When German bodybuilder Eugen Sandow, dubbed the ‘most beautiful man in the world’, arrived in Bombay a little over a century ago, he whipped up a ‘physical culture craze’. Within a few months, Indians were emulating his working out techniques, buying his branded products and even growing Sandow-like moustaches.
The story, neatly encapsulated in Michiel Baas’s fascinating new book, Muscular India: Masculinity, Mobility and the New Middle Class, reminded me of Harry Houdini’s impact on Indian magic. Within months of Houdini stumping police at Scotland Yard by escaping from a pair of handcuffs in July 1900, Indian magicians were wrapping themselves in straight-jackets, chains and leg irons, jumping off bridges and being locked up in crates.
Fast-forward a century to Shah Rukh Khan’s freshly baked six-pack in his 2007 hit Om Shanti Om. Almost overnight the idealised post-Independence potbelly of the middle-class male fed on a diet rich in ghee, made way for the flab-free, muscular body. In the same year, the Indian edition of Men’s Health was launched. By using cover models who were not celebrities, the magazine reassured its audience that physical perfection was not reserved for Bollywood stars. Gyms began popping up small towns. Every state soon had its bodybuilding association. Competitions such as Mr. Delhi, Mr. Haryana, Mr. North India and Mr. India proliferated faster than veins popping on muscles during a workout.
Like learning magic, muscle-building is something that mainly appeals to middle-class males. A century ago, both referenced discipline, professionalism and cosmopolitanism. Today, those reference points remain but the striving for bodily perfection that sees thousands of young Indian men spending their savings on gym memberships, protein powders, high-quality supplements, anabolic steroids and growth hormones also reflects the rapid changes India is undergoing.
In the West, bodybuilding as a competitive sport has declined in popularity in favour of fitness. In India, Baas argues, ‘the two are umbilically linked through the narrative of transformation, which resonates with the way “new India” itself is constantly under construction.’ Men on steroids reflects a society on steroids.
The umbilical connection between constructing the perfect body and constructing the new India is the most interesting aspect of Baas’s study. Muscular bodies were once associated with goondas and the working class and thus with aggressive, violent and other uncouth behaviour. Today, the ability to fast-track one’s muscle size is synonymous with success, with being in control and being able to withstand the caprices of rampant consumerism.
Baas also touches on the political aspect of bodybuilding. After his tour, Sandow belittled his growing legion of Indian fans, echoing Thomas Babington Macaulay’s disparaging assertion that Hindus were ‘weak even to the point of effeminacy’. Little wonder then that recuperating Hindu masculinity is one of the aims of Hindutva-oriented organisations such as the RSS.
Baas, a Singapore-based anthropologist, spent a decade researching this book. While he backs his arguments using academic theories and scholarly studies, he doesn’t disappoint the reader by ignoring the sometimes surreal side of body sculpting.
In one chapter, we meet Victor, a ‘Tambrahm’ from Chennai and a former IT professional, whose inspiration to tone up his muscles came after seeing a poster of former Mr Olympia Dorian Yates. But fuelling his body with protein proved challenging in a strictly vegetarian Brahmin household. An electric stove in his backyard was used to secretly cook meat. Tins of tuna smuggled into his workplace had to be eaten in the fire escape to avoid offending his mostly Brahmin colleagues. The subterfuge paid off and Victor left Paypal to join the growing legion of fitness trainers.
Baas also explores the overtly homoerotic side of bodybuilding. While some body-builders and fitness trainers don’t hide their homosexuality and have packs of followers on their private fan pages, the scene is decidedly chaste. So obsessed are the men Baas meets with building their own bodies, they have no time for girlfriends – let alone a chance sexual encounter with another male.
Unfortunately, Baas largely ignores the associations between Indian masculinity, violence towards women and entrenched gender inequality. He qualifies his admission of this failing by asserting that India’s burgeoning gym culture does have some positive aspects by instilling in men notions of discipline and perseverance. Harassment in public places and the danger of rape, is also propelling more women to join gyms, many of which now offer self-defence classes.
Missing also is the important contribution of early yoga practitioners such as Bishnu Charan Ghosh to today’s cult of the body beautiful. In the 1920s, Ghosh took troupes of bodybuilders around Bengal and then began incorporating Hatha yoga techniques into his shows. Ghosh’s contribution to the emergence of gymnasiums and bodybuilding practices is comprehensively covered in Calcutta Yoga: How Modern Yoga Travelled to the World from the Streets of Calcutta by Jerome Armstrong. As Armstrong points out, there were hundreds of gymnasiums in Calcutta in the 1930s specialising in weight-lifting and other muscle building techniques. One Bengali bodybuilding society, the Anushilan Samiti, even advocated the use of violence as a means for ending colonial rule in India.
Such omissions are the only blemish to Baas’s otherwise masterful and readable study. Broad in scope but devoid of oversimplifications, Muscular India shines a probing light on a largely unexplored aspect of India’s social, cultural and economic transformation.
John Zubrzycki is a writer whose latest book is The House of Jaipur: The Inside Story of India’s Most Glamorous Royal Family (Juggernaut).