A.K. Ramanujan

A.K. Ramanujan, the Tamil scholar –  (1929-1993)

Dr.  Ramanujan was born in 1929 to Tamil parents in Mysore.  He got his early education in Mysore. He got his Ph.d. in linguistics from Indiana University in 1962.  He taught at the University of Chicago from 1962, and lived in Chicago until he died in 1993. He also taught at other U.S. universities  including Harvard, University of Wisconsin, University of Michigan, University of California at Berkeley, and Carlton College.   In 1976, the government of India awarded him the ‘Padmashri’ title. He was a scholar in Tamil, Kannada, Telugu and Sanskrit.  He wrote incredibly beautiful English poems.  His translations of Sangam Tamil poems have no equal.  They help us unlock Sangam poems.  His passion for Sangam poems was special, as we can see from his writings.  He has taught Sangam Tamil to scholars George Hart,  Kamil Zvelebil and many others.

His wife Dr. Molly Daniels Ramanujan has authored many books.  Ramanujan credits her for his translations, in his books, ‘The Interior Landscape’, and ‘Poems of Love and War’.  This book has helped many of us get started in our Sangam poetry learning process.  His translations are gems.

What Ramanujan said about Sangam poems:

“Tamil, one of the two classical languages of India, is the only language of contemporary India which is recognizably continuous with a classical past”.

“These poem are ‘classical,’ i.e., early, ancient; they are also ‘classics,’ i.e., works that have stood the test of time, the founding works of a whole tradition. Not to know them is not to know a unique and major poetic achievement of Indian civilization”.

In their antiquity and in their contemporaneity, there is not much else in any Indian literature equal to these quiet and dramatic Tamil poems. In their values and stances, they represent a mature classical poetry: passion is balanced by courtesy, transparency by ironies and nuances of design, impersonality by vivid detail, leanness of line by richness of implication. These poems are not just the earliest evidence of Tamil genius. The Tamils, in their 2,000 years of literary effort, wrote nothing better”.

Ramanujan writing about  about how he started to learn Sangam poems:

“Even one’s own tradition is not one’s birthright; it has to be earned, respossessed. The old bards earned it by apprenticing themselves to the masters. One chooses and translates a part of one’s past to make it present to oneself and maybe to others. One comes face to face sometimes in faraway places, as I did. In 1962, one one of my first Saturdays at the University of Chicago, I entered the basement stacks of the then Harper Library in search of an elementary grammar of Old Tamil, which I had never learned. The University had just acquired a large collection of books from a famous South Indian historian. It was still uncatalogued, and even undusted. As I searched, hoping to find a school grammar, I came upon an early anthology of classical Tamil poems, edited in 1937 by U. V. Cāminathaiyar. It carried his Tamil signature, dated 1937, on its flyleaf. That edition, I later learned, was a landmark in its own right. I sat down on the floor between the stacks and began to browse.  To my amazement, I found the prose commentary transparent; it soon unlocked the old poems for me. As I began to read on 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. Until then, I had only hear of the idiot in the Bible who had gone looking for a donkey and had happened upon a kingdom.”

Here are some of his beautiful translations, along with the original songs:

ஐங்குறுநூறு 113,  அம்மூவனார் – நெய்தல் திணை – தலைவி தோழியிடம் சொன்னது
அம்ம வாழி தோழி நென்னல்
ஓங்குதிரை வெண்மணல் உடைக்கும் துறைவற்கு
ஊரார் பெண்டென மொழிய என்னை
அதுகேட்ட அன்னாய் என்றனள் அன்னை
பைபய எம்மை என்றனென் யானே.

some people of this town
said about me,
she is the woman
of that man from the seashore

where great waves break
on the white sands.

Mother heard it
and asked me,
“is it true?”
I said, under my breath,
“I’m burning.”

ஐங்குறுநூறு 192, நெய்தல் திணை – தலைவி தோழியிடம் சொன்னது
கோடுபுலம் கொட்பக் கடலெழுந்து முழுங்கப்
பாடிமிழ் பனித்துறை யோடுகலம் உகைக்கும்
துறைவன் பிரிந்தென நெகிழ்ந்தன
வீங்கின மாதோ தோழி என் வளையே.

Friend, his seas swell and roar
making conch shells whirl on the sands.
But fishermen ply their little wooden boats
unafraid of the cold lash of the waves.

Look, my bangles
slip loose as he leaves,
grow tight as he returns,
and they give me away.

குறுந்தொகை 3,  இயற்றியவர்- தேவகுலத்தார்,  குறிஞ்சி திணை  –  தலைவி சொன்னது
நிலத்தினும் பெரிதே வானினும் உயர்ந்தன்று
நீரினும் ஆரளவின்றே – சாரல்
கருங்கோற் குறிஞ்சிப் பூக் கொண்டு
பெருந்தேன் இழைக்கும் நாடனொடு நட்பே.

Kurunthokai 3, Poet Thevakulathār, Kurinji thinai – What She said
Bigger than earth, certainly,
higher than the sky,
more unfathomable than the waters
is this love for this man

of the mountain slopes
where bees make rich honey
from the flowers of the kurinci
that has such black stalks.

குறுந்தொகை 68. குறிஞ்சி திணை – அள்ளூர் நன்முல்லையார் – தலைவி சொன்னது
பூழ்க்கால் அன்ன செங்கால் உழுந்தின்
ஊழ்ப்படு முதுகாய் உழையினங் கவரும்
அரும்பனி அற்சிரம் தீர்க்கும்
மருந்து பிறிதில்லை அவர் மணந்த மார்பே.

Kurunthokai 68 – Poet Allur Nanmullai, Kurinji thinai – what she said
The bare root of the bean is pink
like the leg of a jungle hen,
and herds of deer attack its overripe pods
For the harshness
of this season of morning dew
there is no cure
but the breast of my man.

குறுந்தொகை 74, விட்டகுதிரையார்,  குறிஞ்சி திணை – தோழி சொன்னது
விட்ட குதிரை விசைப்பி னன்ன
விசும்புதோய் பசுங்கழைக் குன்ற நாடன்
யாம் தன் படர்ந்தமை அறியான் தானும்
வேனில் ஆன் ஏறு போலச்
சாயினன் என்ப நம் மாண் நலம் நயந்தே.

Kurunthokai 74 – Poet Vittakutiraiyār, Kurinji thinai – what her friend said to her
Our man of the hills
Where the bent green bamboo springs back to the sky
with the spring of an unleashed horse
grows thin longing for our love,
like a tethered bull in summertime
not knowing that we are, wasting away
for his sake.

குறுந்தொகை 95 கபிலர்,  குறிஞ்சி – தலைவன் சொன்னது
மால்வரை இழிதரும் தூவெள் அருவி
கல்முகைத் ததும்பும் பன்மலர்ச் சாரல்
சிறுகுடிக் குறவன் பெருந்தோள் குறுமகள்
நீரோ ரன்ன சாயல்
தீயோ ரன்னவென் உரன்வித் தன்றே.

Kurunthokai 95 – Kapilar, Kurinji thinai – what he said
Where the white waters from the peak
crash through the mountain caves,
it flowers on the slopes;
and there, the little hill-town chieftain
has a younger daughter, a girl
with great arms, and she is tender as water;
fancy her quelling my fire!

குறுந்தொகை 99,  ஔவையார், முல்லை திணை – தலைவன் சொன்னது
உள்ளினென் அல்லனோ யானே உள்ளி
நினைத்தனென் அல்லனோ பெரிதே நினைத்து
மருண்டனென் அல்லனோ உலகத்துப் பண்பே
நீடிய மராஅத்த கோடுதோய் மலிர்நிறை
இறைத்துணச் சென்றற் றாஅங்கு
அனைப்பெருங் காமம் மீண்டுகடைக் கொளவே.

Kurunthokai 99 – Poet Auvaiyār, Mullai thinai – what the hero said
O did I not think of you?
and thinking of you,
did I not think and think again of you?
was I not baffled
by the world’s demands
that held me to my work?
O love, did I not think of you,
and think of you till I wished
I were here to sate my passion
till this flood of desire
that once wet the branch of the tall tree
would think
till I can bend and scoop a drink of water
with my hands?

குறுந்தொகை 221, உறையூர் முதுகொற்றனார், முல்லை திணை – தலைவி சொன்னது
அவரோ வாரார் முல்லையும் பூத்தன
பறியுடைக் கையர் மறி இனத்து ஒழியப்
பாலொடு வந்து கூழொடு பெயரும்
யாடுடை இடைமகன் சென்னிச்
சூடிய வெல்லாம் சிறுபசு முகையே.

Kurunthokai 221- Poet Uraiyur Mutukotran, Mullai thinai – what she said
My lover has not come back:
the jasmine has bloomed.
A goat-herd comes into town
with goats and milk
to take some rice to others
waiting outside,
palmyra rain-guards in their hands,
herds of young ones in their care:
in his hair
nothing but buds of tiny jasmine.

குறுந்தொகை 295, தூங்கலோரியார்,  மருதம் – தோழி சொன்னது – What her friend said to the unfaithful hero
உடுத்தும் தொடுத்தும் பூண்டும் செரீஇயும்
தழையணிப் பொலிந்த ஆயமொடு துவன்றி
விழவொடு வருதி நீயே இஃதோ
ஓரான் வல்சிச் சீரில் வாழ்க்கை
பெருநலக் குறுமகள் வந்தென
இனி விழவு ஆயிற்று என்னும் இவ்வூரே.

 Your mistresses wear the green leaf
for skirt, earring and garland; they even
sport leaves in their hair.
You play with whole gangs of them
and come home with relics
of your water carnivals
all over you.
This town has begun to say,
once this fellow lived off
a single writeched cow;
now, since the windfall
his little woman brought him
he has carnivals.
குறுந்தொகை 312 – இயற்றியவர் – கபிலர்,  குறிஞ்சி திணை – தலைவன் சொன்னது
இரண்டறி கள்வி நம் காத லோளே
முரண்கொள் துப்பில் செவ்வேன் மலையன்
முள்ளூர்க் கான நாற வந்து
நள்ளென் கங்குல் நம்மோர் அன்னள்
கூந்தல் வேய்ந்த விரவுமலர் உதிர்த்துச்
சாந்துளர் நறுங் கதுப்பு எண்ணெய் நீவி
அமரா முகத்த ளாகித்
தமரோர் அன்னள் வைகறை யானே.

My love is a two-faced thief.
In the dead of night
she comes like the fragrance
of the Red-Speared Chieftain’s forest hills,
to be with me.
And them, she sheds the petals
of night’s several flowers,
and does her hair again
with new perfumes and oils,
to be one with her family at dawn
with a stranger’s different face.

Kalithokai 19 – Poet Kapilar – Kurinji Thinai – what she said to her friend
“O your hair,” he said,
“It’s like rainclouds
moving between
branches of lightning.
It parts five ways
between gold ornaments,
braided with a length of flowers
and the frangrant screwpine.

“O your smiles, your glistening teeth,
words sheer honey,
mouth red as coral,
O fair brow,
I want to tell you
listen, stop and listen,”

he said, and stopped me.

Came close,
to look closer
at my brow, my hands, my eyes
my walk, my speech,
and said, searching
for metaphors:
Amazed, it grows small, but it isn’t the crescent.
Unspotted, it isn’t the moon.
Like bamboo, yet it isn’t on a hill.
Lotuses, yet there’s no pool.
Walk mincing, yet no peacock.
The words languish, yet your’e not a parrot,”

On and on he praised my parts,
with words gentle and sly,
looked for my weakening
like a man with a net
stalking an animal.

watched me
as my heart melted,
stared at me
like a butcher at his prey,

O he saluted me, saluted me,
touched me O he touched me,
a senseless lusting elephant
no goad could hold back.

Salute and touch,
and touch again he did,

but believe me, friend,
I still think he is not really
a fool by nature.


  • k.a.agalya  On May 26, 2013 at 7:49 am

    it is really helpful for literature students

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