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When Mirrors are Windows

When Mirrors are Windows
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Item Code: NAQ308
Author: Guillermo Rodriguez
Publisher: Oxford University Press, New Delhi
Language: English
Edition: 2016
ISBN: 9780199463602
Pages: 566
Other Details: 9.00 X 5.50 inch
weight of the book: 0.7 kg
About the Book

an ocean where myriads of rivers converge, can one sole river lend the ocean its distinct flavour? For someone who is at home with several languages, literary traditions, and disciplines, is it possible for one form to criss-cross the landscape of another? In a poet's world of mirrors, where stream and earth are sky, one may 'sometimes count every orange on a tree', but can one count 'all the trees in a single orange'?

In this volume, Guillermo Rodriguez explores these possibilities by analysing the works of one of India's finest poets, translators, essayists, and scholars of the twentieth century, A.K. Ramanujan (1929-1993).

A spectrum of published and unpublished sources —including some of Ramanujan's hitherto unknown private diaries, notes, poetry drafts, and scholarly writings sourced from the A.K. Ramanujan Papers archived at the University of Chicago are studied to illuminate the influence of classical Tamil, medieval bhakti, and oral folk aesthetics and literature on his work. This vastly informative and critical work makes us aware of his attention to the various aesthetic and poetic contexts in his life and work, and shows how these are reflected in his writings as a way of thinking and nurturing force behind his creative self.

About The Author

Guillermo Rodriguez is the founding director of the Casa de la India, a pioneering cultural centre in Spain, supported by the Indian Council for Cultural Relations, University of Valladolid, and City Council of Valladolid. Established in 2003, the centre has now become the model for India's cultural diplomacy abroad.

A passionate traveller, after his college education in Spain, Guillermo made several overland trips from Spain to Asia in the early 1990s. On his first journey to India traversing Central Asia and Tibet, he reached Benares, where he discovered Indian poetry in the translations of A.K. Ramanujan and the poet's anthology of bhakti poems Speaking of Siva. Later, in 1993, he decided to make south India his home and lived in Chennai and Trivandrum for seven years. It is here that he became immersed in the artistic and intellectual milieu of the region, at a time when a new generation of postmodern artists, poets, and critics were challenging the earlier cultural establishment. He enrolled himself in the MA programme of Loyola College, Chennai, to specialize in modern Indian poetry in English, and later obtained his PhD in English from the University of Kerala, India, and the University of Valla do lid, Spain.

Over the years, Guillermo has been actively involved in numerous cultural and academic activities bringing India and Spain closer to each other. In his multidisciplinary role as an academic scholar and intercultural diplomat, he is regularly invited to deliver lecturers at international conferences in Europe. He publishes academic essays and poetry translations and has directed and curated over 30 Indian cultural festivals, international conferences, and civil society dialogues. In April 2012, he was honoured with the Friendship Award by the Minister of External Affairs, Government of India, for promoting Indo-Spanish cultural relations.


There is no other figure like A.K. Ramanujan on the intellectual landscape of India.

He was a teacher who loved teaching. I was fortunate enough to have met him when I was only 16. I was a student of mathematics in Dharwad and he was a junior lecturer in English, teaching at a college some 50 miles away. That distance seemed immense in those days and we did not meet too often, but whenever we did, whether on a railway platform, in the college canteen, or on the long walks he loved, he would hold forth, turning the meeting spontaneously into a class on whatever topic excited him or me at the moment His enthusiasm for teaching continued to pour forth in the many workshops, seminars, and symposia he conducted throughout his life.

Later, he moved to the USA and taught in Chicago, and I watched in awe as he extended his range of interests to cover subjects as diverse as linguistics, anthropology, folklore, history of religions, literary studies, and ethnography. In spite of his involvement in such a wide range of disciplines, however, there is little doubt that Ramanujan will ultimately be remembered for having brought to light with his translations three distinct bodies of ancient literature, the very existence of which was unknown to the world outside until then-the ancient Tamil Sangam anthologies, the later bhakti poems of the Alvars, and the medieval Kannada vachana poetry. Not many translators can claim such a rich harvest: most translators anywhere in the world are content to bring out new versions of texts already recognized as 'classics', such as traditional epics or literary works or philosophical tracts. Ramanujan did not merely 'discover' these seminal texts, he accomplished something even more difficult: he demonstrated through his translations that the originals were works of rare poetic excellence. He was a first-rate poet in English-as in Kannada-an advantage most Indian translators do not have; the poet is present in the translations. So is the teacher: along with translating these texts he built a theory of translation, which lucidly explains the principles underlying his method of work. He despised jargon and obscurity, so that even when dealing with complex issues, his explanations are simple and direct. The result is a body of theoretical analysis, the influence of which it has been impossible for translators after him to resist.

In an age in which the greatness of India's intellectual and artistic heritage was defined primarily in terms of its classical-mainly Sanskrit-texts and judged by patriarchal norms, Ramanujan responded to the feminine aspects of that legacy. Female voices come through vibrantly in these poems.

He drew attention to the coherence, vitality, and relevance of the 'underbelly' of our culture, a whole swathe of lived phenomena, such as proverbs, games, quizzes, swear words, and lullabies, as well as tales, prayers, and songs, often oral and therefore transitory. His contention was that these works, mostly created by women in domestic spaces, were in fact vital sources of everyday creativity in our culture. He had an almost uncanny sensitivity to hidden relationships and invisible patterns, operating in disparate genres in different languages, which enabled him to decipher connections between seemingly unrelated, far-ranging phenomena-as when he noticed characteristics common to oral tales narrated even today by elderly women in Kannada kitchens and the Akam poems of ancient Tamil Sangam anthologies. He wove these implications, which are immediate, direct, and often startling, into a single coherent tapestry of the Indian way of living and thinking. At the end of it all, what Ramanujan presented was not just a theory of public literary culture for the edification of scholars, but a concrete vision oflife as it is lived in the home.

In the last few years of his life, Ramanujan often commented with sadness on the fact that while American academia piled every conceivable honour on him, including a MacArthur Fellowship, his work was barely noticed in India. A few friends knew that he was on to something unique, but professional academics by and large found his projects outlandish. Fortunately, this situation changed since his death in 1993 and serious attention is now being paid to his output. But in those days when he seemed condemned to academic neglect, I was pleasantly surprised one day to receive a phone call from a person with a distinctly unfamiliar accent speaking impeccable English from-of all places-Kerala, announcing that he was doing research on Ramanujan's work and asking me to share any available material, by or on him, that I may have in my possession. I was skeptical, though I supplied every scrap of what I had devotedly collected. Here is the fruit of that labour by Guillermo Rodriguez, the first scholarly book dedicated to the study of Ramanujan. I feel privileged to have been asked to write the Foreword to it. Rodriguez is deeply involved with India-he has been responsible for founding and running the Casa de la India in Valladolid, Spain. His understanding of Ramanujan is infused not only in his immersion in India, but also in the insights he brings from his roots in Spain. Here we have a study of his oeuvre, driven by passion and illuminated by a cross-cultural sensibility, which draws on insights from across the oceans; it would have delighted Ramanujan.


This book was shaped in several continents, countries, cities, and homes, and was given its present form almost 20 years after I first decided, during a scorching Madras summer in the mid-1990s, to undertake academic research on the late A.K. Ramanujan. In the cross-cultural explorations and extensive research that went into this monograph on one of the finest Indian poets, translators, and scholars of the twentieth century, there have been many twists and turns as well as pleasant surprises and encounters. The journey began in 1993, when, after studying stylistics at the University of Edinburgh and completing my graduate studies in English philology at the University of Valladolid, I decided to embark on an overland trip from Spain to India in search of 'other wisdom traditions'. I did not know then that I was to stay in India for seven years, and that I had left my native town the same week that A.K. Ramanujan's life had unexpectedly come to an end (on 13 July 1993) at a hospital in Chicago. Several months later, living on a houseboat on the sacred River Ganga in Banaras, what I found was no spiritual guide, but a key that opened new windows to the puzzling world before me: Indian literature in English. Among the first books I randomly picked up at a Godowlia bookshop (incidentally run by a fellow Spaniard) were R. Parthasarathy's anthology Ten Twentieth-Century Indian Poets, A.K. Ramanujan's Speaking of Siva, a selection of medieval Kannada devotional sayings rendered in English, and several of Girish Karnad's plays including Naga-Mandala: A Play with a Cobra, based on a folktale told by Ramanujan. Out of the 10 poets I read in Parthasarathy's anthology, I was soon struck by the unusual imagery and power of suggestion of Ramanujan's poems. And reading his exquisite renderings of esoteric medieval mystic poetry as well as Karnad's contemporary plays I was able to learn about Ramanujan's other facets as a translator, folklorist, scholar, and mentor. Yet little did I suspect that I was to get much closer to Ramanujan's poetic universe when my backpacking adventure took me to south India in 1994, where I spent the next six years. By chance I rented the rooftop of a sculptor's studio in Cholamandal Artists' Village in the sleepy coastal village of Injambakkam outside Madras (today Chennai), where an overcrowded public bus had stopped en route to Mahabalipuram. One evening, while sharing my interest in the 'exiled' poet-scholar with some of the artists at Cholamandal's cafe under the banyan tree, I was told that A.K. Ramanujan's last poetry reading in India had by chance taken place at a neighbouring studio, in the company of painters S.G. Vasudev and Velu Viswanadhan, and other friends. Ramanujan, whose father was a Tamil Brahmin from Triplicane, used to visit fellow scholars, artists, and friends regularly in Madras. He had come to the artists' village on his last trip to India, the evening before he flew back to the USA in December 1992. That night he had obliged to read some of his unpublished translations of Tamil devotional poems by Tirumankai Alvar (ninth century AD), the last of the Alvars (the 'god-immersed' Tamil poet-saints), whose compositions were carved in medieval Tamil at a nearby temple. Fortunately, the reading was tape-recorded, and when I listened to it in the same studio where the improvised session had taken place, I too was immersed in the early medieval Tamil bhakti poems through the translator's empathetic reading. The ancient poems came alive in Ramanujan's delicate voice and soft modulation, sounding as fresh as perennial garlands of kurinji flowers and as profoundly intimate as personal prayers.

But reading mystic poetry and strolling on the sandy beaches of the Bay of Bengal were not satisfying enough for my inquisitive spirit, so I made up my mind to undertake serious research on contemporary Indian Poetry in English (IPE) at some of the best research centres for Indian literature in English in the country, which allowed me to meet and interview some of the writers, poets, and critics I was reading about. I spent my first brief stints as a research student in India at the Dhvanyaloka Centre for Indian Studies, Mysore, founded by Ramanujan's former professor, C.D. Narasimhaiah, and at the pioneering SCILET at the American College, Madurai; such field trips expanded my understanding of the significance of Ramanujan's legacy as an intellectual and creative treasure house bridging the East and the West, and tradition and modernity. By that time, 'A.K. Ramanujan research' had become something like a discipline to me; Ramanujan had turned into the abbreviated 'AKR' as an object of study in my notes. I found out only much later that Ramanujan wrote in the mid- 1950S several radio plays in Kannada language under a pseudonym derived from his initials 'AKR': 'Akrura', which means 'not cruel' or 'gentle' in Sanskrit and is a character from the Mahabharata and the Bhagavata Purana.

In 1996, I enrolled in an MA course at Loyola College, Madras, which covered Indian writing in English, and a year later I completed my MA dissertation, a stylistic (linguistic) and symbolic study of a single poem: 'Snakes' from AKR's first poetry book The Striders (1966). The essay titled 'A.K. Ramanujan: His "Outer" and "Inner" Forms', was an attempt to illustrate the poet's mastery over language and his distinctive technique that bailie the reader in the poem by 'making visible its forms' at multiple levels of signification. I was fascinated by the way the 'meaning' of the poem comes to the reader in its design, that is, in the particular way the speaker-narrator renders the 'experience' that is articulated through the linguistic structure. At the same time, the archetypal image of the snake allows for a psychological (Jungian), philosophical, and mythological (Hindu) reading: it is a symbol of fear belonging to our collective unconscious, yet it is also worshipped as a symbol of fertility in south-Indian traditions and in Hindu mythology, and is associated with the principle of female energy, Shakti, and with the cosmic waters of Visnu and Maya, the 'illusion' of life, death, and rebirth out of which the power of creation emanates. In my multisided analysis of this imagistic poem, I learnt how a single poem could be shown to contain the essence of AKR's trademark style. Along with a close reading of his 'families' of poems, a typical short poem by AKR might reveal an entire poetics if one learnt how to pull its 'strings'. Indeed, the riddle-like cyclical structure of 'Snakes' invites one to go back to the first line and read it over and over again: as the poet- magician re-enacts the rope trick and the snake is reborn, you want to watch closely to see how he pulls it off..

**Contents and Sample Pages**

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