31 October 2010

What’s in an Indian name?

Names are quite unique in South India. They have their own formula and conventions which are different to naming practices in other countries and even other parts of India. Every Indian has a unique first name of course. But what I find interesting is people’s surnames or family names.

In South India, a girl often takes her father’s first name as her surname. So a girl name Vidya born to a man named Venkatesh will be named Vidya Venkatesh. Likewise when a woman gets married, she takes her husband’s name. So if Vidya marries Suresh, her name will then become Vidya Suresh. This is of course if she decides to take her husband’s name. A lot of women today decide not to. When I asked my friend K why she didn’t change her name when she got married, her answer was that she didn’t see any point in it: “If husbands were expected to do something similar then maybe I would have considered it, but just the fact that only the woman is expected to do it makes no sense at all to me!” is how she put it.

Sometimes the administrative hassles of changing a name is enough for some women not to bother. K told me that her mother-in-law took her father-in-law’s name only much later because she found that the process was too complicated. But she did eventually get down to it, and despite the fact that my friend K did not change her name does not deter her mother-in-law from tacking on her son’s name to K’s name when she needs to write it down for someone! My friend S has also kept her maiden name for administrative reasons: “When I got married, it was a huge hassle to change my name in my passport and as I was moving to the US just a week later, I did not want any trouble with passports and name changes. When I had to renew my passport, I again decided not to change it because by then my name had been used on all my official documents, so I just kept my name.”

Interestingly, S’s kids don't carry her husband's name: “Because of all this confusion of each child in the family having a different last name, our entire family has chosen to keep the last names of the next generation on the basis of our Gothra (a sub-caste or clan).” Similarly, a caste name is also often used as a surname in some families, like Iyengar, Iyer, Nair, Naidu, Pillai, etc. Other families have dropped their caste names so that they can have a name which is caste-neutral.

To make things a bit more complicated, S’s husband has yet a different name! Which brings me to men’s surnames (in South India)… which are a bit more complex than women’s! S’s husband carries the name of his ancestral village as his surname which is also a common practice (for men only). Sometimes this is tacked on before a man’s first name as an initial. A more common practice is to add the father’s initial to the boy’s name. So a boy called Srinivas born to a man called Gopinath will have the name G. Srinivas. And sometimes the boy’s birthplace will also be tacked on as an initial.

We can take the interesting example of the name of the famous yoga guru: B.K.S Iyengar. The B stands for his birthplace: Belur, the K represents his father’s name (Krishnamachar), the S stands for his first name – Sundararaja – and Iyengar is his caste name.

This whole name business is quite flexible and it’s easy for someone to change his or her name. K’s husband G had only one name for a long time until he had to come up with a surname at some point: “I attached a surname to my name for my school records, though this was not mandatory. I used my dad's name as my surname – also because I knew that it’s absolutely necessary to have a surname when you apply to American universities which is a career path for many Indian engineering students. Looking back, I think I could have chosen any surname I liked. In fact ‘Rao’, the family surname, would have made more sense. It was during my dad's time I think, that they all dropped their surnames to keep their names short and smart. My grandfather, for example, had ‘Rao’ as his surname.”

M got his present name because of a clerical error. “My real name is Mxxxxxx Vellore Srinivasan. Vellore is my ‘native town name’. So my name would have been Mxxxxx V Srinivasan, Srinivasan being my dad's name and automatically the family surname. When I went to design school a clerical error turned my name to ‘Mxxxxx Vellore’ and I quite liked it. It rolled much easier on the tongue. Also it traced my family back to the place of origin, instead of changing with each generation. And it was not patriarchally biased because it was the name of a place. So I asked my Dad if he would mind if I changed my name, and he quite liked the idea. So I went ahead and changed it officially.”

These are just a few examples of the diverse naming conventions used in South India. Indian names as diverse as India itself. Each region, caste, community, family has it’s own conventions. So a name can be just as unrevealing as revealing. It can reveal a person’s caste or gothra, their native town or who’s the person’s father, or husband in the case of women. Or it can reveal none of these. Isn’t a person’s first name enough?

27 October 2010

Sacred Space

For the past few months I've been working on a new blog. I got the idea long ago to start a blog dedicated exclusively to my writings on Indian classical dance and the performing arts. The name 'Sacred Space' is inspired by the temples where Indian classical dance used to be performed. The above photograph is of Swapnasundari, a famous Kuchipudi dancer photographed at Khajuraho temple by an equally famous Indian photographer, Avinash Pasricha who has kindly allowed me to feature his photograph in Sacred Space.

So far, Sacred Space is mostly a collection of some of the articles I've already had published. I plan to add new material on a regular basis.

In the meantime, I will still be here, sharing what's going on outside my window.

Enter Sacred Space here.

15 October 2010

Festive days

It’s Dasara time again. Schools are closed for this 10-day festival and there’s a festive atmosphere in the air. Like each year my landlady has dusted off her painted statues of gods and goddesses and set them up in her puja room. Displaying these statues or ‘dolls’ on a multi-tiered pedestal is a Dasara tradition in many families.

On Saturday afternoon she invited me to come over while the ladies from her vedic chanting group were there. They were all dressed in resplendent peacock-blue saris. “This is the colour for Saturday,” I was told.

“This is my tenant!,” my landlady announced loudly, introducing me. I smiled while the small crowd of ladies dressed in blue scrutinized me. “She knows Sanskrit and Kannada!” she announced proudly. I started to reply, reminding her that I had only studied Sanskrit for a few months and that I’m still very much a beginner when it comes to Kannada, but she was keen on telling her friends more about me. “She’s a Bharata Natyam dancer!” The ladies nodded to each other in approval. I again opened my mouth to explain that I am now learning Odissi but my landlady was carried away by her enthusiasm. “And one more thing… she’s a writer!” she concluded with a broad smile. I could only smile meekly while the ladies again murmured their approval.

They sat on mats on the floor and started to loudly chant the prayers in Sanskrit which they recited from little books printed in Malayalam. Then it was time for food. The ladies in blue swarmed around the dining room table, filling their plates with idli, vada, chutney and black channa with grated coconut, followed by payasam for dessert. My landlady had spent the morning cooking up a small feast, with some help from her sister-in-law.

A small tray was passed around filled with strings of jasmine flowers, and kumkum and sandalwood powder. The ladies took turns smearing the powder on their foreheads and tucking the flowers around the buns in their hair. We also got glass bangles, red and green, two of each. (I have quite the collection of red and green glass bangles by now!)

Before leaving, we were asked to sit on the sofa which faces east, and holding a tray, my landlady presented each lady with tamboolam. This is a small decorated bag which contains a coconut, betel leaves, betel nuts, kumkum powder, turmeric and a one-rupee coin (see the photo above).

Tomorrow is the ninth day of Dasara which is Ayudha Puja: the day when everyday tools and machines used to make a living, including vehicles and computers, are blessed. In the streets there are flower garlands for sale everywhere, as well as pumpkins and stalks of banana leaves. The people at the office across the street have already had the puja. A priest dressed in saffron broke a gourd filled with kumkum before the front door decorated with flower garlands and banana leaves. Each of the employee’s cars was also decorated and smeared with kumkum, as well as the office’s generator and I imagine, their computers! The employees then passed around a box of sweets as the priest got on his bicycle and went off to the next office or house to perform Ayudha Puja.

07 October 2010

After the rains

I came home to a moldy house. The walls of the living room and the ceiling resemble a Jackson Pollack during a grey period. In one corner, there’s a huge patch of cracking and peeling paint. This is proof that this year’s monsoon was a good one. So good that it won’t go away… it’s now the end of the first week of October and the rains are not letting up. I wake to grey skies in the morning and the rain usually starts in the late afternoon with a few drops which eventually become a downpour.

It’s noticeably hotter than one month ago and the humidity in the air is palpable. The laundry doesn’t dry, and the drawers in my wooden chest of drawers must have somehow expanded because no matter how hard I tug, they will not open! I’ll have to wait for drier times before I can access their contents again.

I showed my landlords the artwork on the ceiling and they were quick to take action, calling in the builder to take a closer look at the cause of the problem. Most houses here have flat roofs which means that water seepage is a common problem. The roof needs to be waterproofed and the ceiling and walls repainted but this can only happen once the rains stop.

The cat doesn’t seem to mind the rain. She comes home in the middle of the night – soaking wet – and then tries to get in under the covers!