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Reviewed by:
  • Subaltern Sports: Politics and Sport in South Asia ed. by James H. Mills
  • Andrew Muldoon
Subaltern Sports: Politics and Sport in South Asia. Edited by James H. Mills. London: Anthem Press, 2005.

In his introduction, James Mills makes a persuasive case for the historical study of Indian sport and for the value of such investigations as part of a larger inquiry into the concept and enactment of subalternity itself. As he notes, “[s]ports invite subalternity” in many ways (2). Physical courage and strength count more than social status on the playing field, to be sure, but Mills notes that sporting contests, events and even venues serve in more complicated and multiple ways, as sites for challenging, reinforcing and demonstrating subalternity. The essays in this volume, covering everything from Keralan martial arts to recent controversies in international cricket, indeed demonstrate just how generative the study of sport can be for historians across the discipline. The essays do not at times fully integrate larger ideas about the subaltern into their arguments, but that hardly detracts from this collection’s overall value as an example of innovative historical investigation and as an invitation for much more research.

Though not organized formally, this collection divides fairly neatly into three sections examining indigenous sport in South Asia, and then sport in both the colonial and post-colonial eras. In the first part, Philip Zarrilli and Joseph Alter respectively discuss kalarippayattu, the Keralan martial art, and the north Indian practice of jori (club) swinging. Both essays stress the continued popularity of these disciplines in contemporary India and the ways in which these practices cultivate and demonstrate the agency of the individual and the power of the self. Kalarippayattu is a means of controlling and disciplining the body, and thus strengthening oneself internally and externally, while jori-swinging competitions are sites for the display of raw power, and thus the presentation of masculine self-control and harnessed and redirected sexual energy. Although these essays provide fascinating ethnographic depictions of these exercises, neither Zarrilli nor Alter integrate much about subalternity into their work, relying instead on an implied connection between that condition and ideas of subjectivity and agency. Relational or contextual aspects of the formation of subaltern status do not appear here; for example, Alter’s account of jori contests does not provide much sense of who actually participates in them, nor, more importantly, of the socio-cultural context in which such displays of strength have perhaps larger meanings.

Peter Parkes, in his assessment of colonial alterations of the indigenous form of polo played in northern Pakistan, provides a neat transition from the consideration of indigenous sport to the role played by athletics in colonial South Asia. While Parkes examines how colonial administrators and local elites sought to regularize and structure an existing practice, the next three contributors focus on sports introduced by the Raj: cricket and golf. Ramachandra Guha eloquently recounts the story of the Palwankar brothers, members of the Chamaar caste and thus Untouchables, who became the preeminent Indian cricketers of the first third of the twentieth century. Satadru Sen addresses the politics of contemporary cricket, with particular attention to the umpiring controversy that marked the 2001 Test between India and South Africa. The creation and growth of the Royal Calcutta Golf Club occupies Paul Dimeo’s attention as he examines it as a site for the production of British identity and as a contested place in the post-colonial city.

Of these essays, Guha’s stands out, both in its presentation and in its evocation of the multiple subalternities present in the story of the Palwankars. As Indians playing a colonial sport against England, and, perhaps even more important, as Untouchables seeking their place in the Hindu teams that competed in the Bombay Quadrangular tournament, these brothers negotiated questions of status for years, or at least until the 1920s when one of the younger brothers, Vithal, became the first Untouchable to captain the Hindu eleven. Guha notes the intersection of the brothers’ story with that of the rise of B.R. Ambedkar’s Untouchable movement in the 1930s and credits the Palwankars with the emergence of caste discrimination as a public issue...

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