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Has the individual won India's race?
There are trends in sport which reflects shifts in society. When India became independent we were a socialist, nationalist society. Our theme was unity and sport too reflected a sense of collective participation. Our legendary game was hockey and we saw hockey as a part of collective tradition. The team was the hero and the victory belonged to India. The individual counted as part of the collective script. We had Dhyan Chand and Roop Singh but they were part of a symphony called Indian hockey. Even the soloist was part of a collective game.
In fact Shahrukh Khan's film Chak De! India is a myth from that time. Khan locates the movie in a more individualist age but the coach is able to build the solidarities and synergies that hockey required for success. Even our explanations for success were ethnic. We talked of the tradition of sports in the Railways, or the skill of the Anglo-Indians. In fact we the mourned the decline of hockey as the Anglo-Indian community began migrating to Australia and elsewhere.
Sports created a sense of collective identity. Even in wrestling where the exploits were individual. The culture was collective. A wrestler was identified with an akhada and a guru and akhadas became a collective tradition after the Partition. They forged the culture of masculinity and the rules of the athletic body.
Even in tennis the myth was of team play. Ramanathan Krishnan was the legend but there was nothing individualistic about him. He was a self effacing man and a team player. We were never great doubles players but victory in doubles provided moments of solidarity, whether it was Krishnan and Naresh Kumar as gentle duo or Krishnan and Jaydeep Mukherjee's legendary win over the great Australians. The genteel behaviour of our tennis players made tennis feel like a team sport. Watching Krishnan or Naresh Kumar, one realised there was not one egotistic gene in their body. For all their individuality there was nothing individualistic to them. They were team men to the core.
The idea of the team as a focus of solidarity seems to have disappeared with socialism. I am not positing a direct cause and effect. But liberalisation is not just about economics but cultural in the style it evokes and the values it emphasises.
The shift to individualism was not mechanical. There were interesting tensions that were sociologically fascinating. One saw it best at cricket. What I say might sound controversial but the victories of the Indian team appeared like a cascade of brilliant individual performances. We saw the team as resting on the shoulders of one individual: Sachin or a trio of heroes, Dravid, Ganguly and Sachin. We rooted for a team but pinned our hope on individual brilliance. In fact the cricket team was read not as a collective group but a script for serial players. Any replay of a commentary will bury the idea of cricket as a team sport. Our cricket team was a bouquet of individual geniuses masquerading as a collective event.
One saw a similar scenario in tennis, in Davis Cup, the very expression of team spirit. Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi reflected solidarity, a collective machismo of body talk and team identity, signalling the power of patriotism in instigating victory. Today that sounds like nostalgia. The two partners confront each other like two divorcees in their animosity and in their search for individual brownie points. Now it is the individual self that waves and not the national flag. I do not think it's a question of jealousy. I think both players realise that the individualism is too strong for team work. Team work demands a different sense of the whole, a fine tuning of egos that they seem incapable of.
One wonders if the age of individualism has dawned in Indian sport. Our culture seems happier with it. The individual champion appears cleaner, more geometric, and more aesthetic. Think of the brilliance of Geet Sethi, or Prakash Padukone or the genius of Vishy Anand. Yet one must make a cultural point here. Here are three of our greatest sportsmen but there is nothing individualistic about them. Sethi and Padukone have been exemplars in this context. One cannot think of a more self effacing person than Anand. All three appear as fallbacks to a more gentlemanly era.
The style now is different. Our sports now sound like "advertisement to oneself". Think of Virat Kohli or Sania Mirza or Vijender Singh or Abhinav Bindra. Our sportsman appears like an assortment of individuals obsessed with themselves. Sports now demand a killer instinct which emphasises ego and individualism. Maybe the individual style suits the new generation better. The collective has returned to the back stage. In the years to come it is not hockey or football that we will celebrate. It will be individual heroes in individual sports like shooting, boxing and even athletics. The lone hero battling the odds seems to suit our new psyche better. As a form of investment and advertisement, the individual sportsman makes a better storytelling sense. This is something new that our older traditions will have to battle with.
(Shiv Visvanathan is a social science nomad)
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