Naming Places

13 Feb 2014

Wally Olins talks Bengaluru, Mumbai and Chennai to Kyoorius this month.

A few months ago I was sitting in a taxi going to Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport in Mumbai and I started chatting with the driver. He said he was always going backwards and forwards to the airport. Recently two ladies from the United States, who were on a world trip, sat in his car. They were very worried as they went from the airport to the town, because they were frightened they’d got off at the wrong place. They kept on saying, he said, “But we wanted to go to Bombay — what is this Mumsomething?” He had to reassure them that Bombay and Mumbai are the same place. They only relaxed when they saw a few signs with Bombay on them.

Well, I don’t know whether that’s a true story or not. Maybe it is and maybe it isn’t. I certainly got a shock last year when I arrived at an airport called Bengaluru. Had I arrived in Bengal instead and which part of Bengal? No, I wasn’t in Bengal. I was in what I and everyone else still calls Bangalore.

I spend a lot of my life working on branding of cities, regions and nations. At Saffron we advised the former government of West Bengal to drop the West bit, so I’m quite familiar with the reasons behind changing city names. But I have to say, as someone profoundly addicted to India, that I don’t quite know what all this is about. Of course, cities and towns and regions change their names from time to time — we all know that. But this mania for changing names of major Indian cities does strike me as a little odd. I am well aware that it is a concession to local feeling, that it’s a fine gesture to shrug off the colonial fetters and all that. But it’s also unnecessary and confusing. It could even be counterproductive. Yes, it’s great if you happen to be an Italian who wants a tour of India, to visit Bombay, Delhi, Calcutta, Madras and Bangalore. But Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata, Chennai and Bengaluru?

India became independent about 60 years ago. India is very big and very important in the world. What India says and does is very influential. The world listens and takes notice. Surely the time to make tiny little marks underlining that you are in charge of your own destiny are well over.

Come on India — grow up.

See more at Kyoorius.