Obituary: A. K. Ramanujan
Saturday 31 July 1993
A. K. RAMANUJAN was born in South India and made a career of probing the meanings of its language, literature and culture for an audience that was formally and professionally American but which in the broadest sense knew no national boundaries.
In the quiet yet affable wit known best to his extended family of students, colleagues and friends, Ramanujan would observe that he was the hyphen in the phrase 'Indo-American'. But to everyone who knew him and the passionate brilliance of his language, he and his poetry were rather a richly evocative metaphor for the human experience wherever it might be found.
He was as much at home with Yeats and Tagore as he was with the classical literatures of India, as happy teaching a creative writing class as he was putting his students through the rigours of the Tamil language. But anyone who has read his moving translations of the free-verse lyrics of medieval south India will know that it was this literary device, among the many he employed, with which Ramanujan perhaps felt most comfortable in opening new and unfamiliar windows of experience to the West, and indeed to much of India. These translations from the Kannada, one of the richest literary languages of India as Ramanujan has shown us, were published as Speaking of Siva (1973) and became the basis for an opera produced by the BBC. Apart from Speaking of Siva and its richly illuminating introduction, he published more than a dozen books of poems and translations in and from Tamil, Kannada, and Malayalam, the languages of South India in which he worked. His poems in English are represented in more than 60 anthologies and have been published in Indian, British, and American periodicals.
Ramanujan's books of poetry include Relations: poems (1971), Selected Poems (1977), and Second Sight (1986), all published by Oxford University Press. He produced an anthology of Indian poetry, a volume of critical essays, and numerous articles and reviews. His recent translations include Hymns for the Drowning: poems for Vishnu (1981), from the Tamil, Poems of Love and War from the Eight Anthologies and Ten Long Poems of Classical Tamil (1984), and Folktales from India: a selection of oral tales from twenty-two languages (1991).
This last volume provides a clear sense of the directions in which Ramanujan was moving. At one of his last public presentations, in the Commonwealth Centre for Cultural and Literary Change at the University of Virginia, his remarks were titled 'A Ring of Memory: remembering and forgetting in Indian literatures'. The memory and the folk themes are also reflected in two of his more recent articles, 'Where Mirrors Are Windows: toward an anthology of reflections', in History of Religions (1989); and 'Telling Tales', in Daedalus (1989). At the time of his death, Ramanujan was working on a translation of women's oral tales from Kannada.
Ramanujan was educated at Mysore University and the Deccan College in India and at Indiana University in the United States. He had been at the University of Chicago since 1961, serving that institution as Professor of Linguistics and Professor of South Asian Languages and Civilizations. In 1976 the Indian Government honoured Ramanujan with the Padme Sri, one of its highest civilian awards, for his contributions to Indian literature and linguistics.
Ramanujan's legacy as poet, scholar and essayist is a large one; it is a legacy that will live not only in his books but in the lives he touched as a consummate teacher, as innovative and creative in the classroom as he was on the written page. And while his classroom was that of language and literature its influence had no disciplinary limits, indeed disciplines as we normally think of them in the academy were not a part of his poetic lexicon. Students of anthropology, history, and religion no less than those of language and literature were touched by his subtle and creative mind. He was a man of rare gentleness, of a deep and sensitive humanity.
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