More TamBrahm Nomenclature – Who on earth is a Sheddagar and why is Varadarajan’s nickname Cheema ?

Blog post by Lapsed Iyengar (author chooses to remain anonymous)

This small recollection was inspired by the impressive post on Iyengar Nomenclature.

I am a long lost Iyengar – An Army childhood, working across India and settling in Mumbai with a multicultural family has meant my TamBrahm know-how is diluted. I cherish my non-practising  TamBrahmness as a wonderful cultural legacy – but I am thrilled by the strange terminologies of our culture. Here are some curiosities I encountered.

Let’s start with the mysterious Sheddagar-often in marriages and other functions, so and so uncle would be introduced or referred to in third person, as being Raji’s or Picchai’s “Sheddagar”. What is this Sheddagar, people ?

Then, during some intense religious rituals, everyone would abruptly be asked by the vadiyar/religious uncle if they have “TITHAMADINELA ?” … A bath maybe?

What about the double meaning, SATARDU…. Sometimes involving the closing of doors, but often referring to the serving of some food item onto the Banana leaf…Nei Sathinela vs Kadava Sathinela ?

And the disgustingly exotic and patently false KUSU-UDARDU ? A firm favourite of assorted elder males in any post prandial festive gathering, this word is obviously Onomatopoeic, as if the passing of TamBrahm/Tamil wind was meant to be a hushed hissing release like an autumn wind caressing dry leaves, whereas the reality never veered far from thunderclaps….much appreciated of course, by the venerable Jambavans in attendance…

There is the issue of nicknames-while my experience is limited to my very large paternal and maternal family, ancient nicknames seem to mimic the Bengali penchant for spoiling a perfectly good name with an awful alias. I am not sure if this is a TamBrahm thing, but I suspect that its vintage goes far back in time. I had grand aunts called Jana Athai, Lalu Athai, Chinni Pati , and cousins with nicknames like Cheema, Babu, Jillu as well as uncle type relatives with names like Haki mama ,Pacha mama, just to name a few. The curious thing is not the nickname per se-Like with Bongs, it is the fact that the alias never correlates with their legit names like Srinivasaraghavan or Krishnaswamy or Hema Malini or Janaki.Instead of Srinivasaraghavan becoming a Srini or a Vasu, he would end up being a Pacha, or  a Krishnaswamy would morph into the unexpectedly Japanese Haki.

With passage of time this problem started solving itself in the 50’s, where a proper TamBrahm religious, official name like “Ramaswamy, became a relatable Ramesh. I guess as TamBrahms spread across India and abroad, the short form Vasu,Krish, etc also started happening to the Srinivas’s and Krishnaswamy/Krihnamurthy’s.

Others have pertinently pointed out in their posts about the problem of having to memorize or pretend to remember names of sundry elder relatives. I found that in many cases the third generation tried solving this problem for the benefit of their kids, by referring to older relatives by some prefix denoting a memorable attribute. So our all-time favourite uncle who lived close to Marina Beach became Beach Thatha , as did the equally fun Kitchi-Kitchi Thatha, whose name as evident, symbolized the obligatory Kitchi-Kitchi session kids looked forward to enduring at his hands. There would also be the ubiquitously geo-tagged relatives like Adambakkam Mama or Alwarpet Chithi !

As the US of A is now a central part of TamBrahm sociology ,as dear as Kumbakonam , Mayiladuthurai or Ottapalam, American naming etiquette required further evolution of the TamBrahm Nomenclature, with the invention of the Anglo-friendly surname (Though, I believe this was true for all abbreviated South Indians and inscrutable Chinese and Koreans, with their Jack Mas and Ann Parks).

Before crossing over to the promised land, the oily haired Mylapore boy or girl would have an official name of M.K Krishnamachari or MK Anuradha. By the harsh necessities of America mandated two-name etiquette, she/he would turn this MKK into a snappy Krish Mattusandai or Anu Murungakottai or whatever weird town name was hitherto hidden in the mysterious M.

But that was not enough – the more ambitious (but only Male!) ones would realize that the surname was a mouthful even for native Indians and that it didn’t really solve the problem. Or as I suspect, help them with their high flying ambitions in IT, Consulting or Investment Banking. So they invented the alliterative TamBrahm Repeat Name aka “Krish Krishnamachari” or “Sid Sundarrajan”,making a complete transformation from oily hair Payyan to permed Dude with sparkling white teeth ,joining the Tom,Dick and Harry’s of America.(Though the Telugus haven’t cottoned on to this, and continue to conquer with huge 24 letter names like Raj Silavalapratigontala). The girls I notice, continue to use their full names and I wonder how that works just fine for them – Huh Krish / Sid?

Closer home, I scan the Obit pages every day, and it seems that in the days gone by, names were scarcely original or abundant- especially among Palakkads in Mumbai.  Subramanian or Subramaniam, was the name of every second Clerk,Civil Servant or Cook from Palakkad (to borrow from the trenchant T.N Seshan’s observation). Here the identifying adjective is always the workplace. On the same day,there will be a sombre collection of photographs of full body “Pattai-adhuchofied” thathas (seemingly taken from Sashthiyabdapurthi functions) where one could simultaneously encounter the regretful passing of VV Subraminiam (Godrej Mani) , RKS Subramanian (RBI Mani) and MRT Subramanian (Tata Mani)

As the world goes flatter and customs vanish slowly, we cling to these fond memories of a gentle, quirky yet resourceful group of people, so similar that it seems they belonged to one monolithic family, who quietly did well for the world they lived in, and gave us many happy memories- unique and special to those of us who lived in this era. I would never want to have missed all this fun.  Avalothan !


5 thoughts on “More TamBrahm Nomenclature – Who on earth is a Sheddagar and why is Varadarajan’s nickname Cheema ?

  1. Interesting discussion. The use of family name is not unknown in South India. Often the village name or house (tharavad) name would be appended to the personal and father’s name. The usual suffix would be Iyer or Iyengar. Other titles included Shastri, Gurukkal, Avadhani, Dikshitar etc. These were religious titles. If caste and religious titles are to be avoided a good option may be to use the Gotra as a last name. Being Brahmins all Iyers and Iyengars have a Gotra. All those with a Sacred thread should know the Abhivadye.


  2. yup Shaddagar is one who is married to your wife’s sister.. Wow, what a nice post.. I laughed out loud at terms like “Krish Mattusandai” 🙂


  3. Passing of gas (and style of talk) are well noted in a Sanskrit Poem:
    Durram, Burram, Bayam Nasti (fear not the loud noise).
    Koyyam Piyyam cha, Madhyamum (nest in line is softer sounds)
    Thissam Pissam, Mhagoram (almost silent is quite awful indeed)
    Niss-Sabdam ,Prana sankatam (soundless hurt your life)!


  4. There is nothing like co-brother-in-law! It is only co-brother. Brother in law is a different animal. I have only heard North Indians use the term “co-brother in law”. Cobra is a good term, like it!



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