DISCLAIMER: This might just be the longest piece of writing on this website so far. If anyone I know is offended by anything I’ve written, then please feel free to contact me about it. If you’re family or family-like, or a close acquaintance, collaborator, or somehow professionally associated, you must know that none of this is personal. Or maybe it is. The thing to remember is I’m an artist and this is a statement – an assertion – about who I am today, what my name means to me, what I intend for it to mean to others, and why I chose to change it. This is about me. This is not about you. Well, maybe it is a little about you, depending on who I am to you, and who you are to me, but mostly it's about what it means to be alive. For me.
So, here we go.
There is a certain paralysis that comes from belonging to a family, a society, a culture, a group, a tribe, a religion, a country – there’s a paralysis in socialisation. This isn’t the latent sociologist or academic within me. I have delayed expressing so honestly for what now seems like three decades, my whole life, because it has taken this long for me to truly gain perspective on my life, and everything that’s happened, and who I am today as a result. The honest conclusion I’ve arrived at is this: the living was done, and will have to continue being done, by no one else, aside from me. I can never deny that – no one can deny it – even though they may try, because my life and who I am is an identity that I’ve realised has been equal parts admired and equal parts hated. Then how does my name come into this? Allow me to explain, in bits and pieces, and all the inevitable tangents, how and why it is I went from being Shreya Chatterjee to Shreya Tanisha. And why I am now both. It’s like my therapist said: you are a community of people, and whilst I suspect that is probably true for everyone, it is also true that I understand the extremeness of my community – which is distinctly different and somewhat exclusive from other communities.
There’s no easy way for me to explain that. I didn’t realise what was happening, but it was happening. The world is full of bubbles, and I’ve had the great privilege and sorrow of being able to travel in and out of many bubbles. It began when I couldn’t even speak. When I was a toddler. Sometimes people learn about the state of the world through history lessons and then they see it when they go to volunteer abroad or aid some charitable organisation. I learn about it by being thrown into it, every situation, without much control over the situation. It’s not unique, again I must reiterate that – what I’m about to go on and on about is not an isolated experience – but like so much of life, it can certainly feel like it is because it is unique to me, it is exclusive – and that’s why I chose this field. The arts. The performing arts. To be an artist. Or it chose me. I am to represent, to perform, to showcase, and give back all I have become to all those who may have helped me, and all those who may need my help. So that I can make use of my life. Use of the opportunities, the privilege associated with my birth, to give back – AND THAT – is where my name comes in. Are you curious? Continue reading.
I’m making it sound like I’m writing this for you, which I am, but it’s mainly for me. That’s something else I’ve realised now – nine years after changing my name – that self-definition is what I have been after for the longest time. Even more than self-actualisation. I advocate for the right to define oneself strongly, because it is the biggest challenge remaining in modern society, which might just solve several other pressing issues. Amorphous Anarchism. The idea that everyone be allowed to embrace and flourish with their individuality, based on their individual needs, and be encouraged to make their best possible contribution to the world. Radical? I really don’t think so. I was so devoted to this belief that during my undergraduate days, I very eccentrically – something I’ve learnt to mask as best I can – retitled my Master of Arts Degree in Social Policy & Sociology to Divine Quantum Utopianism – it went to the heart of so much I wanted to express then and continue to want to express now – and it’s not that I haven’t made progress – it’s just been a bit slower for me. Social phenomena dictated by laws that govern the world and universe, a divine higher power perhaps, but then ultimately all that’s left is us, humans, trying to make the world and everything in it better. You and I. Us. And just me. That was what I was trying to explain when I renamed my degree. And that’s where my name comes in.
I changed my name whilst I was an undergraduate. What a time that was. Why should you be interested? Like I said, you don’t have to be, but if you are – then you should know that the purpose of my existence has plagued me since I was very young, and finally it came to my name. What’s in a name? There are around eight billion people in the world – or so they say. I’m believing them. Everyone has a story. Whose stories deserve to be told? Who decides? I don’t know, but I’m telling mine as a storyteller because I want to, and I can, because of my name. My name changed because I changed and kept on changing. Having attended a series of international schools in various countries I’m not oblivious to the fact that my experience is highly exclusive, yes it is – but there are many people who move around these days, and I studied alongside many of them. They were my friends, and even though I kept moving around, in many ways we grew up together. However, I was always aware that I was quite different. I had begun to think differently. That fact still has not changed. When I was much younger it was easier for me to not only adjust to moving around but also adjust to being different people for different situations – I didn’t think about it so much. I just did it. Because I had to. Then life happened, certain events happened, and the contrasts became vivid, and people demanded more, and I kept meeting those demands, until finally I grew up to an age – and now even older – where I realised that all I’ve ever done is perform. Be someone else. For someone else. I mean myself also, but that’s really about agency – and what agency do we have in our earliest years? My life has been one big performance and without going into the artistic elements of it – which I’ve decided must be kept separate whilst being inextricably linked – I did the thing they commonly call code-switching, which basically means, I wasn’t just performing as an art form, not just on stage or film, but in life. In my actual real life. In front of people who think they knew who I was - in front of people who think they know who I am. Who were supposed to know who I was - who I wish could know who I truly am. And I was being me in front of them, just never all of me. Because all those people that I’ve been wouldn’t make sense to any one person if they all existed simultaneously.
I changed my name or felt the need to change it much before I learnt the term code-switching. I did what many people do sometimes when they really want to make something of themselves and are driven by intense self-motivation and ambition: I looked up people who I admired and read about their life. I wanted to understand what I had to do, or what I could possibly do – but like everyone in the world, I was in my own set of circumstances, with my own experiences – except I didn’t feel that way. See the trouble was, is, and will always remain, that I wasn’t ever just one person – I am never just one person – and there is no way for anyone to know that. You might wonder, well alright, so what’s so special about that? Maybe nothing, maybe everything. It’s all about percentage really. Percentages and numbers. When you go through the human sieve and manage to not fall through in many cases you start to wonder where you are, what you’re doing, does anyone understand, and more importantly, does anyone care? I didn’t grow up with much family and those I visited over the years don’t know me at all. Sorry, you don’t – if you’re family and reading this – you know what I show you and I didn’t care so much as a kid but the older I’ve gotten the more apparent it’s become – there’s no way for me to explain – not that anyone needs an explanation – but that awareness that starts creeping in – of the exclusivity of your existence. I went from feeling homogenous to entering the real world – that magical place I was told you arrive at once you take all the tests and exams – and once there I sort of realised there was nothing normal about my life. It should have been more obvious before – it was always right there in front of me – but I suppose the issue with getting older is people care less about what you think. I mean, the more I uncovered the secrets and depths of this world the more I realised how fortunate I was to have anyone care at all. About what I think.
Good fortune. It’s so randomly handed out. Or is it? Again, that’s the conundrum. Shreya is my legal name, and Tanisha is my Bengali name – like a nickname, but not legalised. I removed Chatterjee – my father’s last name – from my name and replaced it with Tanisha because I don’t like the sound of Chatterjee and I don’t like what it implies – the caste system, even though it works in my favour – I am a Brahmin, the highest caste – and also because I love the name Tanisha, and I feel Shreya Tanisha is a far more accurate expression of my identity. I am, at the very least, two people. Shreya to the outside world, and Tanisha to the interior world – Shreya to all the people who knew me in almost every place I lived or travelled to – and Tanisha to my parents, and relatives back in India. And hence the start of this dramatic saga – the girl who no-one really knows – split, dissected, everywhere and nowhere. Like I said it was easier when I was younger to accept that reality – I just sort of went along with it – until, I got older, and suddenly the world was asking me to belong somewhere – to work somewhere – to pay taxes somewhere – to show allegiance to something – and I was looking at myself thinking, who will I have to become to fit into some box? And suddenly all this privilege came crashing down around me. I am thinking about who I will be not how I will survive – after all, I am the daughter of immigrants – despite however privileged I may be – and that became my identity right then – and I was reminded of yet another reason why I wanted to change my name. It has to do with empathy.
I won’t say I’ve mastered the art of empathy from the moment I realised it had a strong relationship to my name. No, the truth is I first realised I felt deprived of empathy and felt the desire to be more empathetic, to surround myself in an environment with people who feel and see something more than what I had become accustomed to seeing. I just wanted some acknowledgment of the intensity of my emotions, and I wanted to express what I was feeling about the world. I didn’t have to. I lived in a beautiful town and attended a beautiful school filled with wonderful people. But I had the feeling from what I was experiencing at home and what I saw around me that there must be something more out there for me. So, I left home and sent myself to a boarding school. That’s where, for the first time in my life, I became just Shreya. I was used to leaving my house and going to school or anywhere else and everyone called me Shreya, and to them I spoke in English, but the moment I came back home – I was Tanisha, to my parents, and I spoke to them in Bengali. Not because they can’t speak English, but because that was the rule so I would never forget my mother tongue. And thank goodness for that. It would have been a shame to have lost this language I love. So the code-switching continued. In many ways it’s like discovering the difference between being a girl, to an adolescent, to suddenly a woman – because you’re treated differently, perceived differently, people expect different things from you, and at the same time, you can’t help but realise, from your point of view, that in many ways it’s all the same. You’re always guarding something, hiding something, revealing something, fearing something, rebelling against something, criticising something, disgusted by something, thrilled by something, emotional about something, attached to something, and it is always exhausting. You must understand, emotionally calibrate, not offend, be compassionate – and expect nothing in return. That’s what I was taught. To always make others feel comfortable. Not sure it was such a great lesson as I got older, but it taught me a lot. Most importantly, it has also taught me to put myself first, because even with much less privilege than some, the enormous amount of hard work I put into making sure I gain everything with credentials is severely undermined by the fact that I attribute my accomplishments entirely to privilege – that I always compensate for the fact that I have it – it’s like impostor syndrome but much worse – it’s like I’m punishing myself for getting what I worked for even though I am the one who worked for it. Why?
Because somewhere in the back of my mind I wish everyone could have the same opportunities. I grew up finding it painful suddenly that they don’t because life becomes different based on what you’re offered and what you manage to do with it. I want everyone to have if not the same offerings as me, but the same quality of offerings - I really do. And because that’s not possible I’m reminded of the necessity of competition, meritocracy, individuality, desire, personality, and of course, the living – the living no one else did for me, no one else could have done for me. Who’s to say someone else with my opportunities would do better or worse? Can I know? Will I ever be able to give my entire life to someone else and see if they did something different? Why do I feel this way? That’s the most important question. Why do I feel this way? And the answer is also unsurprisingly long, multilayered, and complicated. I never thought that way before, it’s just when the real world came close, and reality suddenly bit very strongly – the reality of no longer being that child who was constantly moving around with her parents, exploring unknown corners of the globe - suddenly, everyone asked me to choose – to belong. Slowly, the surrealness of my life became even more sharper than when I hopped from one country to the other, one institution to the other, studying one thing after the other – but it also made so much sense that this is exactly what I would choose to do. If existential questions start plaguing you – like they had been plaguing me – then there is great solace in centres of knowledge, and thankfully for me that involved multiple arts institutes as well. If I can further knowledge or further creativity – then that surely means I am making a worthwhile contribution – I am trying, utilising my opportunities and good fortune to the best of my abilities – and the world will be better for it, is the hope.
I realised a while ago that people are the same everywhere. Everyone is just as lonely, just as sad, just as happy, just as unsure – in varying shades, degrees, and circumstances. The reason I felt envious growing up was not because I hated everything my life has given me – not at all, I’ve loved it all, the good, the bad, and the ugly – but everything in this world has a cost, and I found myself getting older and reminding people of what that cost might be every time someone spoke to me as if my life was a fairy tale. Yes, there is so much beauty in my life, which I feel utterly blessed for. There is no other feeling to feel aside from blessed. But there’s always a cost. And all this, my name, why it’s changed, the endless amounts of words about myself, about my struggles, about my illness, about my health, about my art – even I get exhausted by the indulgence of it all sometimes – but all of it is to serve as a reminder of the complexity of the human mind and even more the tenderness perhaps of the human heart. I am not a saint. No one breaks down from following and happily accepting a straight path. I rebelled. I fought back. I have grown up and lived in a way, experienced life in a way, that requires me to constantly remind myself that to truly have and see humanity, I must not dehumanise myself. It’s a personal joke I’ve developed: thank goodness other people and the world is full of problems and darkness because without all that what would I feel pain about, aside from my own? And it is so much easier to torture oneself with the pain that exists outside of us as an explanation for the pain that resides within because ultimately the two are certainly connected – but no one in this world ever saves you. So, for a while – for a long while – it has been easier to try to save everything but myself. To become lost in other people’s sorrows. And then one fine day, you begin to look at your own wounds more closely, and say, right, there you are – can I heal you?
It’s nice to be chosen when faced with such existential questions. We live in a competitive world. And we live in a deeply unfair world. The two go hand in hand, although there are some benefits to healthy competition. I think about this more than living, I’m afraid, so I’ll skip the part about how I am constantly considering my privilege and the state of the world, because I think I’ve exhausted that point, and instead look at the mask – the mask that says, I’m fine. Of course, I’m fine. I have privilege so I’m fine. Completely disregarding all my frailty. All my humanity. All the ways in which I am in fact not at all privileged, in the ways that I hurt, and the ways in which life has been harsh and cold for me, too, because there is always going to be something I can compare it to and say – now that is a real problem, you don’t have problems. Ta-da. I’ve successfully become a humanitarian – an aching, gorgeous soul, which feels so strongly for the world – but cannot at all feel for herself, as though I had turned to some awful mechanism in my central nervous system that disabled the idea that I should take care of myself. Having conversations with oneself can do that to you sometimes. And selfish, abusive people, can do it further, by taking what you must give until it’s taken for granted – my intense desire to be seen, to be understood, to be known, to be loved, to be told that I am enough. Ah, but how can I be? Have I done everything I possibly can? Did I live up to my own expectations? Never. It’s a war zone. My name is the battlefield. Who do I have to let go of so any of this becomes easier, which versions of myself? How long can I wonder around alone because I am so tired of trying to introduce myself? Hello, my name is – and I am – no. Sorry. I can’t. Either I have no idea, or no answer will be honest. I have no real desire to meet anyone's expectations. I do it because I understand the importance of decency. However, I prefer honesty.
And I need honesty. At this point in my life, I need honesty more than anything else because I am tired of fighting and I am tired of comparing and I am tired of calibrating and I am tired of being told and reminding myself of the fact that life is so difficult – so just take what you can get – be satisfied, because you’re lucky. I am not lucky. There. I’ve said it. Luckier than some, sure, but there is no luck that got me to where I am today. Everyone worked ridiculously hard, including me, and yes, I have been blessed. Blessed to be an artist. Is it surprising that that is what I am? Where else would it be possible or acceptable to go on and on for so long about my name? The egotistical, narcissistic elements of it are not lost on me. But it’s as necessary for survival as is accepting the randomness of birth. Everyone is born into this world at a certain point in time, in a certain place, and they have no control over it. Yes, sometimes people say things like – we can’t choose where we come from, but we can choose where we go. And that’s lovely. That’s full of hope and makes the state of the world seem more optimistic. But I love art so much precisely because it takes me away from realness and puts me right back into it at as well – the lies that tell the truth – and the truth is I will always be in a position, as long as I keep it all up – which sadly I haven’t managed to do so consistently, as I too am human enough to fall ill and get overwhelmed – to contemplate my good fortune. Always. Many others could and they do or don’t or it doesn’t matter – I don’t know. Life is hard for all, and competition is healthy after all – even though I don’t like it – but sometimes, I wish, when I’m in the company of others, or when I’m in the company of myself, that I could express what it is to not just have awareness, but to feel completely split apart. In my case my romantic melancholia comes from those who never will understand this but who I’ve observed. It’s like I’m living in this constant state of perplexity about where I now find myself. It’s confusing. And that’s why the name helps so much because this performance of my life, this person who has been so many people – what do I do with her? What name do I give her? What will do it justice? Will anyone truly ever understand? Do they need to? Why do I think they need to? Who else aside from myself will it help? What is it that I am fighting so hard for? What is the story, the idea, that hope that I have with all this time spent on this assertion, this name, this existential angst? When I truly want something I work for it, so I get it. I don't like competition because I always win. The only person I compete with is myself, so technically, I can never lose. That's why I want to be an artist.
To have realised that you want to be an artist is a wonderful thing, because you could have wished for anything else, and it would have all the same unpleasantness – but here – you can fail and that is also art, and there also is no failure, at least I don’t see it that way – there is no right and wrong, and there is acceptance, and maybe even community. Still flawed and imperfect, but there is a sense of a combined desire to achieve something. Maybe a common purpose. Empathy. As much as possible, as many expressions of it as possible, so perhaps we can make the human story – our collective history – less distressing. Having experienced so many forms of distress whilst being aware of how much more distress there still is out there – unimaginable amounts, that I have had the terrible good fortune to not have experienced – what do we do? It is a war zone and I’ve understood I must protect myself. But protection can mean many things. There’s the saying, I surely don’t have to remind you of who said it, that your silence will not protect you. It’s one thing to write about something and publish it somewhere, or make something and display it somewhere, and perform something and have it seen by some people. No, the truth is, I have observed our silence, which doesn’t protect us, is often reserved for those we are closest to. It may have ripple effects into the wider world, but we hide so much of ourselves, or are taught to, all in the hope that we may be able to appease something or someone. It does make human life seem quite doomed and wretched in a sense. Why so much hatred? Why so much judgment? Why so much need to have things be a certain way and not some other way? I am also like this, but I am also not like this. I don't accept different points of view, I embody them.
Hence my name. It’s a way for me to encompass all my lived experiences – real experiences – which despite at times feeling like a performance, were not actually performances. I know the difference between playing a part and just being, but the truth is, all the people I’ve been cannot possibly exist as one. It doesn’t happen. Not where I come from, not where I was born, and not in any of the places I’ve gone to since. Therein lies the conundrum, the grand saga of my name, from Shreya Chatterjee and Tanisha to now Shreya Tanisha and Shreya Chatterjee for all legal purposes. Why does it matter? Because to me, words matter. Oh, they matter so much it is infuriating when others use them in war, which they always do, and then I agonise over what was said, what was meant, what was implied, what was to be communicated, for a long time after. Words cause war. They destroy and rebuild and are more powerful than actions when they need to be. So, it does follow, that when you so conveniently are called different names by people who see and understand you differently, that you choose to sharpen that distinction. Names are words. To make it clearer, because in those instances where one needs utmost empathy and understanding to feel truly seen, and understood, it is painfully clear that the human experience is after all universal, because despite whatever extremeness I can point towards to highlight the uniqueness of my situation once again – the privileged position, not just economically, but emotionally – however the two may be related – I’ve always found myself in a state of needing to say – this is me, yes, but there’s another me, actually several.
Shreya Tanisha sees it all. But others only see either Shreya, or Tanisha, or bits of Shreya, and bits of Tanisha. Sometimes I think all of life is just one big pursuit of identity. And hence my name – because some identities – who am I kidding? Lots of identities in the world are painful, for various reasons, but one commonality I have found is history. Our shared human history makes us at once remarkable but also, if we read it honestly, it reveals something about us, which I guess hurts everyone, and maybe artists a little more depending on what kind of artist you are: the fact that we are capable of so much hatred, violence, and harm. The light-hearted way to wrap this up would be to say, oh well, so I changed my name, and there are different identities I embody, and well, they don’t all align as one, and you know, that has made me who I am today and sometimes it has been painful, but mostly it’s been eye-opening, extraordinary, and it’s made me the artist I am today. There’s even a funny anecdote about how instead of Tanisha my father wanted the name Tanya and so he forcefully had that written on several of my birthday cakes until I got much older, in the hopes that it would convince everyone to change their mind. I’m grateful no one did. I love the name Tanisha.
That’s a sweet, light-hearted end.
Yet, as you are all too aware, light heartedness doesn’t normally present itself in so many words. No, my name isn’t a happy story – a beautiful story, perhaps, a remarkable story, maybe - but not an entirely happy one. It carries so much history, both the world’s and mine, personally. My name represents a war within, and many wars outside. Chatterjee means I am a Brahmin, and I have witnessed first-hand the privileges that automatically grants me in Indian society. The resentment you can face for having that privilege. See, when the self is shattered into so many fragments, it’s difficult to understand how to take care of all the fragments at once. That privilege means so little to me, and I understand how harmful it is, but in this bitter world at times any sort of privilege feels wonderful, particularly when you’ve become accustomed to being beaten down in other aspects of your life. My legal status. I understand how millions of people are displaced, I understand how desperate people sometimes become when engaging in illegal acts, but I was a minor – a toddler – when I left my home country and kept moving around so, suddenly, how do you humanise this person by telling her that she must go back and live in a place that she left so long ago? Yes, I’ve visited so many times since then, and even lived there for a while – less than a year – but I wasn’t there. Not really. Not as a citizen. Isn’t it then dehumanising to suddenly ask me to act like one? I’ve been Tanisha for as many people as I could. But I’m Shreya, too, and she simply does not exist there, and therein lies the impossible task of being both – because I can’t just be one, and yes, geography would eliminate the possibility for me to be both, and that’s no one’s fault. It’s the way the world is. It’s how people are. Hence why I’ve chosen the arts – empathy – we need it so badly – to see people as much, much more than black, and white, or even grey, but rather as prisms - which allow all of us to be the people who we truly are.
And it is painful. That word. Pain. Because I’ve tried so desperately hard to belong everywhere, to give to everything, and yet I will never be quite right anywhere. I won’t fit. I’ll be misunderstood, humiliated, bullied, ridiculed, ignored – and it’ll hurt – and it hurts – because I care. I care deeply. But at times, people don’t understand why you care – they see someone new as the enemy, the foreigner, the stranger – not someone who can belong or fit in. I mean, most people in the world have trouble fitting in with their own families, so what hope does that give the entire world? World peace? Seems like a joke. I cannot be unapologetically myself in a place where I’ll constantly have to feel like I might need to apologise – and that’s no one’s fault – it’s no one’s fault that I left India when I did, it’s not my fault that I then travelled all over the world, it’s definitely not my fault that I don’t entirely feel at home there, and it’s also not my fault that the places, which I feel make up all of me can’t all belong to me at once. So, I ask, one last time for all intents and purposes: what’s in a name? Or rather, what’s in this name, Shreya Tanisha? My whole life. My life. No one else's. Mine, all of it, from start to finish. Every memory, each breath, all experiences, all emotions – all of it – and all the people who came and went as I lived through it all – who are still there, who are able in varying degrees to perceive me, to know me, and who I only know so much of myself. I love my mother, and my father, more than anything in this world. I love my sister, too, but she’s my sister – so I love them all. I did not give up my last name. For all legal purposes it’s still there.
But I didn’t write almost 6,000 words about how one fine day I changed my name because I thought it would sound better and that was that. No – sometimes we realise who we are because of all the people we must become – and sometimes we realise who we are because of all the people we no longer wish to be, or have simply outgrown. You try to love yourself, but how can you when you no longer know who you truly are? Shreya Tanisha is not a fictional character – I am real. As real as it gets. And I am so many people. To so many people. Just like you are, too, in your life. And I also perform, and become many other people, so really – the truth is – the final, ultimate, truth is – being written on the first day of 2024, a year that I feel so hopeful about – I will always, always, live as my whole self, despite whatever challenges, friction, contradiction, conflict, and chaos, that may bring. The only way forward is to love myself, as my true self, and, by doing so, I finally can take care of myself and be as selfish as I need to be to survive and end the needless self-inflicted punishments, and avoid emotional manipulation and coercion. I can write about this forever, I can repeat myself forever, and forever would still not be enough to express and encompass all it is I feel. Self-love comes from self-knowledge. Changing my name was easy. Living it has been and is the real adventure that awaits. And though I know it won’t be smooth sailing - I've survived many storms already - I will say, I am so looking forward to it all – at last.
Life! I do love you. And I thank you – dear fellow traveller – for reading all of this. Don’t worry if you didn’t, I still love you for trying.
Which is ultimately what we all must do.