Towards Alternative Models for Indian Literature

‘Poetry contains, transforms, and returns our reality to us, and us to reality, in oblique ways.’

—A.K. Ramanujan, ‘On Contemporary Indian Poetry’, An Introduction to India, pamphlet containing articles commissioned on the occasion of the 7th Non-Alignment Summit in New Delhi (New Delhi: External Publications Division, Ministry of External Aff airs, March 1983), p. 62.

In When Mirrors Are Windows: A View of A.K. Ramanujan’s Poetics, Guillermo Rodríguez analyses the works of A.K. Ramanujan (1929–1993) — one of India's finest poets, translators, essayists, and scholars of the twentieth century — to illuminate the influence of classical Tamil, medieval bhakti, and oral folk aesthetics and literature on his work.

The following is an excerpt from the chapter "Watching the Birds and the Watcher" of the book.

Image courtesy OUP

Towards Alternative Models for Indian Literature

As a scholar and specialist in south-Indian (Dravidian) literary traditions, including classical regional traditions in Tamil as well as oral traditions, AKR had strong reservations about the traditional distinction between marga and desi, and the Western paradigms of classical and folk, ‘high’ and ‘low’, ‘great’ and ‘little’ for the study of Indian literature. In his introduction to the path-breaking Speaking of Siva (1973), which contains translations into English of devotional medieval Kannada poetry, he expresses his concerns thus:

The several pairs capture different aspects of a familiar dichotomy, though none of them is satisfactory or definitive…. It should not be forgotten that many of the regional languages and cultures themselves, e.g., Tamil, have long traditions, divisible into ‘ancient’ and ‘modern’ historically, ‘classical’ and ‘folk’ or ‘high’ and ‘low’ synchronically…. Even the so-called ‘great’ tradition is not as monolithic as it is often assumed to be.1

From the time of his youth living in Mysore and as a teacher of English in several Indian cities, AKR was keenly interested in bhakti (devotional) poetry in Kannada and in oral tales. Later in the USA, as a professor of the newly created academic discipline of Dravidian studies in the 1960s, he discovered the classical Tamil Sangam tradition and became immersed in translating the medieval Kannada Virasaiva bhakti tradition into English at a time when Sanskrit studies were still the hegemonic area of specialization in Indology. It is, therefore, not surprising that AKR privileged the study of the mother-tongue traditions, that is, the (at that time) lesser known or unorthodox traditions:

My interest has always been in the mother tongues, not Sanskrit, because I have always felt that the mother tongues represent a democratic, anti-hierarchic, from-the-ground-up view of India. And my interest in folklore has also been shaped by that. I see in these counter-systems, anti-structures, a protest against official systems. My work in folklore represents the world of women and children. More or less unconsciously, I have decided not to talk about India through the Sanskrit texts, but through the mother tongue texts, both written and oral.2

In his work as a scholar and translator, AKR evolved alternative models that moved beyond the classical marga/desi dichotomy for Indian literature and were based on diverse systems and conceptualizations, absorbing terminology from linguistics, literary theory, classical Tamil and medieval bhakti aesthetics, cultural anthropology, and other disciplines that he constantly revised and adapted to suit new research and ‘discoveries’. The technical jargon that AKR brought out of his multidisciplinary ‘toolbox’3 into Indian literary and cultural studies includes seminal concepts that he tested in various contexts in his career, which have enriched our view of Indian literary traditions and his own aesthetic universe. Among these tools and ideas, we can briefly highlight the following versatile ideas that he introduced at different periods of his academic life:

In the 1960s:

1. The Akam (interior, private) and Puram (exterior, public) paradigm: These two terms correspond to the distinct genres of love and war poems in classical Tamil Sangam poetry that AKR ‘discovered’ in the early 1960s. A collection of these love poems was published in his first book of translations as The Interior Landscape (1967).4 AKR was highly influenced by the poetics of the Tamil Sangam (‘fraternity of poets’) and its concentric aesthetics, which he later applied to the study of oral tales and to describe his own cultural baggage of ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ forms. AKR’s explanation of Tamil poetics, and the conception of The Interior Landscape, owe as much to the linguistics of Roman Jakobson and the rhetorical theory of Kenneth Burke, as to the poetics of the English Romantics and later poets such as G.M. Hopkins (and his concept of ‘inscape’) and Paul Valéry (poetry as ‘a language within a language’), and modern Western aesthetics and visual arts (see the sections ‘Tamil Aesthetics’ in Chapter 5 and ‘Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Poetry and Poetics’ in Chapter 7).

In the 1970s:

2. Structure, anti-structure, and counter-structure: AKR explains some of the tensions derived from the coexistence of the pan-Indian marga and regional desi traditions by adapting Victor Turner’s structure and anti-structure dichotomy in the introduction to Speaking of Siva. Yet in his original analysis of Virasaiva bhakti aesthetics, he prefers the term ‘counter-structure’ to ‘anti-structure’ to be able to distinguish between the ‘ideological rejection of the idea of structure itself’ in some bhakti communities and the need to ‘develop their own structures for behaviour and belief … frequently composed of elements from the very structures they deny or reject’.5 This seemingly paradoxical process, which a young AKR diagnosed early (before he read Turner’s work) in bhakti traditions, can be said to portray his own life and work as a modern scholar. He belonged by birth to the ‘higher’ Brahmin caste (which he shunned early in life) yet was drawn as a scholar to the underprivileged ‘lower’ traditions and counter-structures. Folklore, oral narratives, women tales, and medieval Virasaiva bhakti which opposed caste and hierarchy, made up an essential part of AKR’s structuralist ideas in the early 1970s, which he later revised from a post-structuralist perspective (see the sections ‘First Thirty Years in India’ in Chapter 3, ‘The Aesthetics of Bhakti’ in Chapter 5, ‘The Poetic Art or the Art of Composition’ in Chapter 6, and ‘Medieval Bhakti Poetics and Oral Poetics’ in Chapter 7 on bhakti and non-conformity).

3. Permeable membranes: AKR employs scientific terminology (from physics and biology), such as ‘osmosis’ and ‘(im)permeable membrane’, as metaphors to illustrate the interrelation between traditions: ‘[T]raditions are not divided by impermeable mem-branes; they interflow into one another, responsive to differences of density as in osmosis. It is often difficult to isolate elements as belonging exclusively to the one or the other.’6

In the 1980s:

4. A network of intertextuality: Turning to post-structural critical theory (Julia Kristeva, Roland Barthes, Mikhail Bakhtin) and avoiding binary oppositions, AKR presents Indian literature(s) in the 1980s as a plural and organic interactive system of ‘texts …engaged in continuous and dynamic dialogic relations’. For instance, in the introduction to Folktales from India, one of his last prose writings (first published in 1991), AKR clarifies that the ‘pan-Indian’ or classical tradition is, in reality, a complex coexistent system of Brahminism, Buddhism, Jainism, Tantra, bhakti, Islam, Zoroastrianism, Christianity, and even modernity as the latest hegemonic discourse. The pan-Indian systems, and the so-called alien or ‘modern’ inputs, such as the English language and the ‘modern’ Western world view, along with the local indigenous varieties, including the popular, oral, or folk traditions, are thus placed in ‘an ever-present network of intertextuality’ and exchange. AKR insists here again that ‘we need to modify terms such as “Great Tradition” and “Little Tradition”…. What is distinguished as “the classical,” “the folk,” and “the popular,” as different modes in Indian culture, will be seen as part of an interacting continuum.’7 In such a dialogic continuum (Bakhtin’s term),8 the regional or local (desi) mother-tongue traditions are not necessarily confined to small communities, and the apparently a-geographic, trans-local pan-Indian (marga) and Western (videshi) father-tongue traditions may in fact consist of multiple regional varieties (see Chapter 7).

5. Context-sensitivity and reflexivity: Linguistics was AKR’s main theoretical turf and as both structuralist and post-structuralist scholars were prone to develop theories connecting linguistics (Saussure, Jakobson, and others) to cultural anthropology, AKR was no exception. Such was the case with the context-free/context-sensitive rule in grammar and the notion of different types of refl exivity (self-reflexive and reflexive) in language and literary texts he borrowed from linguistics. These concepts became crucial paradigms to describe and deconstruct cultural patterns in (India and the West) as well as to define the nature and function of literary works.9 Reflexivity and context-sensitivity are discussed in two of AKR’s most influential cultural essays with titles that already give away their (self-)reflexive nature: ‘Where Mirrors Are Windows: Towards an Anthology of Reflections’ and ‘Is There an Indian Way of Thinking? An Informal Essay’. In AKR’s evolution from a trained linguist to cultural anthropologist, Saussure, Jakobson, and structuralism appealed to him as much as Bakhtin and other post-structuralist theory of the time, including Derridian thought (see the section ‘Western Theories and the Study of Poetry’ in Chapter 7).

This ‘toolbox’ containing diverse interdisciplinary critical notions and their inherent world view, ‘this metalanguage that half perceives and half creates what we see’,10 characterizes much of AKR’s work as a scholar, translator, and poet, as will be illustrated in subsequent chapters on his aesthetics and poetics. The student and critic of AKR’s work will quickly discern how certain theoretical models were circulated and updated by the author throughout his career, as critical paradigms in his essays come in recurrent variations to approach and revisit a particular subject—and the reader—from various angles. This ‘reflexive’ critical strategy and ‘way of thinking’ does not only infuse his scholarly essays and studies on (mainly) south-Indian and folk traditions with an unmistakable critical edge but to a large extent also shapes his own creative work as a contemporary writer. That is, the repetitions and variations of AKR’s metalanguage frame his aesthetic and poetic universe, in which the multiple traditions thrive in an ‘interactive continuum’ of quarrelling relations.


1. Ramanujan, ‘Introduction’, in SoS, p. 23.

2. Ramanujan quoted in ‘A.L. Becker, Keith Taylor, and AKR’, interview conducted at the University of Michigan in 1989, in Molly Daniels-Ramanujan and Keith Harison (eds), Uncollected Poems and Prose: A.K. Ramanujan (hereafter: UPP) (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2001), pp. 55–6.

3. See Ramanujan, ‘Is There an Indian Way of Thinking?’ in CE, p. 40.

4. A.K. Ramanujan, The Interior Landscape: Love Poems from a Classical Tamil Anthology (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1967). Two years earlier, he had published a booklet titled Fifteen Poems from a Classical Tamil Anthology (Calcutta: Writers Workshop, 1965).

5. Ramanujan, ‘Introduction’, in SoS, pp. 34–5. AKR cites in his introductory essay (published in 1973), Victor W. Turner’s The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure (New York: Ithaca, 1969), though an earlier version of his essay had, in fact, been drafted before he read Turner’s book. The essay was delivered as a speech in 1971 at the School of African and Oriental Languages, University of London at the seminar on ‘Aspects of Religion      in South Asia’ (30 March–2 April 1971). Turner, in a detailed commentary (published a few years later) on AKR’s introduction to SoS, observed the following on AKR’s adaptation of the concepts of his book title: ‘[H]e was  so much struck by the resemblance between the opposition indicated in its subtitle and that which he had noted in the Indian data that he made it the title of his paper, “Structure and Anti-Structure: The Virasaiva Example.”’ See Victor W. Turner, Drama, Fields and Metaphor: Symbolic Action in Human Society (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1974), pp. 279–89.

6. Ramanujan, SoS, p. 23. See also Ramanujan, ‘Where Mirrors Are Windows: Towards an Anthology of Reflections’, in CE, p. 27.

7. Ramanujan, ‘Introduction’, in FI, p. viii.

8. Ramanujan was especially influenced by Russian scholar Mikhail Bakhtin, whom he quotes several times in his essays. Bakhtin distinguished in his theory of communication between texts that can be placed on a monologic or dialogic continuum. See M.M. Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, ed. Michael Holquist, trans Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin and London: University of Texas Press, 1981). See also the section ‘Transacting with the Past: Tradition and Writing’ in Chapter 8.

9. In ‘Is There an Indian Way  of Thinking?’ in CE, p. 40, AKR quotes   the linguist John Lyons (Introduction to Theoretical Linguistics [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1971]) on the two types of grammatical rules: context-sensitive/context-free. Drafted in the early 1980s, the essay was first published in Contributions to Indian Sociology, vol. 23, no. 1 (New Delhi: Institute of Economic Growth, 1989), pp. 41–58, and later collected in CE, pp. 34–51. On the other hand, the essay ‘Where Mirrors Are Windows’ was first published in History of Religions, vol. 28, no. 3 (February 1989), pp. 187–216, and appeared later in CE, pp. 6–33. Though he quotes Bakhtin’s dialogism in this essay, AKR does not, however, identify any source for his interpretation of the term reflexivity. Roman Jakobson, one of the most influential linguists in AKR’s career, defined the poetic function of language as one that focuses on the message itself, that is, reflexivity. Jakobson studied ‘deixis’ (words that need contextual information) and the functions of communication to conclude that poetry is self-reflexive, though the pioneering linguist does not use the term ‘reflexivity’. Later, reflexivity became an important concept in anthropology (see, for example, the work of Clifford Geertz) as well as in philosophy and literary criticism. See Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination and Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures (New York: Basic Books, 1973).

10. See Ramanujan, ‘Parables and Commonplaces’, in Amirthanayagam (ed.), Writers in East–West Encounter, p. 139, quoted in the opening paragraph of this chapter.

This is an excerpt from When Mirrors Are Windows: A View of A.K. Ramanujan’s Poetics, written by Guillermo Rodríguez and published by Oxford University Press. Republished here with permission from the publisher.
Guillermo Rodríguez 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. 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.