Sunday, September 25, 2011

Indian Names: An Overview

My (very superficial) favorite part of waking up at 6:30am and going to temple with Savithri are the flowers in my hair.

Let me first say that this entry will be entirely inadequate. It feels a little futile to try and give an overview of Indian names when they vary so drastically based on what region. The Natarajans never fail to impress me because when they hear someone’s name, they will instantly say, “Oh, he must be from Goa” or “That’s a Tamil name.” Each name has a specific attachment to a region, to a deity, and to a story, and I am just beginning to explore these connections.

I included India in my project proposal because of the significance of names in the Hindu religion. In order to express devotion, most Indian Hindus recite a litany of the various names of Shiva or Vishnu. On a daily basis most Indian Hindus recite the “Sahasra Namans” (1,000 names) of the particular god they are a follower of. There is believed to be an immense of power derived just from the recitation of a name alone.

It makes sense that as a result, the names of people are very important. Most Indian parents choose a name for their child based on the 1,000 names of gods and goddesses. This means that every child’s name has a story that goes along with it. Similar to Indonesia, astrology is also immensely important to naming in India (as well as to setting up arranged marriages!). A child’s name is often chosen based on the day they were born. I was speaking to a man this morning whose name is “Ramasheshan” because he was born on the 9th day of the Chaitra (March-April) which is said to be the birthday of Lord Rama.

A naming ceremony (Namkaran) takes place when the baby is a few days old (in most regions, on the 12th day specifically). This is the day that the child’s horoscope is written and placed in front of a deity for blessings and a priest offers prayers for the family. At this ceremony, the father whispers the baby’s name in the baby’s right ear, often using some leaves or grass to speak through.

It is sort of impossible to understand the names here without understanding Hinduism, so I’ve been receiving nightly crash courses from the Natarajans. I’m realizing that although I knew the basics of Hinduism, I’m actually pretty painfully ignorant. I’m also realizing that really all of the information I know about India comes from Swarthmore English seminars that abound with post colonial literature by Salman Rushdie and Mahasweta Devi and Amitav Ghosh, who may not always be reliable sources when I’m discussing politics with contemporary academics here. (Having read these books has also earned me some instant friends here, however).

I’m trying to keep up and learn the rules for naming here, of which there are many. For example, many children are named after Indian rivers, which are thought to be sacred places. However, the names of rivers can only be used for girls (with the exception of two specific river names which are used for boys). Similarly, although most names are chosen based on astrology and the 1,000 names of gods and goddesses, the prefixes and suffixes to the name vary by region. In Southern India, for example, the name may be “Natarajan” but in Telugu it would be “Natarajou” or “Nataraja.” Based on whether someone’s name is “Lakshmanan”” or “Lakshman”, for example, you can tell where they are from.

I also finally figured out some basics in terms of the surname question. Many Indian names are written with initials at the front, for example, take “S.V. Subramanian.” Here is what the name actually means:

The first initial, “S” most likely stands for the name of the village where the person’s father is from. The “V” most likely stands for the father’s name itself. (The father’s name may have been “Vajra”, for example). “Subramanian” would be the child’s first name. As you can imagine, having no traditional surname makes things like filling out passport applications very challenging. In order to more easily engage in a global marketplace, many Indians have begun using one of the names that the initial at the front of their names stand for as a traditional surname. So when “S.V. Subramanian” fills out a visa application to visit the United States, he might write that his name s “Subramanian Vajra” instead even though he goes by “S.V. Subramanian.” Many women will use their husband’s or father’s first name as their surname towards a similar purpose. So although Savithri’s name is “B. Savithri” (B because her father’s name began with a ‘B’) when she fills out formal documents, she goes by “Savithri Natarajan” (using her husband’s first name as her last name). The trend of using a husband or father’s first name as a last name became a fashionable thing to do under British reign. The Natarajans explained to me that before then, it was very uncommon for Hindus to use a last name. For the most part, it still is.

The relationship between Indian Hindus and British colonizers is another part of the reason why I think that name studies are so popular in Mysore. When traveling between cities in India, I’ve found that people go back and forth between using the traditional name for a place or the anglicized name (Mumbai or Bombay, Bengaluru or Bangalore, for example). In this way, names have become a popular academic and political topic. To quote the scholar “Swapna Samel” who has an article called “Geographical Renaming of the Streets in the Mumbai” in a journal I was given called “Studies in Indian Place Names,”

The history of Indian cities are contained in the names of their streets and squares. These come in layers that have to be peeled off, one by one, to reveal the names that once lay below. A street might have been named after a colonial proconsul; later after a Congress nationalist; still later, after a local or regional hero. The names of streets and squares reveal a city’s preferences, cultural and ideological, as they change over the decades and through successive political regimes…The desire to change the names of places is not new. And usually, people who use the old names soon seem silly or out of touch. And often, the enthusiasm for changing names stems from valid impulses. We may laugh at the more recent attempts to change street names in India (does anyone call Connaught Place Rajiv Chowk?) but, equally, few of us would like to live in cities where every street was named after some colonial oppressor” (136).

There have been many renaming efforts over the last sixty years in India to restore Indian names to different cities, villages, streets and intersections. Rather ironically it seems that as these efforts have been underway, the names of people have become increasingly anglicized. I’m really curious to explore this inverse relationship more.

It’s been a steep learning curve and I’m doing my best to keep up with all of the scholars of Indian history and culture I’ve been meeting with. I do a lot of smiling and nodding and sipping coffee while trying to rapidly scrawl down every scrap of information they give me. Although it makes for some exhausting conversations, it is also thrilling to be surrounded by people who share this interest and I feel supremely lucky for that.

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