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Where women show the way


A project by a feminist group in Chennai recently collated names of streets and colonies named after women. The results were an eye-opener.

Wandering around the streets of Chennai last March, budding city historian Archana Venkatesh was stumped by the sign in the central Teynampet area: Jayammal Street, it said. Who Jayammal? she recalls asking herself.

It transpired after some research that this was the courtesan-singer mother of the legendary dancer, Balasaraswathi, whose art first lit up the city in the late 1920s. So then, was there a Chennai street named after Bala? No, Venkatesh found out. Then, there was the inexplicable Mukhtarunissa Street and an equally mysterious Navaneethammal Street. And why did Mughal princess Jahanara become Boo Begum on the street named after her in?

Who were these women? What were their contributions to public life? How much information is available on them in public resources? With these questions started the fascinating Roads Project of the Prajnya, a feminist networking group. Its aim was to collate names of streets and colonies and enclaves named after women and track down their histories. The target: 31 names by August. What they actually netted: 25 in all in a city with 15000 names collected over six weeks. Of these, there was no information about four. The results were put out to coincide with Madras Week, celebrated annually from August 19 to August 26.

"We were looking at the visibility of women in the city's public spheres and found that their achievements tend to be quickly forgotten. You ask someone on the street so who was this and they say, 'Yaaro yedo panneerpaanga (It was someone who did something, we have no clue). ' This then became a part of our ongoing oral history project, " says Swarna Rajagopalan of Prajnya.

The team, mostly Venkatesh and her sister Kanchana, decided to stick to historical figures and keep out streets named after goddesses and mythical figures because that would have inflated the list by a large, rather artificial margin. There are three exceptions to this rule: Kannagi, the fiery Dravidian heroine of the Sangam epic Silapadikaram, who is said to have reduced the city of Madurai to ashes with a furious curse for putting her husband to death on a trumped up charge. St Mary was the other two exceptions to the rule.

The rest are a motley lot: there are superachievers, small achivers, non achievers, and mothers and wives of male achievers. "Some haven't even been heard of, " says Venkatesh. "We have yet to figure out who Kamalabai was. "

The group which put the project up on its blogsite found the listing growing slowly with contributions from supporters and readers. But it came to a full stop around 25. "It reinforced the sense of desperation - public recognition somehow seems to miss women. And this is true for not just Chennai or rest of India, it is true for the rest of the world as well, " says Rajagopalan. (One Beunos Aires district, Puerto Madero, incidentally has made a determined effort to name all its streets after women. )

Street naming and the politics of recognition associated with it is the same across the world. It works as the ultimate everyday recognition of a citizen's worth and in the Indian context, his/her family's as well. This accounts for why very often father, mother, sibling too get to share their reflected glory on Indian streets. Rani Annadurai, the wife of the charismatic Dravidian leader and DMK founder CN Annadurai, has a street named after her in Mandaveli. Apart from being a pillar of support to her husband, there is no marked record of her contributions to civil or political life. Lady Madhavan Nair Street in Mahalingapuram is another figure who is better known for the contributions of her husband (freedom fighter and founder editor of Malayalam paper Mathurbhoomi) and father, C Shankaran Nair (member of the Viceroy's Council).
"There was no record of her achievements and we finally got information about her life through her grandson, Shankaran Nair, " says Venkatesh.

City historian V Sriram points to the logic-defying Bangaru Ammal Koil Street on his blog. The street is named after the mother of famous late 19th century cricketer Venkatamahipathi Reddy or Buchi Babu who played for Madras. But why the street named after the mother became a koil (temple) street is one of those mysteries that will never find closure.

This is not to say the nepotism works at every street corner. The city has given due representation to grand dames from within and outside the city - Rukminidevi Arundale, Rukmini Lakshmipathy, Annie Besant, Jayalalitha (the only living names in the list), Sarojini Naidu, Periyar's two wives and staunch supporters Nagammai and Maniammai, Sangam poetess Avvaiyar, freedom fighter Ambujam Ambal, MGR's wife and the disputed inheritor of his political heritage, Janaki, Theosophist Madame Blavatsky, freedom fighter Durgabai Deshmukh, early oncologist and social activist Muthulakshmi Reddy, Indira Gandhi and Kasturba Gandhi among others.

Street naming - and naming of other public spaces and facilities - is a prickly topic in most Indian cities: witness the squabbling over erasing names from the colonial era or the insistence on highlighting regional heroes. Chennai however has had a particularly troubled history odonyms. Two years ago, there was a threat to banish all foreign names, save those that did stellar work benefitting the locals. Some like Edward Elliotts Road, Mowbrays Road, First Line Beach Road, Chamiers Road had already been rechristened. But the threat of wholesale change was never really carried out. The DMK regime had worked on de-caste-ising the streets. This meant that all caste markers were dropped leaving some strange remanants -Renga (chari) Road, Beemanna (Mudali) Garden, Vellayan (Chettiar) Road and of course the most hilarious of them all, the arterial TT Krishnama(chari) Road.

"Who knows many years hence Krishnama Road might even go down as an avenue named after a woman no one can trace?" quips Venkatesh.

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