A Time to Play

Majumdar’s well-illustrated and imaginatively designed parable of Indian sport consigns its history to 100 artefacts. For some reason the book, despite having the authoritative title, features artefacts only from Majumdar’s personal collection rather than an assembled lot, which severely limits the scope.

Written by Manik Sharma | Published: July 22, 2017 1:09:12 am
A History of Indian Sport Through 100 Artefacts, Boria Majumdar, Harper Sport, indian express book review, book review, indian express news Boria Majumdar takes an aerial view of Indian sporting legacy but struggles a bit to shake off the shadow of cricket.

Book: A History of Indian Sport Through 100 Artefacts
Author: Boria Majumdar
Publication: Harper Sport
Pages: 216
Price: Rs 1,299

For at least three generations in this country now, the only sport that’s been worthy of our scholarly inquiry is cricket. It comes as a bit of a gesture when a historian, who has made his name by being associated with cricket, paddles into the farther annals of Indian sporting history with the intention to unearth something fairly unique, even if a tad nostalgic. But while he has his wagon hitched to the powerhouse that is Indian cricket, can Boria Majumdar do for other sports what no one else has? If A History of Indian Sport Through 100 Artefacts is any answer, then it’s both a yes and a no.

Majumdar’s well-illustrated and imaginatively designed parable of Indian sport consigns its history to 100 artefacts. For some reason the book, despite having the authoritative title, features artefacts only from Majumdar’s personal collection rather than an assembled lot, which severely limits the scope. That said, for a lover of sport in general, the narratives are fairly engaging and lead to some interesting discoveries. For example, Mohun Bagan’s landmark IFA shield win over the East Yorkshire regiment in 1911 is supplemented with rare photographs of the victors and is followed by a jovial cartoon from 1940 that captures the mood of the nationalist Bengali football fan of the time.

Undoubtedly, the most intriguing sections of the book also pertain to the oldest histories, when India was still a British colony. The almost fabled, mythic union of nationalism and sport, both in the individual and collective sense, that also gave India its earliest sporting heroes, makes for urgent and celebratory reading — C K Nayadu’s emergence as India’s foremost cricketing icon, Mohun Bagan’s Gostha Pal’s moment of defiance in a Calcutta League game and the beginning of the most glorious, yet underwritten chapter in Indian sporting history, the two decade reign as Olympic Hockey champions. There are sad, yet intriguing insights into India’s struggles — from getting their Olympic campaigns funded, to getting the football team its first set of shoes. Thankfully, a significant share of the first half of the book is held by India’s glory days in hockey through Partition, before the introduction of Astroturf brought an end to the era, as European athleticism overtook Indian craft.

In places, Majumdar’s narratives that accompany the artefacts, offer a good mix of anecdote, journalistic evidence and personal opinion. India’s hockey gold in the 1966 Asian Games, for example, comes with a brilliant rejoinder of how an injury (in times when substitutes were not allowed) led to a fortunate last-minute goal in the final, giving India the gold medal. But such insightful commentary is at a premium. Even in the pages dedicated to cricket, Majumdar’s home turf, there is little to elevate the Wikipedia-ish narration of events and matches.

There are artefacts which, though not necessarily glorious at all times, are still significant. Frustratingly, some of these, especially documents and letters, have been drawn down to a size that makes them unreadable. Other than captions, Majumdar’s accompanying texts seldom contextualize these documents. The biggest problem with the book is Majumdar’s cricket-shaped, formulaic view of sport. That he can’t find more than four or five pages to talk about one of the oldest football derbies in the world — the Kolkata Derby, is baffling. In tennis, he omits, spectacularly, Ramanathan Krishnan and the Vijay Amritraj era. Add to that Anju Bobby George’s World Championship feat, Prakash Padukone and Pullela Gopichand at the All England Championships, PT Usha through the ’80s, Narayan Karthikeyan in Formula One, Pankaj Advani in snooker, India’s first wrestling medal at the Olympics in 1952, Indian football’s return to the Asian fold in 2011 and so much more.

Though the introduction to the book doesn’t claim it’s exhaustive in any way, its title seems misleading. Its cricket-centric assimilation points to the problem of cricket beginning to write the story of other sports as well. There definitely are things worth reading in the book but, to a sports fan looking to find something beyond the familiar 22 yards, this is a letdown.

Manik Sharma is a Delhi-based freelance writer

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