My acquaintance with Professor P.S. Sundaram (1910-1998) began decades ago when, just out of
the university, I appeared before the Orissa Public Service Commission for a job in the English
department of the Ravenshaw College, Cuttack. As Professor of English in that college, he was the
expert among members on the Selection Board. He put me through the wringer with a certain
detached cruelty, dictated no doubt by his anxiety to ensure that his future colleague was not a dud. I
got the job and thus began a life-long friendship that has been one of the great blessings of my life.
Ravenshaw College was founded in the nineteenth century and is one of the oldest and among the
highly regarded Indian educational institutions. Being the only government college in Orissa at that
time, it has been the alma mater of innumerable distinguished sons of Orissa and has had some of the
finest teachers of the country. In my time, besides Sundaram, there was in the English department the
genial V.V. John, an irrepressible wit who hid a profoundly serious mind behind an apparent air of
levity and high spirits.
My own stay in Orissa was a brief one, lasting less than sixteen months. But during this short period,
both John and Sundaram exercised a profound influence on me, not only in the shaping of my literary
tastes but also in instilling in me the ineffable values of a civilized, intellectual freemasonry.
They were much older than me and I, had I lived in Cuttack instead of Madras during my college
years, would have been their student. But in their attitude towards me, there was no trace of
condescension or hierarchical snobbery so familiar in Indian academia. In the best traditions of
Oxford where both were educated, they treated me, a callow youth though I was, as an equal. To
my utter consternation, Sundaram made me teach postgraduate classes in Elizabethan literature of
which I, then had only the haziest notions. I had to bone up on much dull and wearying stuff trying to
live up to his, if not to my students, expectations.
In the years following, when my own wayward career did not permit me to be in daily contact with
Sundaram, we were in regular touch, writing to each other and meeting from time to time. Such
meetings were more frequent in his later years when he moved to Madras and always stimulating, our
discussions ranging over a wide area. For example, Sundaram was fiercely Anglophile, the
consequence of the stereotypes implanted in his mind by his deep love of English literature and the
example of some of the great Englishmen that taught him in India and at Oxford. On the other hand,
though I shared with him a love for English literature, I was bred on a different perception of the
benefits of the Raj. This was one of the perennial themes of our heated exchanges, conducted on his
side with exemplary urbanity and generosity to a much younger man.
Sundaram’s academic credentials were of the highest. A brilliant student of Presidency College,
Madras, he got a first class Master’s degree in English literature in 1930. As was the almost settled
routine of gifted students of the times with a Tamil Brahmin middle—class background, he went to
England to join Oxford and, simultaneously, sit for the ICS examination. He tried twice to get into the
ICS but on both occasions narrowly missed being chosen to the service, standing fourth or fifth in the
ranking. (Unlike in post- Independence India, when selections for the services by competitive
examination were a case of mass recruitment in hundreds, those were parsimonious times, with
hardly more than five or six being chosen.) So, Sundaram returned to India in 1934 with a degree in
English literature from Oxford and launched on a distinguished career as an academician in DAV
College, Lahore, in 1934. He joined the Ravenshaw College, Cuttack, as professor in 1938 when he
was barely twenty—eight, perhaps the youngest head of the English department at that time.
Unlike John and I, Sundaram stayed on in Orissa for over twenty years, giving the best years of his
life to the state, as professor, principal and, from 1953, a Member of the Orissa Public Service
Commission. By one of those quirky Constitutional provisions, when his term with the service
commission ended in 1959, he could not go back to the government in any capacity. Then in his
mid—forties, Sundaram was obliged to seek non-government employment elsewhere. He left’
Orissa to become Principal of the Bareilly College, and still later, of the Maharani’s College, Jaipur,
from where he retired in 1974.
It was only then that he could return to his first love- classical Tamil literature, which he had perforce
put on the back—burner because of his teaching and administrative duties. A lifelong engagement
with English literature had given him a profound understanding of all aspects of literary imagination.
This enabled him to bring to the study of Tamil literary classics a mind uncluttered by the hang-up of
traditional Tamil scholarship. As a result, he was able to apply to these works the categories of a
wider and universal aesthetics and poetics.
His total command of both the Tamil and English idiom enabled him to embark on a translation
enterprise, that, in the retrospect of his actual accomplishment, seems formidable, almost, rash, in its
ambition. Obviously, it is a case of one thing leading to another, rather than a premeditated project.
Starting with the modern poet, Subramania Bharati, Sundaram took on, successively, Tirukural of
Tiruvalluvar and then the mystical poems of Andal and other Aazhwars in the Vaishnavite Bhakti
tradition (the last two have been published by Penguin). The last years of his life were taken up with
the translation into English verse of the whole corpus of some 12,000-odd verses of the renowned
Tamil classic Kamba Ramayan. In itself an awesome feat, considering the hazards of the enterprise, it
was, to use the language of the Ramayana, the crest—jewel of his brilliant career in translation.
THE GENE POOL' OF THE RAMAYANA MYTH
‘Perhaps no work of world literature, secular in origin, has ever produced so profound an influence
on the life and thought of a people as the Ramayana of wrote A.A. Macdonell in the Encyclopaedia
of Religion and Ethics. The unbroken continuity of the Ramayana myth to this day is indeed unique.
There is no comparable visible or aural evidence of the presence of the Hellenic heritage in the daily
lives of Europeans. Of the other, Hebraic, strand of their cultural inheritance, except among those,
highly educated in the humanities stream, it would be difficult to find any one who remembers the
details of the Old Testament. This is in stark contrast to the way the story of Rama has been burnt
into the memory of every Hindu child, and the invisible presence of the myth in the daily lives of the
To choose a trivial example, unlike in the West where names may or may not have meanings,
children in India, specially in the south, are named directly after Rama or Krishna. The latest issue of
the Chennai telephone directory contains over 21,000 entries of Rama and its variants like
Ramswami and this does not include Raghava and its variants like Viraraghava. In addition, you have
Lakshmana and Bharata in legion, and less frequently, Satrughna. Likewise, Sita and its variants are
a favourite name, at least until recently, for the girl child. It is an indication of total and ultimate
assimilation that these names are uttered without a consciousness of the epic story.
(This practice has an interesting reason. There is a famous story of Ajamila, a brahmin turned
profligate, who had forgotten his piety and lived a dissolute life. On his deathbed, he called out
’Narayana’, his favourite youngest son, for a last embrace, with no thought of the Primal God of that
name. And yet, because he uttered the lord’s name with his last breath, all his sins were cancelled
and the messengers of Yama couldn’t claim him for hell.)
Thus has the Rama story become part of the texture of the collective unconscious, half remembered,
if at all, but within easy recall of the Indian people. And there is no lack of other reminders of the
myths. There is, for example, the pervasive presence of temples in south India, some of which were
built as early as the ninth century. Their titular deities are specifically named after Rama and worship
is carried. Out in the prescribed manner to this day. The famous Ramaswami temple at
Kumbakonam in the Thanjavur district of Tamil Nadu is one example among many. These towering
temples dominating the locale are a constant reminder of Rama, even if you did not visit them.
Temple—associated sacred art has produced magnificent paintings of the Rama story (as on the
walls of the Ramaswami temple, already mentioned) and bronze sculptures such as the ’Panaiyur
Rama' (in the Chennai museum) and others in actual worship at Vaduvur and Tillaivalakam in the
Historically, the temple culture grew as part of the Bhakti cult of the personalized God that had its
origins in south India and spread northwards in the post—upanishadic period of Hinduism.
Vaishnavaite and Saivaite mystics in the centuries after Christ were precursors of the formalized
Bhakti element in Hinduism. Vishnu and Siva, until then minor gods in the vedic pantheon,
overshadowed other gods like Indra and Agni and attained, gradually, the status of members of the
primordial Trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Siva. Of the three, Brahma was in course of time subsumed
by Vishnu and became marginalized. (There are only a few temples for him, one in Ajmer in
Rajasthan, and a minor shrine in Tamil Nadu.) It is true that latter-day popular religion had myriad
gods and goddesses, but they are not the vedic ones and they derive their authority from their
association, one way or another, with Vishnu and Siva.
The emergence of the Bhakti cult, of a mystical personal love of incarnate God, decisively
transformed the Hindu faith. It not only demoted the earlier pluralistic pantheon of gods but also
radically modified the late vedic, upanishadic philosophic abstraction of the Brahman or the formless
Primal God. This was facilitated by the emergence of the concept of the avatar (’coming down'),
memorably and authoritatively expressed in the fourth chapter of the Bhagavad Gita: ‘Whenever
Dharma becomes decadent, I incarnate myself to destroy unrighteousness triumphant
The ten incarnations of Vishnu form an evolutionary sequence from fish to tortoise to boar to
man—lion to dwarf to a fully developed anthropomorphic god like Rama, the sixth incarnation,
followed by Krishna, and Kalki (yet to come) who will destroy the universe before the birth of a new
cycle of creation. (A fanciful identification of this event by some is the nuclear holocaust to come.)
Back of the Book
A masterly translation of the Tamil version of Ramayana
The epic story of Rama, which is part of the Indian collective consciousness, has been retold in many
regional languages. Pre-eminent among the many vernacular retellings of the Ramayana is the
twelfth-century Tamil version by Kamban. The son of a temple drummer, Kamban is reputed to have
had an impressive mastery of Tamil and Sanskrit classics Fascinated by the lore of Ramayana, he
immersed himself totally in it.
Though Kamban acknowledges his indebtedness to the Sanskrit version of the
Ramayana by Valmiki, his is an independent work, enriched by various religious, philosophical and
literary influences. The Kamba Ramayana differs from Valmiki’s in significant ways. Though cast in
the heroic mould of a Purushotama or ‘the best among men’, Valmiki’s still a man. Kamban, on the
other hand, never allows the reader to forget the godhood of Rama. His Ravana too, though flawed,
is a heroic figure. While Valmiki’s diction is sparse and direct, Kamban’s exuberant prose sparkles
with wit and inventiveness.
Translated into English by the late P.S. Sundaram, this edition has been abridged and
edited by his long-time friend N.S. Jagannathan. Though pared down from the original six volumes to
a single one, this translation retains the magic and poetry of the original.
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