‘Karnan’: How caste politics, social movements influence names

The names of the characters in the movie represent a trend that is followed by marginalised sections defying the caste hegemony enforced upon them even in naming themselves.
Dhanush as Karnan standing with a mask and with his back to the camera
Dhanush as Karnan standing with a mask and with his back to the camera
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When I joined the Master’s programme at the University of Hyderabad, it provided me an opportunity to meet people from various parts of our country. As a student of anthropology, I was intrigued to see how socio-cultural reasons of that particular time and space play an imperative role in naming people. The theories of Culture Personality (propounded by Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict) and Symbolic and Interpretive Anthropology (pioneered by Victor Turner and Clifford Geertz) offer us greater insights to understand why and how a certain pattern of naming can be observed in certain sections of Indian society. Culture Personality theory tries to understand the relationship between the culture of a society and the personality of the individuals in that culture. In an attempt to understand why people behave the way they do, they affiliate their behaviour with the culture that they are part of. Symbolic and Interpretive theory in Anthropology offers insights into understanding the society through symbols. It also allows the student to make interpretations based on the language and symbols of the society.

The recently released and much-celebrated Tamil film Karnan, directed by Mari Selvaraj, delves into caste discrimination and exploitation, offering a deeper insight into understand the culture of naming. The protagonist Dhanush is named Karnan along with various other characters named after Hindu mythological figures such as Duryodanan (GM Kumar, village head), Yaman (Lal), Vadamalaiyan (Yogi Babu), Abhimanyu (Shanmugarajan), Supatra (Karnan’s mother) and Draupathi (Rajisha Vijayan).

The names of the characters in the movie represent a trend that is followed by marginalised sections defying the caste hegemony enforced upon them even in naming themselves. In the movie, this also irks and draws the wrath of the upper caste IPS officer (Kannabiran) and leads to custodial torture of the village elders.

Naming in Telugu society

In an interview with this writer, G Kalyan Rao, the author of the novel Antarani Vasantam (Untouchable Spring) says that a subcaste among the Dalits who are famous for their Veedhi Bhagavatham (street plays), name their female children after mythological characters such as Subhadra and Sasirekha, and they also make sure that they pronounce their names clearly. He adds that this is not a new phenomenon among Dalits, and that historically, upper castes would add a ‘ga’ to the name to covey disrespect. For instance, using Narri ‘ga’ if a person’s name is Narraiah (named after the god Narayana).

The culture of naming reflects the then current sociocultural dogmas of the society. Suffixes such as ‘Rao’, ‘Babu’ and ‘Chaudhary’, observed among most upper caste people of Telugu society are believed to have been adopted from Maratha and Bengali surnames. A few lower castes also started adopting this naming pattern as either resistance or a result of Sanskritisation.

Telugus are also known for having more than one name (Venkata Ravi Teja, Upendra Sai Lakshmi Narasimha Murthy and so on), which is not so prevalent in other Indian cultures. We can also see popular names such as ‘Naga’ (worship of the Naga devta is popular in Telugu regions), ‘Sai’ (the rise of the Sai Baba cult - both Shirdi and Puttaparthi – is the reason for this), and ‘Venkata’ (Tirupathi Venkateshwara Swamy is the ishta daivam for many in the Telugu states) as one of the many given names. This trend, of naming children with more than one name, is believed to have emerged as a way to offer maximum divine protection by incorporating the names of as many deities as possible. Another explanation is that giving many names may confuse Yama, the God of Death, and prevent the early death of children.

In line with this argument, many tribal communities in Vishakhapatnam do not name their children until they turn five years of age. If the child dies before this, they do not remember them by name, as it is believed that the name gives identity, creates a much stronger affiliation and hence, not naming the children will allow the family to get over their deaths. This also mirrors the high rate of death among young children in tribal communities and the lack of medical infrastructure in these areas.

Family or patrilineal clan names (to name a few popular political family names - Nandamuri, Nara, Yeduguri Sandinti, Kalvakuntla) are also common in Telugu society. Mostly prefixed to the given names of the individuals, these family names represent occupation, place of migration, a nickname for one of its clan members, famous personalities from their respective clan, or how they are referred to by other people in the village.The upper castes add their caste names (Reddy, Naidu, Choudary and so on) as suffixes to their first name with a lot of pride.

Naming as defiance

The politically educated, literature loving and communist ideology influenced population, mainly from the Krishna Districts and Rajahmundry circles, questioned this naming pattern and named their children with non-religious names such as Srujana, Prathyusha, Vikram, Sahithi, Viplav, Kranthi, Sramik, and so on. They have also deviated from naming their children with two or more names. However, with the rise of the Telugu Desam Party as an alternative politics in the erstwhile Andhra Pradesh, the Kamma caste group found it appealing to lean towards caste identity politics. In the last generation, girls from the upper caste are also given the caste suffix, which was unusual in their earlier generations.

People from marginalised sections, as a form of protest, began to name their children with the integral-suffix of anna (elder brother), akka (elder sister), aiah or appa (respectful term or sir) to their given names. This was in the hope that if someone wanted to call them by their name, they would invariably use the respectful denotation to address them which was socially and historically denied to them. Those who converted to Christianity wanted their children to have biblical names. Those who are influenced by the life and works of great leaders such as Dr BR Ambedkar started to name their children after him.

In a conversation with this writer, Dr. Pasunoori Ravinder (poet, writer and Central Sahitya Academy Yuva Awardee) reiterates that Dalits in Telugu states were denied basic human rights as a part of the caste system. They were denied right to education, health, and property ownership. In the same lines, they were not even allowed to have names that are dignified in nature. The upper castes would assign them names that were demeaning, representing impure and menial things in their social world. If any Dalit person defied this custom of having undignified names, the upper castes would unleash violence upon them. This was part of the larger schema where the upper caste controlled not only the economic, political and cultural lives of Dalits but also their psyche, in order to make the Dalits feel inferior in each aspect of their life. However, with the fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution of India and with some economic mobility, Dalits are renaming themselves as a form of protest against the caste hegemony and as an attempt to regain their dignity.

RS Praveen Kumar Swaero, IPS, Secretary of the Telangana Social Welfare Residential Educational Institutions Society, in an old Facebook post (13 July, 2017) brought out an instance of how family names given to the marginalised sections are derogatory in nature and proposed to change this in order to reclaim respect. Now, the students associated with Swaero schools proudly add Swaero as suffix to their names and are attempting to rename their residential areas as Swaereos Colony.

Social movements and naming

The culture of naming in Tamil Nadu is also highly political. One of my friends who is named after Nelson Mandela (Former President of South Africa and Anti-Apartheid political leader) told me how his father (who is also into the communist movement) was influenced by the anti-apartheid revolutionary and hence named him after Nelson Mandela. His brother is named after revolutionary Tamil poet Bharathi. He also spoke about how his peers who had a CPI(M) family background were named Lenin, Stalin (the current chief minister of Tamil Nadu is also named after Soviet leader Stalin), Bhagat, and more secular names such as Arun and so on. He also narrated how Periyar named the child of one of his followers ‘Moscow’; when the confused parent asked Periyar why he chose Moscow, Periyar said ‘I have been to Moscow, and Moscow is several times bigger than Tirupathi or Pazhani (Palani). When you can name children after Tirupathi and Pazhani, why not Moscow?’

The influence of the self-respect movement pioneered by Thanthai Periyar can be witnessed even today in Dravidian politics. As part of the anti-caste movement, Dravidian politics advocated the removal of caste names and family names. The movies (popular culture) also played an important role in normalising this trend, encouraging people to give up their caste and family names. In Bharathiraja’s Vedham Puthithu (1987), a Brahmin boy asks Balu Thevar (Satyaraj) ‘Balu is your name, is Thevar the educational degree you earned?’ (Thevar is a dominant caste in the southern part of Tamil Nadu). Balu Thevar stands against the caste system in the village but ignores the fact that he is also sustaining caste by keeping the caste name as a suffix to his given name.

Watch: Teaser of Karnan below

The influence of the self-respect movement, anti-caste rhetoric prevalent in the Dravidian politics ensured that none of the political and popular figures would have caste names as suffix to their given names. This trend followed in Dravidian politics of not having caste names as suffix becomes much more critical when you see personalities from almost all fields (journalism, movies, television, judiciary, national politics) including their castes as a suffix to their given names. Adopting the Dravidian model would undoubtedly be a step towards realising the dream of annihilation of caste.

Naming is also evidently influenced by the political discourses famous at that time. The strong anti-Hindi movement carried out by Dravidian parties in Tamil Nadu led to people giving their children names such as Thamezharasan (Tamil Arasan), Thamezharasi (Tamil Arasi) and other names that were evidently Tamil in nature. The government of Tamil Nadu also encouraged movies to have Tamil titles with a tax waiver.

Sapir-Whorf (cognitive and linguistic anthropologists), in their hypothesis, maintains that language was not just a means of communication but also shapes people’s perceptions of the world. Similarly, the culture of naming mirrors the social reality of the caste society we live in. The upper caste brandishes their suffixes as it adds to their social and cultural capital. The people from marginalised sections take up different names to break the shackles of the caste hegemony and put up a fight to regain their self and social respect. Understanding the naming patterns in any society also gives us the reflection of the existing social reality and the ongoing social movements. 

Dr. Sipoy Sarveswar teaches Anthropology at the University of Hyderabad. 

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