A conversation with Guillermo Rodriguez, the author of When Mirrors are Windows: A View of A.K. Ramanujan’s Poetics (OUP, 2016) and the founding director of Casa de la India, a pioneering cultural centre in Spain.
How did you encounter the work of AK Ramanujan?
In the summer of 1993, after an overland trip from Spain to India, I was living on a houseboat in Banaras and among the first books I picked up was a volume of his translations of medieval Kannada mystical poems, Speaking of Siva, and R Parthasarathy’s anthology, Ten Twentieth-Century Indian Poets, which included several poems by Ramanujan. I was struck by the unusual imagery and magical power of suggestion of his poems, as well as by the mysterious quality of the translations, which contained ancient wisdom in a surprisingly provocative fresh language and almost riddle-like form.
Why did you decide to study his work for your PhD? What sustained your interest?
In 1997, for my master’s dissertation at Loyola College, Chennai, I did a stylistic and symbolic study of a single poem by AKR titled “Snakes”, from his first poetry book The Striders (1966). I was fascinated by the way the meaning of the poem comes to the reader in its design, in the particular way the poet-narrator renders the experience through the linguistic structure, while the symbolism of the snake allows for interpretations from the psychological (Jungian), philosophical and mythological (Hindu) perspective. That was Ramanujan’s trademark style. His multilayered art and poetics came from his being exposed to, and having absorbed in his poetry, multiple traditions and disciplines—in India and then in America.
Also, at a crucial moment, Girish Karnad, Ramanujan’s friend since the 1950s, encouraged me to look at the A.K. Ramanujan Papers, deposited at the University of Chicago in 1994. The papers turned out to be a treasure trove— the unpublished notebooks, diaries, journals and letters of one of 20th-century India’s most seminal intellectuals.
Ramanujan brings together the Indian classical, the regional and the Western traditions in a way that might be unique. Your book quotes him as saying: “I write in two traditions and I belong to at least three.”
As a Tamil Brahmin who grew up in Mysore, AKR was surrounded by four languages (Kannada, English, Tamil, Sanskrit) and received a trilingual formal education. He did not learn Sanskrit formally but absorbed it as a religious language from his father. He wrote poetry in two languages, English and Kannada, and translated mainly from Kannada and Tamil into English. His father was a mathematician and was also steeped in Indian philosophy. Kannada was AKR’s first literary language: he wrote plays in it his early college days in the 1940s, before becoming part of the navya (new) modernist poetry scene in Kannada in the 1950s. He was also deeply influenced by oral literatures and medieval Virasaiva Kannada bhakti poetry, which appealed to his rebellious nature in his youth. By 30, he had become somewhat tired of being a professor of English in Indian provincial towns, and in 1959 he went to the US as a Fulbright scholar of linguistics. It was there that he learned to translate the Tamil classics, becoming Professor of Dravidian Studies at the University of Chicago in the early 1960s.
Many 20th century Indian writers had a similarly multilayered upbringing (regional, pan-Indian, English). What is unique about AKR is how he made use of these traditions in a profoundly rich, yet apparently simple, natural way; how he creatively absorbed and displayed these layers in his English-language poetry; and the success with which he translated between these languages (of different cultures and literary periods).
Did his poetry inform his translations? And vice versa?
AKR’s English-language poetry contained much from the Indian poetic traditions he translated. He imitated conventions from Tamil classical literature, such as Sangam poetics (metonymic “inner landscapes”, understatement, poetic economy, dramatic scenes, poetry cycles etc), Tamil prayer forms (in mock prayerpoems such as “Prayer to Lord Murugan”) and the fourth-century Tamil Kural (in the couplets used in poetic sequences in his collection Second Sight). Also, much of his poetry was preoccupied with the concept of grace and anubhāva (mystical experience) found in Virasaiva poets, and the paradoxical notion of poetic inspiration as an “ordinary mystery”.
Though he believed that “only poems can translate poems”, his training in linguistics was fundamental to “transpose” the original faithfully into a new “poetic body”, making use of syntactic devices and modulation, structural and visual design, texture and images.
Some have charged AKR with infusing his translations, especially the early 1970s renderings of the Virasaivavachanas with a modernist, ironic style which distorts the original voices. These critics say he could not free himself from his Western modernist attitude à la Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens and Ezra Pound. But we should not forget that he was living in Chicago and translating into the idiom of the American reader of the 1970s. His translations made these unknown South Indian poetic traditions come alive in a contemporary language.
How did moving to the US shape Ramanujan’s sense of himself and his writing?
His was a self-chosen exile, and he took it as a mediating role between Indian and American scholarship and as a dialogue in himself. Despite the inevitable disconnection from his native culture and family relations, he believed that no part of the self could be isolated from the other.’
And this notion permeates his creative writing, where there’s a constant give-andtake among different components (America, English literature and the diverse Indian traditions). Ironically, it was in the US where AKR discovered Tamil Classical Poetry when, in 1962, he chanced upon an anthology of Sangam poets in the basement of the University of Chicago Library. He half-seriously called himself “the hyphen in Indo-American Studies.”
This interview was published in April-June issue of The Indian Quarterly.