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AK Ramanujan: a lonely hero

N Kalyan Raman


Translation, by definition, always entails some loss of the original substance. All translations are sooner or later revealed as imperfect and eventually, even in the case of the most exemplary performances, come to be regarded as provisional.

Susan Sontag, The World as India


AK Ramanujan (or AKR), who taught at the University of Chicago for 30 years, has remained an iconic figure for the Indian literary community for a long time. After making his mark first as an Indian English poet in the mid-sixties, he won enduring fame in India and abroad for his pioneering translations of classical Tamil poetry, and later, of Bhakti poetry in Tamil and Kannada. During the latter half of his career, AKR worked on compiling and translating folk-tales from across India in as many as twenty languages. As a scholar and intellectual, he also contributed essays throwing light on several important aspects of Indian culture related to our language systems and oral/written literary traditions. Though he did not spend much time on translating contemporary works, his translation of UR Ananthamurthy’s Kannada novel, Samskara, first published in 1976, was a landmark achievement, catapulting the novel and its author to national and international fame. Along with such a prodigious output in several genres, AKR also wrote poetry and prose fiction in Kannada throughout his life. After his untimely demise in 1993, AKR’s papers (poems, folktales, essays) were collected and edited for publication in several volumes.

For his achievements, AKR was held in high esteem by his peers and contemporaries. To Indians, he had that extra sheen of a non-resident genius, working in fields not easily accessible to Indians of that period. He continues to be venerated here as a translator, scholar and thinker by succeeding generations of Anglophone Indians. It would seem, however, that in the current discourse on AK Ramanujan and his writings, he is always looked at in isolation, a venerable figure not related to his contemporaries or his successors in a substantive way.

Remember: fifty years have passed since the publication of The Interior Landscape (1976), the first anthology of Sangam poetry in translation by AK Ramanujan. Those five decades have been witness to momentous changes in India, especially on the literary, intellectual and cultural fronts. New studies have facilitated our understanding of India’s transition to modernity during the colonial period and after. New interpretations of our epic culture and religious practices from anthropological and cultural perspectives have surfaced and established themselves. The landscape of literary translation from Indian languages into English has also undergone a massive transformation.


It would be fair to ask whether the attention lavished on AKR as a distinguished literary forbear holds any relevance for the present, especially for those young Indians who are in the early stages of pursuing their careers as poets, translators, or scholars of Indian culture. As a translator of contemporary Tamil literature into English, I have to say that such relevance is perhaps not so readily discerned. Clearly, the discourse on Ramanujan must explore new directions too, not only to arrive at a contextual assessment of his work but also to transform him from a remote icon into a living inspiration, especially in the field of translation, the domain of AKR’s supreme achievement.


It’s a journalist’s credo that to tell the most essential truth about a person or event, it is important to lift the story into a wider context and look at it historically, contextually and philosophically. Towards such a contextual assessment, let us consider Ramanujan’s work along three dimensions: as a modernist poet, translator of classical and medieval texts from Tamil and Kannada, and as a practitioner of the translation enterprise.


Modernist poetry

In his 2013 essay on AK Ramanujan in Caravan magazine (‘Reading the small print: the literary legacy of an Indian modernist’, Nakul Krishna goes to great lengths to establish AKR as a literary modernist, through his poetry as well as translations. As a poet, Ramanujan is known for his exquisite sense of language and rhythm and for his ability to effect subtle shifts in tone that reveal layers of meaning. Nor can it be disputed that he was a modernist: having grown up in British India, studied and later taught English literature in college, and immigrated to the United States when he was in his early thirties, he could hardly be other than modern. But he was by no means among the first or the most influential modernist in Indian literature.


Modernist writing in India began as early as the first decade of the last century. Among the earliest literary modernists in India was the great Tamil poet, Subramania Bharathi. In his poetry, we see all aspects of Indian modernity, including its aspirations for emancipation, not only of the self but of society as a whole. Reworked epic as a political statement, paean to erotic love, the self as forged in the crucible of this world – Bharathi left nothing out in his short life of 39 years. Unlike Ramanujan, Bharathi had a traditional education in Tamil and Sanskrit; he was not primarily a product of colonial education. Movements for modernist writing had also kicked off in Tamil, Malayalam and Marathi well before the sixties.


Ramanujan had to deal with the contradiction between the western culture in his place of domicile and the culture of his origins. He resolved this conflict through being thoroughly assimilated into the former, and being anxious and ironic about the latter. As someone living in the haven of western culture, his personal attitude towards his native culture was one of defiance and regret.

But there she stood … and gave me a look. Commandments crumbled as in my father’s past. Her tumbled hair suddenly known as silk in my angry hand, I shook a little

and took her, behind the laws of my land.

‘Still Another View of Grace’

for in that touch I think I stumbled

on a pulse, and wondered like a fool

who has no proper sense of body

if it were yours, or mine,

and wondered if you wondered too.

‘A Rather Foolish Sentiment’


Unlike Kamala Das or Arun Kolatkar, who engaged intensely with the contradictions of a modernizing society from within, Ramanujan, an émigré poet, wrote of the home left behind with a remote passion and irony. Given the changed relationship between cultures in a globalized and hyper-connected world, it is unlikely that Indian poets today would find much relevance in this aspect of AKR’s modernity.


Translator of Classical Texts

It it was largely through his efforts that Sangam poetry acquired a global reputation. However, the work itself deserves comment. In his translations, AKR used the techniques, diction and cadence of contemporary American verse practice of his time. It is widely acknowledged that his strategy often had the effect of modifying both the content and spirit of the original work. Ramanujan’s translations, being the work of a practising poet, had all the seductive allure of poetry. But his strategy of “not jumping off his own shadow”, explicitly interpolating himself into the text, did not meet with everyone’s approval. Moreover, all translations of a text are provisional, since newer translations can and will be produced in the course of time, to suit an ever-changing context. Therefore, AKR’s translations, indeed anyone’s, cannot be given canonical status – not reasonably, at any rate.


There have been at least three other translations of classical Tamil poetry – by George Hart (Purananuru, 1999), ML Thangappa (Kurunthokai, 2010) and Martha Ann Selby (Ainkurunuru). All three translations are explicitly at variance with AK Ramanujan’s in terms of their approach. We might also mention another Indian English poet, R Parthasarathi’s much acclaimed translation of the early Tamil epic, Cilappatikaram (1993). Important translations of Tamil bhakti poetry published in recent years include those by Priya Sarukkai Chabria and Ravi Shankar (Andal, 2016), and Archana Venkatesan (Nammalvar, 2014).


Given this profusion of translated works, it makes little sense in 2017 to speak of AK Ramanujan’s achievements in this sphere in isolation from the rest. The cause of translation would be better served if we are able to understand AKR’s approach and strategy in relation to those of other accomplished practitioners in the field. A new standard, composite instead of iconic, could be evolved that might better illuminate the way for future translators.


A new conversation

Writing in EPW (January 24, 2010), the historian Ram Guha opines thus: ‘In terms of readability, the distance between Ramanujan’s work and that of his epigones is colossal indeed.’ To anyone who is a regular reader of contemporary English translations in India, this must seem evidently untrue. But the iconic image of AK Ramanujan as a translator, cultivated assiduously by a few, does lend itself to such views, especially among those whose familiarity with more recent translations into English is far from substantial. There are perhaps other, more meaningful, ways of looking at contemporary translations.


Roughly around the time of AK Ramanujan’s passing, a veritable movement for translation of contemporary literature from Indian languages into English was kicked off. It has grown and flourished over the past 25 years, across many genres and from many languages. If a frontier was conquered when AK Ramanujan published The Interior Landscape in 1976, many such frontiers have since been crossed through the translation of feminist, Dalit and subaltern literatures across India, and of literatures in tribal languages, into English. Clearly, AKR’s credo – that the translator must not jump off his own shadow – may not work in contexts where the source text originates from a contemporary setting far removed from the translator’s own, and not conveniently from the remote past.


Therefore, we need a conversation about translation that is worthy of the corpus of translations that has been produced so far and of the translators who have toiled to create it. AK Ramanujan will of course have his due place in this conversation. He may still glitter in the company of other practitioners of his art, but in a more meaningful and inclusive way. Gentle humanist that he was, AKR might be actually happy to relinquish his position as the ‘gold’ standard for Indian translators and acknowledge worthy endeavours other than his own.


This article was published in Mint Lounge on September 25, 2017


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