A. K. Ramanujan, 1929-1993: Scholar, Poet, and Writer
A Biographical Note, by Vinay Lal
  At a Glance.....



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(PDF version)

Among the foremost scholars, critics, poets, and translators of his day, Attipat Krishnaswami Ramanujan was born in Mysore, in what is now the state of Karnataka, on 16 March 1929.  He earned degrees in English literature from the University of Mysore and arrived in the United States in the late 1950s to pursue a doctorate in folklore and linguistics at Indiana University, an institution renowned for strong scholarly programs in both these disciplines.  Ramanujan commenced teaching at the University of Chicago in 1963, where eventually he held joint appointments in the Departments of South Asian Languages & Civilizations and Linguistics, and in the Committee on Social Thought, until his untimely death, at the peak of his powers, on 13 July 1993.  In those three decades, Ramanujan came to acquire an unsurpassed reputation as a scholar, writer, poet, folklorist, and translator, and his intellectual gifts did not go unnoticed.  Though the Government of India is not generally known for its timeliness in honoring those of its citizens whose accomplishments do the country proud, Ramanujan was feted by the Indian Government as early as 1976 with the Padma Shri.  He would also become one of the earliest recipients, in 1983, of a MacArthur ‘genius’ grant.  Ramanujan was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1990.

Raman, as he was known to his friends and colleagues, was a man of unusual intellectual perspicacity, poetic sensitivity, immense erudition., and prolific output. Though he published poetry in English, Kannada, and Tamil, he became rather more renowned for his translations from Kannada and Tamil.  Ramanujan was not only a practitioner of the art of translation, but also one of its few theorists among contemporary Indian writers and scholars; and, as perforce must be the case with every good translator, he also read ‘translation’ in its multiple idioms, concerned not merely with rendering words from one language into another, but with such larger concerns as the translatibility or portability of categories, concepts, and even cultures.  Ramanujan was, in other words, acutely aware of what is both said and left unsaid in every act of translation, and his own life, which he in some ways conceived as mediating between India and the West, displayed many echoes of what is best described as liminality.

Speaking of Siva (Penguin Books, 1973), which is perhaps the most widely read of Ramanujan’s works, introduced readers to Virasaiva literature, while Hymns for the Drowning (Princeton UP, 1981) offered brilliant translations of poems to Vishnu by the ninth-century poet, Nammalvar.  The Collected Essays, published posthumously in 2000 (Oxford UP, Delhi), are nothing short of a dazzling demonstration of Ramanujan’s wide reading in Indian and European literature, his ease with structuralism, psychoanalysis, hermeneutics, and semiotics, and the nuanced understanding that he brought to bear upon texts.  Among the most celebrated essays included in that collection is one entitled, “Is There An Indian Way of Thinking?”  Folklore had been Raman’s first love, and in a score of essays and two collections -- Folktales from India:  A Selection of Oral Tales from Twenty-two Languages (Pantheon Books, 1991) and A Flowering Tree and Other Tales from India (U. of California Press, 1997) -- he breathed new life into the study of folktales.   The ‘same’ story told by a man and a woman, to take only one of the many arguments advanced by Ramanujan, could appear to be anything but same. 

Though perhaps not widely known outside academic, intellectual, and literary circles, Ramanujan became a legend to those who had the good fortune to know him, as well as a mentor to countless students and scholars.   He was, arguably, the most influential scholar of South Asian humanistic studies in the United States during the twentieth century.


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