A.K. Ramanujan

Photographer unknown. Photo credit from thehindubusinessline.com, “Scanned in Chennai R.K.Sridharan”

South Asian American, Literature, Linguistics, Folklore

A.K. Ramanujan


Dr. Attipat Krishnaswami Ramanujan, widely known as A.K. Ramanujan, was a renowned scholar whose research spanned multiple disciplines including linguistics, poetry, mythology, translation, and folklore. Born in Mysore, India, in 1929, he pursued his education in India in English literature and taught at many universities. In 1959, he migrated to the United States, and earned a Ph.D. in linguistics from Indiana University in 1963. He taught at Harvard University, University of California-Berkeley, and University of Madison, Wisconsin, before making his academic home at the University of Chicago, where he taught from 1962 until his death in 1993.

Dr. Ramanujan had first learned about folklore as a field of study while still in India. But he would acknowledge that a decades-long friendship with Alan Dundes, whom he met soon after arriving at Indiana University, was an ongoing source of education for him. At the University of Chicago, Ramanujan was instrumental in the founding of the South Asian Studies Program.  

Not only were his areas of scholarly inquiry vast, but Ramanujan was also a prolific author.  He worked in English, Tamil, and Kannada, among other South Asian languages—promoting a broader understanding of non-Sanskritic texts in the essays and poetry he penned as well as in the folktales and plays that he translated. He considered himself a bridge bringing together both Indian and American culture and thought. His work had a transnational scope, often relating to immigrant life, and it was grounded in thorough research and yet had broad appeal. One of his most important essays, “Is There an Indian Way of Thinking?”, critiques Western analyses as lacking a context-sensitive approach and offers a perspective that incorporates nuances of culture, religion, and traditions into its theoretical analyses. 

Ramanujan’s extensive work on Indian folktales are the premier collections of oral tales that showcase the rich heritage of oral tradition and storytelling in South Asia. In the introduction to Folktales from India, he wrote, “Wherever people live, folklore grows … Both public culture and domestic culture cannot be fully understood without a knowledge of the folk idiom.” 

In 1976, A.K. Ramanujan’s incredible contribution to the field of Indian literature and culture was recognized when he was awarded the Padma Sri title, one of India’s highest honors. In 1983, he was the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship.

Among his publications:

Collected Essays of A.K. Ramanujan (1999)

Folklore Studies: A Flowering Tree and Other Oral Tales from India (1997)

Folktales from India: A Selection of Oral Tales from Twenty-Two Languages (1991)

Fariha Khan

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