The Play’s the Thing: A History of Sport in India

A history of Indian sport debunks the myth about this being a country of non-players and assesses the interplay between sport and the national self

Written by Sharda Ugra | Published:December 5, 2015 3:29 am
Nation at Play: A History of Sport In India, A History of Sport In India, Nation at Play book review, Ronojoy Sen, Ronojoy Sen book review, Sport news, sport book review, A local wrestling competition on the occasion of Ram Navami at Belapur, Navi Mumbai. (Source: Express file photo by Narendra Vaskar)

In these grumpy times where hyper-patriotism is demanded on tap, how could anyone writing an opus on India’s sporting history openly discuss decades of dreadful defeats without being thought of as treacherous? Maybe by labelling them under categories called bad kismet, vegetarianism and “lack of killer instinct”?

Fortunately, we jest.

Nation At Play: A History of Sport in India by Ronojoy Sen vaults over the silliness and the stereotypes to “debunk the notion that India does not have a culture of sports.” A “culture of sport” in this case is not the conventional idea of “sporting culture” as known in the developed world, which has created a wide range of leisure facilities for amateurs and professionals and offers a regulated, seasonal calendar of events for participants at all levels. This “culture of sport” is organised, methodical, woven into the national fabric and popular imagination.

By contrast, sport in India is much like the country itself — random, ever-changing and yet never-changing. Its contours morph and adapt with the temperature of the times they inhabit. Caste, class, region, religion, community, whatever the shape, form or context in which India is being reexamined, Sen argues, sport always had its own space — whether under kings and princes ancient to modern, through the nationalist movement and Partition, new nationhood and the public-sector era, economic liberalisation and globalisation.

Nation At Play covers time and the tides in an assured, impressive sweep. Sen, a former journalist and currently senior research fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies and Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore, identifies patterns which “trace connections between the pre-modern and the modern.” The focus is on India’s popular mass sport — football, cricket and hockey — along with those that offer an unbroken historical legacy, like wrestling, boxing, even polo to an extent. It is revelatory, illuminating stuff.

To the modern mind, Indian sport could well begin with the arrival of the British and their introduction to sports with which we are familiar today: football, cricket, tennis, hockey, athletics, badminton. Sen starts out in antiquity — with references in Indian epics and ancient texts, which acknowledge the presence of archery, wrestling, swordsmanship as a seamless part of their narrative. Even the Vedas make a reference to boxing, (“musthi-yuddha” or fighting with fists); the earliest descriptions of archery and wrestling, as contests for royal entertainment — and not martial combat — come from a 12th century account of a Chalukya king. A medieval text (circa 15th – 17th century) called the Mallapurana, Sen reveals, talks about the practices of the Jyeshtimallas, a caste of professional wrestlers. India’s Islamic rulers brought with them polo from central Asia. The Mughals were generous patrons of wrestlers and boxers, Hindu and Muslim alike. While most medieval royals did little other than hunt for physical exercise and leisure, it was the common man, as fighters, archers, gymnasts and other sportsmen, who provided them entertainment.

The book explores the arrival of colonialism and the Victorian sporting ethos, the relationship between ruler and ruled, a transformation of the princely states and the messy arm-wrestle of mass sport with political ructions. Sen effortlessly locates key characters and central themes in neatly-segmented portions: the class backgrounds of early sporting clubs, physical culture and revolutionary movements, barefoot football, civil disobedience, the “minority character” of pre-independence Indian hockey and the post-1971 advent of cricket as both a secular religion and a giant industry. Running alongside the scoreboard tally of victories and defeats is the altering nature of the governors of sport, its officials and administrators — who changed from being princes and wealthy patrons who once had sport and its development as the focus of all their intent to a group of power elites who make themselves the focus of their intent. Not all, but far too many.

Amidst the serious study of the many streams that have flowed through Indian sport, Nation At Play is resplendent with much play itself, through a trail of riveting factoids: who knew that Portuguese travellers at Krishnadevaraya’s court in Vijayanagar saw a form of competitive wrestling that was so violent that the blows would “break teeth and put out eyes…” with fighters “carried off speechless by their friends.” (The stuff WWE pretends to be.) Or a story from a 1948 reception with British royalty during the London Olympics when “King George VI made (footballer Sailen) Manna roll up his trousers to see whether his legs were made of steel.” Famous cricket commentator John Arlott states that kabaddi “reflects a philosophy of simple living and high thinking.” Or Swami Vivekananda, fencer, boxer, gymnast, swimmer, general fitness maniac saying thus: “You will be nearer to Heaven through football than through the study of the Gita” (Yikes, what could the social media trolls possibly do with that?)

In a book so meticilously detailed, it’s a pity casual errors are allowed to pass. While PT Usha’s full name is a toughie, its authenticity should be easy to establish. The sports ministry once declared that her initials stood for “Payyoli Thevaraparampil” but there”s no reason why Pilavullakandi Thekkeparambil Usha, a significant figure in Indian sport, should not have her name down spot on. Then come mentions of the “international football federation” — FIFA to everyone else on the planet since 1904. Historian Mukul Kesavan is misspelt twice, in text and index. Suresh Kalmadi is duly noted as being jailed for the CWG 2010 corruption scandal; strangely his partner-in-prison (Lalit Bhanot) is referred to as the anonymous “chief of the athletics federation.” Hopefully, there will be metaphorical raps on real knuckles with the promise of corrections in a new edition of what is otherwise a first-rate book.

Nation at Play is a valuable repository of India”s sporting history as well as a nuanced assessment of the interplay between sport and the national self all the way through to the end of the 20th century. Contemporary Indian sport is compressed in a single chapter at the end aka “Life Beyond Cricket.” The 21st century, which promises an alternate paradigm of Indian sport, could be examined in greater detail in the future.

For now, very well played.

Nation at Play: A History of Sport In India
Author: Ronojoy Sen
Publisher: Viking
Pages: 382
Price: 599

Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNCricinfo
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