of Ramanujan's essays are published in The Collected Essays of A. K. Ramanujan, cited above. Earlier versions of some of the essays are accessible in the following sources.

  • "Sociolinguistic Variation and Language Change."(with W. Bright.) In Sociolinguistics: Selected Readings. J.B. Pride and J. Holmes, eds. London: Penguin, 1964.
  • "The Indian Oedipus." In Oedipus: A Folklore Casebook. Alan Dundes and Lowell Edmunds, eds. New York: Garland Press, 1983.
  • "On Folk Puranas." Conference on Puranas, University of Wisconsin, Madison, August, mss. 1985.
  • "Two Realms of Kannada Folklore." In Another Harmony New Essays on the Folklore of India. Blackburn and Ramanujan, eds. Berkeley: U of California Press, 1986.
  • "Introduction." In Indian Folktales, Beck et al., 1987.
  • "The Relevance of South Asian Folklore." In Indian Folklore II, Peter Claus, J. Handoo, and D.P. Pattanayak, eds. Mysore: Central Institute of Indian Languages, 1987.
  • "Classics Lost and Found." In Contemporary India: Essays on the Uses of Tradition. Carla M. Borden, ed. Delhi: Oxford U. Press, 1989.
  • "Where Mirrors are Windows: Toward an anthology of reflections." In History of Religions 28.3 (1989).
  • "Is There an Inidan Way of Thinking?" In India Through Hindu Categories. McKim Marriott, ed. New Delhi/London: Sage publications, 1990.
  • "Three hundred Ramayanas." In Many Ramayanas: The Diversity of a Narrative Tradition. Paula Richman, ed. Berkeley: U. of California Press, 1991.
  • "Toward a Counter-System: Women's Tales." In A. Appadurai, F. Korom, and M. Mills, eds. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania Press, 1991.
  • "A story in search of an audience." In Parabola 17.3 (1992).
  • "On Folk Mythologies and Folk Puranas." In Purana Perennis: Reciprocity and Transformation in Hindu and Jaina Texts. Wendy Doniger, ed. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993.
  • "Some Thoughts on 'Non-Western' Classics, with Indian Examples." In World Literature Today (1994).

"The greatest achievement in art is not to bring laughter or tears, nor to be stirred with lust or fury, but to do as nature herself does and set man's mind into dreaming."~ Gustave Flaubert