- Chameleon Games: Ranjitsinhji’s Politics of Race and Gender
The first Indian to become a celebrity athlete was a man of staggering contradictions. At various points in a public career that stretched between the 1890s and the 1930s, he was the definitive upper-class Englishman as well as the authentic Oriental. He was the stalwart defender of the Empire on the cricket fields of Australia and the trenches of France, but he was also acutely aware of the racial hierarchies of British colonialism, and could be a scathing critic of imperial policy. For much of his life, he tried hard to represent himself as a member of India’s so-called martial classes. Yet his gender was circumscribed by his ambiguous racial status, and he was frequently depicted by English observers as a fragile, almost ethereal creature, far removed from late-Victorian ideals of masculinity.
The individual in question is Kumar Shri Ranjitsinhji, or, as the British renamed him, Ranji. This renaming of the man is not insignificant. The contrast between the long, “exotic” name and short Anglicized nickname represents the discursive tensions that surrounded Ranjitsinhji during his long career as an athlete, a politician, a celebrity and a legend. These tensions reveal a great deal about the ideologiesof race, gender, and political identity in colonial India and the contemporary Empire. When we look closely at how Ranjitsinhji represented himself, and at how he was represented by others, we find that the fluctuating discourses of color, manhood and loyalty served a dual function. On the one hand, they served to restrict his mobility in an empire that was defined in terms of race, gender and political allegiance. On the other hand, because these discourses were not fixed, but subject to transformation and manipulation, they could serve as enormous assets: to the man himself, as well as to those who clutched at his image.
What I intend to do in this paper is examine three parallel and interlinked processes of transformation. By the first process, Ranjitsinhji the Indian became Ranji the brown Englishman, and then reverted to Ranjitsinhji — but without entirely relinquishing his claim to Englishness. By the second process, a man of very vague political standing became a champion of the British Empire and a companion of Britain’s ruling elites, and then became a bitter critic of colonial policy in India, but without giving up his claim to loyalty. By the third process, a “Rajput warrior” became a delicate, magical, almost non-physical presence, even as he played a sport that was central to late-nineteenth-century English masculinity. A few years later, however, he changed again into a hyper-masculine Rajput, and took on the additional identity of a modern Indian man. In each case, the transformation was part of an elaborate and partially successful strategy of developing a political and cultural base for Ranjitsinhji that was substantially autonomous of the British.
I am not arguing that the changes were simply a series of disingenuous poses. These were metamorphoses brought about by colonial education, English adulation, and the realities of imperial politics. What is significant is the publicity that was given to each new posture, by Ranjitsinhji himself, and subsequently by his official biographer Roland Wild. Wild’s biography of his patron is a fascinating historical document, not only because it reveals much about how Ranjitsinhji wanted to be remembered by the English, but also because it shows how English readers may have wanted to remember the man. No less than Ranjitsinhji himself, Wild is one of the actors in this analysis. While it is safe to assume a broad commonality of interest between Ranjitsinhji and his literary undertaker, it is important not to lose sight of one very important fact: Wild was engaged in preserving Ranjitsinhji for English collective memory. Accordingly, he selected episodes and images that made Ranjitsinhji a familiar and sympathetic figure for English readers, especially English males. Obviously, an Indian nationalist or a feminist would have made very different choices. The point, of course, is that Ranjitsinhji did not choose an Indian, or a woman, to assemble and present his posthumous image. He chose Roland Wild.
Ranjitsinhji was born within three...