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AK Ramanujan, in his own words

Jinoy Jose P | Updated on July 12, 2019 Published on July 12, 2019

Outlier: AK Ramanujan (1929-93) explored literature in five languages   -  RK SRIDHARAN

The poet and scholar’s recently published diaries trace the genesis of an intellectual giant

“Believe in a love that is being stored up for you like an inheritance,” wrote Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke in Letters to a Young Poet in 1929, “...and have faith that in this love there is a strength and a blessing so large that you can travel as far as you wish without having to step outside.”

“Would it be possible to go the way of Rilke, make poetry out of one’s continuous hunger, one’s continuous sense of absence?” asks poet and scholar AK Ramanujan in Journeys: A Poet’s Diary — a collection of his random scribblings on life, poetry and everything in between.

While Rilke’s candid letters written are an extraordinary manifestation of a camaraderie he shared with a 19-year-old officer cadet, Journeys compiles (with brilliant discipline) the scattered thoughts of one of the finest poets of modern India.

Journeys: A Poet’s Diary; AK Ramanujan; Penguin; Non-fiction; ₹599

 

For the coming generations, a multifaceted genius such as Attipate Krishnaswami Ramanujan will be a wonder. First and foremost, he was a poet. But his scholarship transcended poetry and reached into philology, folklore, translations and plays. With enchanting dexterity, he explored and negotiated literature in five languages: English, Kannada, Tamil, Telugu and Sanskrit.

Like Rilke, Ramanujan too travelled across the globe, seeking love and ideas. And both found poetry. Edited by Ramanujan’s son Krishna and Spanish scholar Guillermo Rodríguez, who extensively researched the works and life of the poet (When Mirrors Are Windows: A View of AK Ramanujan’s Poetics, 2016), Journeys is, to say the least, a Ramanujan fan’s delight.

The prose reflects his unending quest for ideas and remarkably agonising negotiations with existential questions. The poems open up the magical universe of images, similes, metaphors and other distilled wonders of language only he could create.

Ever since he boarded the three-decade-old Strathaird ocean liner in Bombay on July 1, 1959, after he received a Fulbright Travel Fellowship and Smith-Mundt Grant to study at Indiana University in 1959-62, his world of ideas exploded and expanded. That was his Big Bang moment. Soon he would create many marvellous universes, in poetry, aesthetics, philosophy, linguistics, resulting in a stunning cornucopia of literary works.

In fact, his earliest known diary entry, ‘A Poem is Born’, was written in September 1949. The poet was 20 then, living in Mysore, his home. Interestingly, the entry starts with a paragraph that could now easily read like a sharp manifesto of the intellectual giant Ramanujan would become: “He was writing a poem. Definitely not about the raptures of roses and the languors of lilies. He would not be conventional, old-phrased, a Pandarus to the lazy public; no, not for the life of him.”

He wrote of himself in the third person: “Tinned poetry, he called it. Stale stuff. Not that for him. Good or bad, he would be himself, write himself, have his own home-industry of phrases, where he turned poetic pottery at the whirling wheel of his own imagination.”

Evidently, Ramanujan abhorred convention. He was an apostle of counter-culture. In poetry, he looked for the unusual; in its content, form and presentation (“Unclean / as romance / Cleansing / as fever / Unclean / as dying”). He experimented vigorously and furiously, often angering traditionalists and even some of his modernist contemporaries.

“Called to a halt/ between pursuit and flight / I take a stab at a poem/ quickly/ from behind...,” he wrote in September 1974. These were the years when the Indian peninsula witnessed radical changes in many fields, starting with politics, spreading into culture and science.

Poets, with their sharp, aphoristic and often dark and subversive philosophies, easily connected with the masses and their poetry became a vehicle of transformation, especially in Kannada, Malayalam, Marathi, Bengali, Telugu, Odia and other Indian languages.

These poets, from K Satchidanandan or Ayyappa Paniker in Malayalam to Gopalakrishna Adiga in Kannada and others, sought a new language for their yearnings and constantly battled with the mundane to make their metaphors reverberate with the new and the modern.

Ramanujan was a beacon among this lot, guiding and grooming new writers (such as the recently deceased Girish Karnad, who in his foreword to this book calls Ramanujan “archetypal teacher”), introducing novel concepts in world literature to India.

At a time when new ideologies entered India, Ramanujan remained a man of ideas, rather than ideology, as Kannada writer and critic UR Ananthamurthy once observed. His own father had called Ramanujan (when he was a curious teen) “intellectually promiscuous”.

In a way, the poet maintained that distinction throughout his life, yearning for knowledge, unearthing fascinating subjects of study, be it on Tipu Sultan’s secret diaries or hidden gems from ancient Kannada literature.

Journeys has five parts, starting from 1949 till the ’90s. Ramanujan died in 1993 at 64, leaving behind a legacy of intellectually illuminating journeys that are certain to inspire students of literature and history of modern India, which is unlikely to see a multilingual genius like him any time soon — considering the state of literature and culture in this part of the word — or, perhaps, ever.

And that’s one of the factors which will make Journeys as evocative and feverish as Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet.

Published on July 12, 2019
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