For A.K. Ramanujan, who infused his diverse knowledge of Indian literatures and traditions into his poetry, the idea of Soma, the mysterious plant used by Vedic priests to extract ambrosia, fed his creativity.
Sifting through Ramanujan’s archives, the editors discovered a series of unpublished ‘Soma poems’ whose style and theme set them apart from his earlier work. This volume includes these poems beside essays and an interview that contextualizes them.
Krishna Ramanujan’s essay ‘Hummel’s Miracle: The Search for Soma’ explores the connections between the poems and the quest for the plant’s identity from the 1960s to the present. ‘The “Ordinary Mystery” Trip: Soma in A.K. Ramanujan’s Poetry’ by Guillermo Rodriguez dives deep into Ramanujan’s layered perspective on Soma. ‘The Post-Vedic History of the Soma Plant’, by Wendy Doniger, which influenced Ramanujan’s perception of Soma, originally published in 1968, is reprinted here with a special preface. The interview conducted in Chicago in 1982 between Malayali poet K. Ayyappa Paniker and Ramanujan offers a peek into Ramanujan’s perspectives on poetry and translation.
While Soma focuses on A.K. Ramanujan’s experimental poems and his creative mindset as an expatriate in America in the 1970s and early 1980s, it also provides a glimpse into a fascinating period in Western Indology when Indian philosophies and traditions were debated, some of which became so ingrained that they influence contemporary culture to this day.
About the Author & Editors
A.K. Ramanujan (1929-1993), born in Mysore, India, received his B.A. with Honors in English Language and Literature from Mysore University in 1949, and his M.A. the following year. For the next eight years, he was a lecturer in English successively in S.N. College, Quilon (Kerala), Thiagarajar College, Madurai (Tamil Nadu), Lingaraj College, Belgaum (Karnataka), and M.S. University, Baroda (Gujarat). In 1958, he received graduate diplomas in linguistics from Deccan College, Poona.
The following year Ramanujan came to the United States on a Fulbright fellowship, enrolling at Indiana University, which awarded him a Ph.D. in linguistics in 1963. He joined the faculty of the University of Chicago in 1962 as assistant professor, and was appointed professor in 1968. At the time of his death, he was the William H. Colvin Professor in the Department of South Asian Languages and Civilizations, the Department of Linguistics, and the Committee on Social Thought. He also taught as a visiting professor at Harvard University, University of California at Berkeley, University of Wisconsin, Madison, and University of Michigan.
Ramanujan received many honours and prizes, including the Padma Shri awarded by the Government of India in 1976 for contributions to Indian literature and linguistics, and a MacArthur Prize Fellowship in 1983. In 1988, he delivered the Radhakrishnan Memorial Lectures at All Soul’s College, Oxford. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1990. In 1999, he was posthumously given the Sahitya Akademi Award in English for The Collected Poems.
He was the author or translator of twenty-three books, including eight posthumous works, and he co-authored and edited various other seminal publications. While still alive, he published seven volumes of original poetry in English and Kannada, and landmark translations of verse from Tamil (ancient Sangam classics and medieval Alvar saints) and Kannada, including his famous book of poetry from medieval Kannada mystics, Speaking of Siva (Penguin, 1973), which was nominated for the National Book Award in the USA. His translation of U.R. Ananthamurthy’s Kannada novel Samskara is considered a classic. His last published book during his lifetime was Folktales from India, Oral Tales from Twenty-two Languages (Pantheon, 1991).
Mere biodata, however, cannot convey the magnitude of Ramanujan’s talents-as teacher, scholar, poet, literary critic, and translator-nor how deeply he influenced a whole generation of poets, translators and scholars, and enriched the lives of all who came to know him.
Guillermo Rodríguez, an active promoter of Indo-Spanish cultural relations, is the founding director of Casa de la India, a pioneering cultural centre in Spain, which has become the model for India’s cultural diplomacy abroad. A passionate traveller, it was during a visit to India in the early 1990s that he chanced upon Indian poetry in the translations of A.K. Ramanujan, thereby awakening his interest in the life and works of the poet-scholar.
Krishna Ramanujan is a science writer at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. Coupled with life-long literary interests, he has worked as a writer for Earthwatch Radio, NASA and Cornell University, and has published more than 2,000 news stories on topics related to climate change, ecology, biology and genetics. He is the son of AK Ramanujan.