Ramanujan was born in Mysore City on 16 March 1929. His father, Attipat Asuri Krishnaswami, an astronomer and professor of mathematics at Mysore University, was known for his interest in English, Kannada and Sanskrit languages. His mother was a homemaker. Ramanujan also has a brother, A.K. Srinivasan who is a writer and a mathematician.
Ramanujan was educated at Marimallappa's High School, Mysore, and at the Maharaja College of Mysore. In college, Ramanujan majored in science in his freshman year, but his father, who thought him 'not mathematically minded', persuaded him to change his major from science to English. Later, Ramanujan became a Fellow of Deccan College, Pune in 1958–59 and a Fulbright Scholar at Indiana University in 1959–62. He was educated in English at the University of Mysore and received his PhD in Linguistics from Indiana University.
Ramanujan worked as a lecturer of English at Quilon and Belgaum; he later taught at The Maharaja Sayajirao University in Baroda for about eight years. In 1962, he joined the University of Chicago as an assistant professor. He was affiliated with the university throughout his career, teaching in several departments. He taught at other US universities as well, including Harvard University, University of Wisconsin, University of Michigan, University of California at Berkeley, and Carleton College. At the University of Chicago, Ramanujan was instrumental in shaping the South Asian Studies program. He worked in the departments of South Asian Languages and Civilizations, Linguistics, and with the Committee on Social Thought.
In 1976, the Government of India awarded him the Padma Shri, and in 1983, he was given the MacArthur Prize Fellowship (Shulman, 1994). In 1983, he was appointed the William E. Colvin Professor in the Departments of South Asian Languages and Civilizations, of Linguistics, and in the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago, and the same year, he received a MacArthur Fellowship. As an Indo-American writer Ramanujan had the experience of the native as well as of the foreign milieu. His poems such as the "Conventions of Despair" reflected his views on the cultures and conventions of the east and the west.
A. K. Ramanujan died in Chicago, on 13 July 1993 as result of adverse reaction to anaesthesia during preparation for surgery.
A. K. Ramanujan's theoretical and aesthetic contributions span several disciplinary areas. In his cultural essays such as "Is There an Indian Way of Thinking?" (1990), he explains cultural ideologies and behavioral manifestations thereof in terms of an Indian psychology he calls "context-sensitive" thinking. In his work in folklore studies, Ramanujan highlights the inter-textuality of the Indian oral and written literary tradition. His essay "Where Mirrors Are Windows: Toward an Anthology of Reflections" (1989), and his commentaries in The Interior Landscape: Love Poems from a Classical Tamil Anthology (1967) and Folktales from India, Oral Tales from Twenty Indian Languages (1991) are good examples of his work in Indian folklore studies.
His 1991 essay "Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translation" courted controversy over its inclusion in the B.A. in History syllabus of the University of Delhi in 2006. In this essay, he wrote of the existence of many versions of Ramayana and a few versions that portrayed Rama and Sita as siblings, which contradicts the popular versions of the Ramayana, such as those by Valmiki and Tulsidas.
The comments written by A K Ramanujam were found to be derogatory by some Hindus and some of them decided to go to court for removal of the text from the Delhi University curriculum. ABVP, a nationalist student organisation opposed its inclusion in the syllabus, saying it hurt the majority Hindu sentiment, who viewed Rama and Sita as incarnations of gods and who were husband and wife. They demanded the essay be removed from the syllabus. In 2008, the Delhi High Court directed Delhi University to convene a committee to decide on the essay's inclusion. A four-member committee subsequently gave its 3-1 verdict in favor of its inclusion in the syllabus.
The academic council however, ignored the committee's recommendation and voted to scrap the essay from its syllabus in Oct 2011. This led to protests by many historians and intellectuals, accusing Delhi University of succumbing to the diktat ("views") of non-historians.
His works include translations from Old Tamil and Old Kannada, such as:Translations and Studies of Literature
EnglishThe Interior Landscape: Love Poems from a Classical Tamil Anthology, 1967
Speaking of Siva, Penguin. 1973. ISBN 9780140442700.
The Literatures of India. Edited with Edwin Gerow. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974
Hymns for the Drowning, 1981
Poems of Love and War. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985
Folktales from India, Oral Tales from Twenty Indian Languages, 1991
Is There an Indian Way of Thinking? in India Through Hindu Categories, edited by McKim Marriott, 1990
When God Is a Customer: Telugu Courtesan Songs by Ksetrayya and Others (with Velcheru Narayana Rao and David Shulman), 1994
A Flowering Tree and Other Oral Tales from India, 1997
Poetry, Fiction and Drama
EnglishThe Striders. London: Oxford University Press, 1966
Relations. London, New York: Oxford University Press, 1971
Selected Poems. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1976
Samskara. (translation of U R Ananthamurthy's Kannada novel) Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1976
Second Sight. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986
KannadaHokkulalli Huvilla (translated to English - "No Flower in the Navel"). Dharwad, 1969
Mattu Itara Padyagalu (translated to English - "And Other Poems"). Dharwad, 1977
Kuntobille (translated to English - "Hopscotch")
Mattobbana Atma Charitre (translated to English - "Yet Another Man's Autobiography")
Haladi Meenu (Kannada Translation of Shouri's English Novel)
A. K. Ramanujan Samagra (Complete Works of A. K. Ramanujan in Kannada)
A. K. Ramanujan Avara Aayda Kavitegalu
A. K. Ramanujan Avara Aayda Barahagalu