In exploring aspects of AK Ramanujan’s scholarship, we find facets of a feminist
Girish Karnad, Playwright And Actor
AK RAMANUJAN worked as a Junior Lecturer in a town called Belgaum when he was 27. I was a 16-year old student in Dharwad, about 48 miles away, a distance that seemed enormous. He taught English Literature and I was a student of Mathematics. Although we were separated by the distance and by our different disciplines, regardless of where we met, in restaurants, parks, on railway platforms or while waiting for the bus, he’d deliver impromptu lectures and I listened avidly.
Apart from his vibrant presence, what impressed me most was that his poems used to get published in the Illustrated Weekly of India, a journal found in every middle-class home those days.
“Only a poet can translate a poet,” he used to say. He knew that he was one, and a good one. In those days, Indians who wrote poetry in English used a kind of antiquated 19th century idiom and vocabulary, heavily influenced by the mediocre Victorian poets, who provided the staple for the English curriculum.
Raman reacted violently against that kind of writing, and used a live contemporary idiom. And he dealt with intense personal problems. In that sense, he belonged to the generation of Nissim Ezekiel who cleansed Indian poetry of Victorian deadwood. Still Another View of Grace is about what happened to him when he left the claustrophobic, puritanical society in which he was brought up in India to be launched on a life of sexual freedom, devoid of social constraints but fraught with indefinable anxieties in the West.
Still Another View of Grace
I burned and burned. But one day I turned
and caught that thought
by the screams of her hair and said: ‘Beware.
Do not follow a gentleman’s morals
with that absurd, determined air.
Find a priest. Find any beast in the wind
for a husband. He will give you a houseful
of legitimate sons. It is too late for sin,
even for treason. And I have no reason to know your kind.
Bred Brahmin among singers of shivering hymns
I shudder to the bone at hungers that roam the street
beyond the constable’s beat.’ But there She stood
upon that dusty road on a nightlit april mind
and gave me a look. Commandments crumbled
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.
While I admired Raman’s poetry, in my college days I was baffled by the other activities he indulged in, which I shrugged off as eccentricities. He writes, “I collected tales from anyone who would tell me one: my mother, servants, aunts, men and women in villages with whom I stayed when I was invited to lecture in local schools, schoolteachers and schoolchildren, carpenters and tailors. I wrote them down by hand… I had no idea of what to do with them… I was just entranced by them.” He had also built up a collection of Kannada pro verbs and would collect swear words, and try to understand their social significance. Besides, he had started to translate vacanas, poems written in Kannada by Veershaiva poets in the 11th century, which were generally denigrated as religious verse of no poetic worth.
In 1959, he got a Fulbright Scholarship to Indiana and became a student of linguistics. It was in the US that he realised that the fields which he was exploring as hobbies had already been studied as academic disciplines. He confesses, “I… did not know for a long time that there were international indexes of types and motifs, marked with numbers.”
Raman brought a new focus to his data. The context ignored even by Indian scholars until then was the kitchen. It is in the kitchen that stories are often narrated. Though the story is aimed at a sleepy or obstreperous child, there is an audience of female members listening to it. Inevitably, the tale becomes a network of messages between those present. The teller may even choose a tale to comment, however obliquely, on something that has happened in the house. More significantly, the tale resonates within a world of women, barred to men, which thus reflects their values, sufferings, aspirations and fantasies.
In Indian folklore, a story lives inside the teller. And it is his/her duty to pass it on. One cannot keep food, a daughter, a story to oneself
Raman also draws our attention to how these stories, often narrated by illiterate women, have a complex aesthetics informing them, a consistent philosophical attitude to the craft of telling tales. A Western child may believe that a story lives in a book, beautifully illustrated. In Indian folklore, a story lives inside the teller, literally, physically inside. And it is his/her duty to pass it on. There are some things you can’t keep to yourself. Food, a daughter, a story.
Already we are dealing with an aesthetics which is different from the Western. According to Aristotle, catharsis is an experience which the audience undergoes. The purgation of emotions liberates the listener. According to the aesthetics of the Indian oral tale, as Ramanujan points out, it is the narrator, the artiste whose well-being is at stake.
In 1962, Raman had just moved from Indiana to the University of Chicago. And on one of his Saturdays there, he entered the basement stack of the Harper Library looking for an old Tamil grammar and stumbled upon on an early anthology of classical Tamil poems, called ‘Sangam’ poetry. He says, “I sat down there on the floor between the stacks and began to browse. To my amazement, I found the prose commentary… unlocked the old poems for me… I was enthralled by the beauty and subtlety of what I could read. Here was a world, a part of my language and culture, to which I had been an ignorant heir.”
This is what is fascinating about his intellectual growth. He goes abroad, and discovers the significance of the oral material he was collecting in India, and analyses with clarity, areas he had vaguely grasped here.
Most translators translate works that have already been acknowledged as works of literary or philosophical merit by tradition. Raman brought to light entire bodies of work that were unknown to the world. The other surprise for the Indological scholars was that the literature he brought to light was in Tamil and Kannada, languages other than Sanskrit.
Most translators take pains to declare that the material they are dealing with is, in the original language, great poetry. Most translations leave the reader wondering what was so worthy of attention in the works presented. They often encourage a dismissive attitude which attributes the panegyrics to linguistic chauvinism. Raman’s translations display such sensitivity to the English language that one needs no further protestations of the poetic merit of the original.
Nothing remains disparate and unconnected in Raman’s thought. His essay Two Realms of Kannada Folklore begins with: “Returning to Kannada folklore after several years of studying classical Tamil poetry, I saw a particularly simple and striking pattern I had not seen before.” This movement from ancient Tamil to kitchen Kannada, from classical to the folklore is characteristic of Raman. So is his amazing sensitivity to repeated patterns, reflections, hidden connections in disparate disciplines; linguistics, folklore, poetry, translations and a dabbler’s fascination for psychiatry.
All classical Tamil poetry is classified by themes into two kinds: Akam and Puram. Akam means interior, Puram exterior. The Akam poems are love poems. They contain no names or individuals or place-names. Puram, the so-called public poetry, has “names, places, expression of personal circumstance in a real society, in a real history”.
A very common pattern found in a woman’s tale told in the kitchen is that the girl gets married at the beginning of the tale and then loses her husband. In the kitchen, she is often nameless. But we find the same tale gathering details as it is used for narration outside, like the stories of Shakuntala, Savitri and Damayanti. And if one were to see the Ramayana from Sita’s point of view, this is what happens to her as well. Thus the kitchen tale is like an Akam poem, simple, unadorned, nameless. Its recounting as a ballad or as an epic is full of details and philosophical explanations, characteristic of Puram poetry.
Ramanujan applies the Akam-Puram, or domestic-public, spectrum to other genres. Riddles, for instance, are used by children at homes and proverbs at the other end are used by adults in public life. He starts with things that are considered small and from there goes on to look at some important, if hitherto ignored aspect, of our lived social canvas. He’s not contemptuous of the products of the illiterate and the weak.
Anthropologist Robert Redfield had said, “In a civilisation, there is a great tradition of the reflective few and there is a little tradition of the largely unreflective many.” Raman’s comment on this was: “That is a famous formulation that deserves to be infamous.” To him, all texts and performances are a transitive series, a “scale of forms” responding to each other, engaged in a “continuous and dynamic dialogic relationship”.
Raman’s essay Where Mirrors Are Windows argues that “cultural traditions in India are indissolubly plural and often conflicting, but are organised through at least two principles, a) context-sensitivity and b) reflexivity of various sorts, both of which constantly generate new forms out of the old ones”. He borrowed the term ‘context-sensitive’ from linguistics and applied it to mean phenomena which were modified or even radically altered by the context in which they appeared. In his essay Is there an Indian Way of Thinking?, he draws attention to how much in Indian culture that is valuable and living is ‘context-sensitive’. Western civilisation has a strong ‘context-free’ bias: thus modern science seeks universal laws. Western philosophy tries to understand how ‘one’ knows the world outside, regardless of who the ‘one’ is.
The surprise for the Indological scholars was that the literature Ramanujan brought to light was in Tamil and Kannada
Indian culture, on the other hand, is ruled by context-sensitivity. Modernisation in India, argues Raman, has become a movement from the context-sensitive to the context-free. It’d be true to say that he is only lukewarm to the Sanskrit textual tradition. Except for theRamayana and the Mahabharata, which have become part of the regional language traditions through translations and oral language traditions (“No Hindu ever reads the Mahabharata for the first time,” goes a famous observation of his), Raman is largely unmoved by the “pan-Indic Sanskrit, the second language of cultured Indians for centuries”. Being pan-Indic, it is context-free. It is rigidly structured and unchanging. Its shastras seek perennial truths. He confesses, “[at one time] I felt Sanskrit itself and all that it represented had become an absence, at best a crippling and not an enabling presence, [and] that the future needed a new past.”
And amazingly he found the new past in the mother-tongue culture. Regardless of what he is discussing, one can always sense in the background, the home, teeming with the family, and at its centre, shaping the familial contexts, responding to them in different ways, the presence of the woman.
This edited essay was presented at the first AK Ramanujan Memorial Lecture at Ramjas College, New Delhi, recently