Changing Calcutta to Kolkata was easy. Kolkata had always existed alongside Calcutta. The literate referred to the city as “Calcutta” when they spoke English as they still do even 16 years after the renaming. They opt for “Kolkata” when they break into Bengali. Non-Bengali speakers use “Kalkatta” though not always in a derogatory sense, but the mispronunciation sits well with the state of the city, whose story of decline never seems to end.
There is an important caveat here. For those from other parts of West Bengal who sought membership in the city’s genteel society, the reference to the city was always “Calcutta” even when they spoke Bengali.
But by deciding to change the name of her state to Bengal from West Bengal, chief minister Mamata Banerjee has made a difficult job look easy. Why difficult? The difficulty is manifest in the way a supporter of Banerjee has justified the exercise by saying “this is no change. We are just going back to the name that was there earlier”. The name he is referring to is “Banga”, which will exist alongside Bengal. Banga that is Bengal will have a resonance with India that is Bharat.
However, there is a problem here. In Sasanka’s time, which is the seventh century of the Christian era, the kingdom he ruled was called ‘Gaur’. So it remained throughout the reigns of the Palas, the Senas and the Husain Shahi dynasty. Though “Banga” as a territorial concept had existed from the time of the Puranas or earlier, it acquired a character only under the Mughals.
Hence reversion to an old name is not enough. There are other names that could be equally appropriate.
Renaming places are a history in itself. Changing Jahangirnagar to Dhaka had reasons that do not have a correspondence with our times. But the case of Patna is interesting. The name of the city was changed to Azimabad because the name of the then subahdar of Bengal (Patna was then under Bengal then) was Azim-us-Shan, Aurangzeb’s son. Thereafter it was renamed Patna because probably going back to the old name suited the trends and fashions of the day.
In our era such changes have been part of the greater project of making things have a local feel. Hence Mumbai, Chennai, Bengaluru, etc. Poor Mysore became just a city from a state and then lost its name and became Mysuru. Though a lovely city, the cleanest in the country at that, Mysuru does not easily bring up the association with Visheshwaraiah, its legendary diwan and engineer.
The only period in Indian history when the state could be justifiably called West Bengal was between 1905 and 1912, when Lord Curzon had partitioned the province. Because then there was an entity called East Bengal, which ceased to exist after the partition was annulled and metamorphosed into a football club. That the province came to be called East Pakistan after 1947 and then Bangladesh is common knowledge.
Bengal was the place Rammohun Roy, Bankim Chandra Chatterjee and Rabindranath Tagore lived in. And ’Bengal’ is logical because after all Punjab is Punjab, not East Punjab. Coming to the original point, the difficult job now looks easy because just a small excision brought about such a big change.
‘Bangladesh’ would have been Bengal’s appropriate Bengali counterpart. But since that is not possible now, the “Banga” idea Ms Banerjee would do well to drop.