The pre-history of the Ramanujan Ramayana essay in India.

“No Hindu ever reads the Mahabharata for the first time,” wrote A.K. Ramanujan in 1968. “I have heard bits and pieces of it [in Kannada and Tamil] in a tailor's shop where a pundit used to regale us with Mahabharata stories; from an older boy who loved to keep us spellbound with it after cricket …; from a somewhat bored algebra teacher who switched from the binomial theorem to the problem of Draupadi and her five husbands.”

It was such an acclaimed linguist, folklorist and translator of all things Indian, forever opening doors to the interplay between the epic and everyday experience, who was recently shunned as an “untouchable” by the academic caste panchayat of Delhi University. This has invited a humungous uproar among academics and civil society in India and abroad. The now famous Expert D, whose minority view justified the excision of Ramanajun's classic essay on 300 Ramayans from the University syllabus, feared that non-Hindu teachers will have difficulty putting across its excesses to believing students. By that token this article should get killed right here, for my name might end up betraying my thoughts — a sad reflection that communities in India cannot communicate!

In any case, the role played by the Oxford University Press (OUP) in the three-year long saga ending with the burial of Ramanujan's Ramayana piece illustrates how the world out there has come to unthinkingly push artefacts of the mind out of public spaces. This is cause for grave concern, for OUP India is not only a major publisher; it is technically ‘a department of the University of Oxford'. And it is tasked with furthering from New Delhi that premier University's “objective of excellence in scholarship” by making and selling books. A retail shop dispensing for the most part the famous Oxford English Dictionary for nearly half a century, OUP India was transformed in the 1970s and 1980s into an intellectual power house by its first desi general manager, the redoubtable Ravi Dayal. Brand OUP that Dayal built from his cubby-hole in the Walled City endured well after his retirement into the 1990s. It was thus that the Ramanujan essay landed in OUP's lap in an edited volume in 1991.

And thereby hangs a morality tale. At the first sign of trouble, in a letter written in September 2008, OUP decided to thank those who felt aggrieved by it, “for pointing … out … that the essay has the potential of hurting religious sentiments.” It went on to add “that neither are we selling the book nor there are any plans to reissue it.” This was a corporate's way of being economical with the truth, for the apology left unsaid that the offending article was also a part of another OUP-published volume, the Collected Essays of A.K. Ramanujan, and whether that academic bestseller was being trashed forever as well. That was not the end of the story. The Press also served a veritable notice on DU's History Department for infringing its copyright (and in effect profiting) by including the Ramanujan article in a book of readings! There was no such book, and no intent, only a bunch of photocopies including that essay in a campus photocopy shop, and stories planted in the press about it. The publishing house was being simultaneously both supine and assertive. And when the DU Academic Council took up the issue this month, the letter from OUP washing its hands of Ramanujan got appended as a sort of covering note to the opinion of the four experts.

Odd as it may seem, this takes us straight back to the well-known painting of Shaikh Muinuddin Chishti, the legendary saint of Ajmer, from Jahangir's Court. Emperor Akbar himself felt that the birth of his son was blessed by the power of this great Sufi of Ajmer (who died in 1230), to whose shrine elites and commoners continue to make a beeline. Jahangir in turn made large endowments to the shrine, and also asked his court painter “Bicchitar” around the year 1620 to draw the great Sufi in a suitable light. The painting shows a radiant Shaikh holding a globe — an orb with the Mughal crown — in the role of a kingmaker. The message was made doubly clear in the inscription within: “The Emperor is endowed with victory both here in this world and the world hereafter through the Shaikh's grace.” One of the masterpieces of Mughal miniature, this painting is currently on display at the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

When OUP published a well-researched book on the cult and shrine of the Ajmer Sufi in 1989, those in the know naturally decided to have this iconic image of Muinuddin Chishti adorn the cover of the book, also including it as a frontispiece. Everyone, including OUP, Pakistan, thought it was a capital idea. The book was published with the painting of the renowned Sufi on the cover and on the inside page. The managers of the shrine in turn objected to a sales agent about such a pictorial depiction. OUP immediately buckled under, even though, according to insiders, no formal complaint had been preferred.

It reissued the book after replacing the dust jacket and tearing the luminous painting from its frontispiece! It thereby missed a great opportunity to maintain that Sufis (including the sage of Ajmer) are routinely depicted in Mughal paintings. It might well have noted that the depiction of these distinguished personages in Mughal paintings was not uncommon. In fact, the great Rembrandt made a copy from a miniature (c.1650) showing the founders of the four major Sufi Orders in convivial converse under a tree. Interestingly, the book that was partially vandalised by OUP itself, showed in fascinating detail that Emperor Jahangir was a great devotee of the Ajmer Shaikh, a major benefactor of the shrine, and had no doubt commissioned this particular portrait out of his profound regard for Muinuddin Chishti and his dargah at Ajmer. That was 20 years before the Ramanujan abdication. I can't vouchsafe for the saint and the scholar, but India's knowledge economy must certainly be turning in its grave all this while.

Is this being harsh on a reputable organisation charged by Oxford University to trade in ideas worldwide, and in India? After all, OUP has launched many an academic career, including this writer's, and continues to publish worthwhile works. Must academics working out of their assured ivory towers cast stones at those who have to worry about litigation and unsold stocks? I am sure a case can be made: “This is India and we do things differently here.” The problem is that every time a major publishing house indulges in safe yet disingenuous marketeering, it also diminishes the scholars who entrust them with their ideas. Those making money by ‘manufacturing' knowledge need to think twice before shortchanging the very business of enlightenment.

(Shahid Amin is a professor of history at Delhi University. The painting of Shaikh Muinuddin Chishti by Bicchitar can be viewed at http://www.laits.utexas.edu/muslim_india/GIFs/3slides/349sufi.jpg)

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