A.K. Ramanujan: A Lonely Hero

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The narrative around the pioneering Indian English poet and translator must rescue him from his image of a remote icon into a living inspiration.

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 1960s, 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 20 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 U.R. 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 a prodigious output in several genres, AKR also wrote poetry and fiction in Kannada throughout his life. After his untimely demise in 1993, AKR’s papers (poems, folk tales, 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 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.

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