Two years ago, in 2016, British actor Michael Caine officially changed his name to Michael Caine. Now what was that, one name “changed”—to the same name, a joke of some kind? It wasn’t. We soon discovered that the octogenarian’s real name was Maurice Joseph Micklewhite. He had hated that name. Before getting into films decades earlier, the young man had changed his name to Michael Caine, the name with which he had become successful over the years. All over the world, Michael Caine was recognized and celebrated as Michael Caine. But he hadn’t bothered to change the name officially. His passport, like his other documents still said Maurice Joseph Micklewhite. This was not really a problem till 9/11 happened, followed by all the ghastly things Al-Qaeda and ISIS were doing. After such terror attacks and threats, everyone stepped up security, with airports worldwide becoming critical places to beef it up. So if earlier it wasn’t really a big issue for Caine, things had changed now. “Was Michael Caine travelling on a fake name?” officials wondered. In the new environment he would be frisked and detained at airports, with delays of an hour or more being quite common. The octogenarian couldn’t take it anymore.
Do remember that in the same year, actor Shahrukh Khan was frisked and detained at a US airport too, not that this was the first time for him either. Such detention is interesting in the light of his film My Name Is Khan (2010), in which his key message to the President of USA was “My name is Khan and I’m not a terrorist”. One wonders if he too was fed up with all these detentions and if he ever considered changing his name, to say, Rajeev Saxena. Hmm. Maybe not, because this name could be shortened to Rajeev “Sucks” by his detractors. How about Rajeev Srivastava? That sounds nice, fresh and classy. Except many Srivastavas themselves ran away from their surname, as we will shortly see. Meantime, how would Indians back home react? It seems they just wanted you to be a Khan to put you up in high orbit.
All these name-change thoughts were fermenting in my mind earlier this week on Manna Dey’s birthday, i.e., 1st May. A few of us were listening to him sing Madhushala, a long series of quatrains written by Harivanshrai Bachchan and composed by Jaidev. We know that Manna wasn’t his real name, it was Prabodh Chandra, which he hated. At home his elders called him by his pet name, Manna. “Bring me a glass of water, Manna”. Or “Manna, get ready for school”. The singer happily dumped his original first name. Harivanshrai’s surname was Srivastava, but he too had a pet name, Bachchan, which means child-like. The poet dumped his original surname.
Many people like Michael Caine, Harivanshrai Bachchan and Manna Dey change their names. Here are some reasons why people do so:
If they don’t like the name their parents gave them. When their name evokes laughter among others. For reasons of acceptability in cinema or on the stage. When they want to cut off ties from their parents. When they change their religion. Or get married, in which case they use both surnames in a hyphenated way or drop the premarital one completely. If they want to stand apart from other people with the same name. If they want something that can sound better in their profession, or something that can be pronounced more easily. For saluting their wife or mother by adding their names within their own. When Asians go to live in the English-speaking world. Even for numerology. Such name changes happen among ordinary folk too, but high-profile celebrities changing their names creates headlines.
In our part of the world, poets change their name routinely. From Shakeel Badayuni to Hasrat Jaipuri, from Sahir Ludhianvi to Majrooh Sultanpuri, from Qamar Jalalabadi to Neeraj to Naqsh Lyallpuri, many poets have changed their names to adopt a “takhallus”, a pen name. Poets in the west usually don’t change their name. But since it is common among our poets, perhaps even expected from them, we can overlook them for now.
Let’s look instead at other kinds of celebrities, glancing first at famous people abroad who changed their name, without us going into specific reasons of why they did so:
Actress Norma Jeane Mortenson became Marilyn Monroe.
Singer Bob Dylan was christened Robert Allen Zimmerman soon after his birth.
Actor Kirk Douglas, of Russian-Jewish lineage, was born Issur Danielovitch Demsky.
British singer of Indian origin, Freddie Mercury, was called Farrukh Balsara.
Pugilist Cassius Clay changed his name to Muhammad Ali.
On the desi front too, there have been many such name changes:
Filmmaker Sanjay Bhansali became Sanjay Leela Bhansali.
Journalist Swaminathan Iyer renamed himself Swaminathan S. Anklesaria Iyer.
Writer Shobhaa De was Shobha De, before which she was Shobha Rajadhyaksha.
Actor Rajesh Khanna was originally called Jatin Khanna.
Actor Jaikishan Kakubhai changed his name to Jackie Shroff.
Prolific actor Sanjeev Kumar had the unlikely name of Harihar Jethalal Jariwala before he took on the new name.
Johnny Walker was Badruddin Kazi before his work in films.
If you too want to change your name in any way, there’s a procedure. You have to sign what they call a Deed Poll, which is a formal legal document in which you promise to give up your old name and take on another one for all purposes.
Let’s get back to the great poet Harivanshrai (ex-Srivastava) Bachchan. Now Srivastavas are Kayasthas, a sub-caste of intellectuals spread across northern India. Many converted to Islam, so we have Muslim Kayasthas too, but one wonders whether even they consider they have descended from Lord Chitragupt, who sits at the gates of Yamraj, the God of Death.
But there have been other Srivastavas who have dropped or given up their surname too, most notably the composer Chitragupt, at least in name the father of all the Kayasthas. Chitragupt preferred using only a mononym.
There was Lal Bahadur Shastri too, India’s Prime Minister, who had issues with our caste system. So he first dropped the Srivastava surname, and later on, adopted Shastri instead. This was after he received a degree in Philosophy from Kashi Vidyapeeth. Shastri means the Wise One.
Independence activist “Loknayak” Jai Prakash Narain was another Srivastava who dropped his surname.
But perhaps the most drastic change of this name came from a certain Dhanpat Rai Srivastava, who went to a madrasa to learn Urdu and Persian, and then wrote as Nawab Rai. When the British thought his writing inflammatory, they went after both his books and him. He then changed his name to Munshi Premchand, and is among other things known as the father of the Urdu short story, as also a great writer in Hindi.
Here now are a few songs in some way associated with these five gifted people.
- Jo beet gayi wo baat gayi (Bachchan wrote this)
- Dil ka diya jala ke gaya (Chitragupt composed this song)
- Pipra ke patwa sareekhe dole manwa (from Godaan, 1963, a Munshi Premchand story)
- Mere desh ki dharti sona ugle (Lal Bahadur Shastri mentioned)
- Kahaan gayi wo teri Ahinsa (Jai Prakash Narain mentioned)
It is said that great people’s work lives long after they have gone away. So it’s ok to say “Naam gum jaayega, chehra ye badal jaayega, mera kaam khud hi pehchaan hai”, with apologies to its writer Sampooran Singh Kalra, better known as Gulzar.
Originally published on 06 May 2018 in DNA Jaipur page 13 http://epaper2.dnaindia.com/index.php?pagedate=2018-5-6&edcode=131002&subcode=131002&mod=1&pgnum=2
Featured image on top: from Pipra ke patwa