Sunday, February 03, 2008

Slice of life: Flavours of the past

Source: The Hindu

In spite of modern trends, several traditional names from our mythology have survived.

A page 3 media report some time back mentioned that Narayani Shastri did not cut a cake on her birthday but spent the entire night dancing with her friends. I checked the name again; it was Narayani, a model and starlet. The name intrigued me and brought back memories of my grandmother, Narayani Ammal, who once got down on the wrong side of the platform at a railway station and walked away because she found it not crowded. It took hours to spot her.

I am also familiar with the byline of a Delhi journalist, Kaveri, which happens to be the name of yet another grandmother. It was a clear indication that names which were popular decades back are now back in fashion. Naming babies is never an easy job because several suggestions are offered by several people. According to tradition, the first daughter in the family bears the name of the paternal grandmother and the second one, that of the maternal grandmother. In the past, we had grandmother-like names such as Rukmini, Subbulakshmi, Parvati, Annapurni, Gomathi, Bhagirati and so on. They were also wholesome, nice names belonging to various goddesses. In the North and parts of the West, the rasi system at the time of birth was followed. Each rasi began with different sounding letters. If a girl was born under Tula rasi, she should be named after the “ra” and “tha” letters. Thus my wife was named Rupa. This system is still followed in traditional families.

Gradually, the naming process began to get modernised. While Sita was a traditional name, Rita, Mita and Neeta were not. Usha may be a traditional name but not Asha, Nisha or Misha. Many traditional names like Usha, Aarti and Kamala had a whiff of modernity and continued to be used. As the quest for novelty surged, parents began to refer to books which contained compilations of names to look for more exotic names. This resulted in foreign sounding names like Natasha, Shamita, Anita, Monica, Kunika, Sonia and so on.

Partial comeback

Yet, somehow, several traditional names from our mythology have survived. I know of several Kausalyas but very few Draupatis. Even the most ardent supporters of the Dravidian cause hesitated to name his daughters Kaikeyi, Surpanaka or Tadaka! Teaching in Mumbai’s journalism schools, where the majority of students are girls, I often came across names like Tulsi, Prachi, Rishiganda, Megha, Vibhuti, Sreshta, Parnal and Kusum. Here too modernisation took its toll. Two of my friends in the academic world with wholesome traditional names, Varalakshmi and Perianayaki, were known among their friends as “Vara” and “Peri”.

The Bengali influence is also strong in providing girls with names. Indian society is full of Mansies, Mamtas , Suchitras, Anupamas and Sharmilas. But my own favourite names (besides Rupa!) are Nilambari and Rutu. The last one is bestowed on a bubbly teenager who did not change like seasons but was sunny all the time as well as fresh as the spring. Parents in Tamil Nadu love their language so much they often name their daughters, Thamilarasi, Thamilselvi.

Back to the enigma of ancient South Indian traditional names. I wonder how far parents would go in this direction. In the Mumbai office of Reader’s Digest where I worked, I was surrounded by girls with the most modern names, Alba, Mani, Alice, Pat and Myrtle. But there was a gem in the ad department with the name Thailambal, which she carried cheerfully. That name made me wonder. Would we come across these days girls with names like Alamelu, Thiripura sundari . Abhiramisundari, Pankajam, Ambujakshi, Chellama, Jagadambal, Parvadha Vardhini, Kameswari and, of course, Apeethakujambal? Mind you, there was a B.C. Muthamma IFS in our foreign service who retired some years back after years of distinguished service. I am proud of her and her name.

Excitement ahead

We often name our daughters after women we admire. We have plenty of Indiras, Sarojinis, Sonias, Ushas and in the near future will have Sanias. I wish one of the best Tamil novelists, Dr. Thirupurasundari, had not changed her name to “Lakshmi”. Since I have not come across any young women with the name “Kodhainayaki”, I guess the late novelist, Vai.Mu.Kodhainayaki Ammal did not have many admirers.

Unlike the Britishers, who had to be satisfied with their Jane, Elizabath, Mary or Katherine, there is something charming with our traditional and historical names. When I meet a Padmini, I think of heroism and sacrifice, while the name Sivakami arouses memories of the great dancer-heroine of Kalki’s Sivakamiyin Sapatham who dedicated her art to God because she had to renounce her lover prince, Mamalla Pallavan. The last time, I visited Mamallapuram, I imagined I heard her dancing steps and the melody of the payal.

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