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Book review 'Nation at Play': Indian sports: Myth, nation


Published on: December 18, 2015 | Updated on: Invalid date

Nation at Play: A History of Sport in India by Ronojoy Sen Penguin, Rs 599

Other than cricket, Indian sport has rarely had sociological chroniclers. While the books of Sujit Mukherjee, Ramachandra Guha and Richard Cashman, among others, are noteworthy and easily recommended, the fact is that a deeper, critical look at the phenomenon of sport in India — or its absence, as the case may be — is missing in a country that produces so much literature. Given this lacuna, Ronojoy Sen, historian and research scholar at the Institute of South Asian Studies in Singapore, has done a remarkable job and produced a first-rate and extremely readable account of the role of sport in Indian society, history, mythology, popular culture and, indeed, life. In a majestic sweep that begins with the Mahabharata and concludes with an assessment of the corporate-backed franchises that have spawned new leagues in not just cricket (the Indian Premier League), but also football, kabbadi and other sports, as well as of the boxing subculture of Bhiwani, Sen not only fills a gap in our existing compendium of books, but impresses readers with his easy style, thorough research, and clear-eyed, yet non-judgemental manner.

Modern sport, and not just in India, is a Western construct. Little survives of the sporting pursuits of the ancient world other than, of course, wrestling and, perhaps, swimming and archery — if these were considered sports per se — and a few folk games that have evolved and established a niche presence. As such, it would have been convenient for Sen to begin his book in the 18th century, with the arrival of European colonialism. "It isn’t surprising," he writes, "that English sports on Indian shores were first seen in a coastal town. One day in 1721 in Cambay, on India’s western seaboard, a bunch of British sailors decided to play a game of cricket. According to one of them, ‘When my boat was lying for a fortnight in one of the channels though all the country round was inhabited by the cooleys, we every day diverted ourselves with playing cricket and other exercises which they would come and be spectators of.’"

Was this the first cricket match played in India? At any rate, it was the first one that seems to have been recorded. Even so, this is not where Sen begins his book. Rather, he perseveres and seeks samples of sporting endeavours, or even an incipient sporting culture, in pre-European India going back to the tournaments of the epics — the aborted battle between Arjuna and Karna, which was timed out because the Sun had set by the time Duryodhana crowned Karna king of Anga and made him the equal of Arjuna, thus enabling a contest.

Early references to sport in India are overwhelmingly dominated by wrestling, an art and a science of which even the formidable Krishna was a practitioner and teacher. "One of the earliest available descriptions of wrestling," the book tells us, "can be found in the Manasollasa of King Someshwara of the Chaulakya dynasty who reigned from 1124 to 1138 CE. The Manasollasa refers to many other sports too, including archery (dhanurvidya or dhanur vinoda), duels with weapons (anka vinoda), and a game played on horses (vajivahyali vinoda)." The diet of the wrestlers was subsidised by the state: "Legumes, meat, and sweets made from milk."

In the era of the Sultanate and the Mughals, polo made its impact in India as an import from Central Asia, though it appears to have developed independently in Manipur, being written about by British agents in at least 1877. Incidentally, the British were wary of playing polo with the Manipuris because they did not want to "run the risk of being ‘hustled and jostle’ by the locals, fearing that it might undermine (the British) position". That hesitation anticipated the rise of sport as first a vehicle of the colonising mission and the imperial project, and then as a symbol of nationalist assertiveness.

In some senses, studying these aspects forms the meat of Sen’s book. His chapter on the impact of Mohun Bagan winning the IFA Shield in 1911, becoming the first Indian team to do, has the ability to quicken the pulse even today. One can only imagine the riveting spectacle it must have been to the "estimated 80,000 to 100,000 people gathered" in Calcutta on July 29, 1911, when Mohun Bagan, a club founded in 1889 in the house of a leading Bengali who later became president of the Indian National Congress, took on the East Yorkshire Regiment team from Faizabad. The Indian team won the match two-one, triggering a rapturous celebration in Bengal.

Yet, in his trademark wry manner, Sen bowls a googly (if one can be allowed a mixed metaphor) after the final whistle: "Given the nationalist connotations of Mohun Bagan’s victory, perhaps the most unusual career trajectory was that of Kanu Roy (one of the players). He joined the police after leaving college, retiring as a deputy inspector general of police and, along the way, becoming notorious ‘for torturing men and women arrested for nationalist activity’". Equally gripping is the exploration of religious and communal identities and their intersection with sport, particularly as the Muslim League and the Congress competed for influence from the 1920s to the 1940s, leading up to the catastrophic violence of Partition. The Mahatma’s opposition to religious and ethnic teams in the Pentangular cricket tournament has been written about by others and in some detail, but Sen expands the territory to cover the impact of the rise of Mohammadan Sporting on Muslim consciousness across the subcontinent.

In particular, the club’s victory in the IFA Shield in 1936 (25 years after Mohun Bagan) and the fact that it won the IFA-Calcutta Football League double that year (becoming the fourth team and the first Indian team to do so) led to a "euphoria (that) spread like wildfire". It was "reported as far away as Australia, where the Sydney Morning Herald carried a news item headlined: ‘Honour for Islam’" It also caused Mohammed Salim, the club’s "star forward", to be selected for the "All-India XI to play the Chinese Olympic team in Calcutta". Within weeks, Salim was in Europe, playing for Glasgow Celtic and being praised by the Scottish Daily Express in a story headlined "Indian Juggler — New Style". Very possibly, Salim was the first non-Catholic to wear Celtic colours. In a sense, he represented the mirror image of the journeyman European and footballers who turn up in India now to play in the Indian Soccer League, a new contrivance that Sen examines briefly towards the end of his very fulfilling book. Read it, if you love sport — or simply relish good historiography.

Ashok Malik is senior fellow, Observer Research Foundation. He can be reached at



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