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All in the name of heritage

Sowmiya Ashok
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A view of Jayaram Chetty Street in Saidapet with the caste name struck out on the name board, taken in June 1979. Photo: The Hindu Archives.
A view of Jayaram Chetty Street in Saidapet with the caste name struck out on the name board, taken in June 1979. Photo: The Hindu Archives.

Keying in Avvai Shanmugam Salai into a popular search engine indicates a long stretch of road connecting Mount Road and Santhome High Road with its sections still referred to by its old name — Lloyds Road. This dichotomy is sprinkled across the map of Chennai with Mount Road and Anna Salai used interchangeably, Mowbrays Road with T.T.K.Road and General Patters Road with Thiru-Vi-Ka High Road.

This mix of the old and the new names, where British officials share thoroughfares with Indian luminaries, is a legacy left behind by a naming game that has been played out repeatedly over the years. Yet, for a busy commuter who relies on a GPS on his phone, do these changing names really matter?

“The names do not make a difference to my life. Chamiers Road, for instance, will always remain the same to me,” says P. Tara, a resident of Greenways Road. “Even though it has been changed to Pasumpon Muthuramalingar Thevar Salai, many shop signs still refer to the old name,” she adds.

Several residents say the decision to change street names is simply impractical as it causes hardships in having to notify various agencies about the change of address. For conservation architect K.Kalpana, changing names wipes out the history associated with it. “If you look at it from a heritage point of view then even street names have a heritage value whether they are anglicised names or vernacular names,” she says.

However, if the reason is genuine, such as that removing any reference to caste in street names, then it is justified, says Ms.Kalpana. “Since caste was such a growing issue, making a statement that caste will not be emphasised was a very positive move,” she says.

In June 1979, the then ruling AIADMK government ordered that the caste suffixes in the city's street names be removed which resulted in many street names becoming unrecognisable. For instance, ‘G.N.Chetty' Road in T.Nagar was reduced to G.N. Road, Mudali was dropped from V.S.Mudali Street in Saidapet while Brahmin Street, also in Saidapet was left with only the Street. These names have been restored, however, Krishnamachari Road in Nungambakkam which became ‘Krishnamma Road,' still remains today.

This rechristening exercise was planned once more, last year, when the Corporation of Chennai wanted to replace those streets with colonial names with the names of Tamil scholars. However, historian V.Sriram and his team at Madras Musings highlighted the importance of commemorating those British officials who have contributed to the city.

“People such as Maloney, Jones and Elliot, played a very important role in the development of the city,” he says.

However, several Indians who have contributed to the city's development have not been recognised, he says, adding the newly emerging areas in the city can be named after them. “There is a Madurai Street in Pulianthope, how many people know that this is not named after the place but in fact, it is named after Madurai Mudaliar, who played an important role in the history of Binny & Co.?” he asks.

Name changes occur - Nungambakkam High Road became Uthamar Gandhi Salai and Inner Ring Road became Jawaharlal Nehru Road. Spelling errors too plague several street names.

But there is a street where residents are eager to have its name changed — Kolaikaran Pettai, Royapettah.

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