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  • The Quest for Manhood:Masculine Hinduism and Nation in Bengal
  • Subho Basu (bio) and Sikata Banerjee (bio)

Seven millions sons, oh devoted Mother, you have made into Bengalis, not men.

—Rabindranath Tagore, "Bongo Mata" ("Mother Bengal")

Goal!" thundered eighty thousand spectators in Calcutta's soccer stadium when Abilash Ghosh of Mohun Bagan grabbed a quick pass from Shibdas Bhaduri and hit the ball into the net against East York. Within two minutes the final match for the Indian Football Association (IFA) shield between East York, a British military team, and Mohun Bagan, a team of Calcutta Bengalis, came to an end on 29 July 1911. So electrifying was the victory for the Bengalis that many started tearing their shirts and waving them in the air. Even members of the Moslem Sporting Club (a pioneering soccer team of Bengal Muslims), forgetting bitter moments of Hindu-Muslim conflict during the anti-partition movement that took place between 1903 and 1911, "went almost mad . . . [started] rolling on the ground . . . on the victory of their Hindu brethren." The event became international news as Reuters reported that "for the first time in the history of Indian Football, a core Bengali team, Mohun Bagan, won the IFA Shield by defeating a competent White team." Euphoria did not die down as the next morning, 30 July 1911, the Bengali, a nationalist daily of Calcutta, published a poem by the Mohun Bagans:

Thanks my friends of football renown,For bringing the British teams downA victory grand to behold,Serene and noble-bright and bold.1

The Bengali narrative of this event no doubt demonstrates the relationship between sports and nationalism in the imperial context. Indeed, recent research demonstrates that sports, with its tense spectacular drama for a limited period, highlights moments of nationalist outpouring and transforms the imagined community of nation into concrete reality marked by intense emotion, sentimentality, and display of physical prowess.2 This sporting event can also be read as a spectacle transmitting and creating a specific idea of an imagined Bengali community. This event in Calcutta also touches a crucial cultural aspect of emerging Indian nationalism [End Page 476] among Hindus of Bengal, namely, the quest for manhood. No doubt the effete image of Bengalis portrayed by many British colonial officials impinged on the consciousness of Bengali Hindus who from the late nineteenth century engaged in a political project of recovery of physical prowess through a physical culture movement. This project was intimately linked with notions of competing masculinities within the colonial milieu.

Masculinity, like other forms of identity, is historically, politically, and culturally constituted. However, as Robert W. Connell claims, one form is always hegemonic.3 In the nineteenth, twentieth, and early twenty-first centuries, Anglo-American hegemonic masculinity valorized/valorizes traits such as rationality, martial prowess, muscular strength, competition, individualism, and male camaraderie, as well as a zero-sum approach to confrontation.4 It is important to note that even within the parameters of hegemonic masculinity, masculinity was multifaceted, never just the sole exercise of raw power. Further, the hegemony of a certain cultural form of masculinity within the nation also shaped relations with femininities and female bodies.

Hegemonic masculinity has had a complex existence within the British Empire. On the one hand, imperialism configured its ideas of hegemonic masculinities by defining itself against a supposedly "effeminate" colonial other, and on the other hand, the colonized subject created a masculine cultural space that resisted this feminization. With colonizer and colonized locked in struggle, terms of which had been set by Britain's imperial authority, not surprisingly various nationalist responses occurred in incorporating the values of hegemonic masculinity. However, this incorporation did not merely duplicate British ideas but was itself an imaginative configuration of nationalist myths and icons based on traditional cultural ideas aimed at challenging alien colonial rule. The dynamic dance of competing masculinities under the British imperial gaze happened in various colonial spaces: Ireland, Palestine, and Australia.5 This study of Bengali nationalism is the study of a particular intersection of masculinity and nation in a colonial space quite integral to Britain's empire in India: Bengal.

The quest for masculinity became a crucial component of elite nationalism in Bengal...