Auspicious signs of IPL stirring community feeling (Commentary)

May 9th, 2008 - 10:23 am ICT by admin  

By Shylashri Shankar
Everyone agrees that the Indian Premier League (IPL) has produced a fine spectacle but disagrees on whether it is good or bad for cricket. Film star brand ambassadors like Akshay Kumar and owners like Shah Rukh Khan and Preeti Zinta, the Washington Redskin cheerleaders and others provide the glamour and glitz to the three-hour cricket spectacle staged in the arena. Will the IPL produce a Roman spectacle, a fierce locally held identity that could spark hooliganism of the European football league variety, or a more diffuse community that spurs qualities of good citizenship? On one end of the spectrum, you have the Roman gladiatorial spectacle where citizens came, cheered, saw a death and left satisfied. For Romans, the gladiator versus the beast was a bloody show that gave them a chance to come together and feel Roman against the outsiders (the gladiators and perhaps the beasts too).

On the other end of the spectrum, you have a situation where people with overlapping loyalties come together and cheer for their teams or for the underdog, but perhaps not caring enough for the winners or losers. For instance, if one is born in Chennai, has lived for a period in Hyderabad, and now resides in Delhi, which team is one loyal to? One may be happy if any of the three gets to the finals. We can call it the production of civic overlapping communities.

And in the middle of the spectrum, you have the strongly held local loyalties of a Dilliwala versus a Mumbaikar (similar to American football fans) who would die rather than cheer for the other team even if their team was not playing in the match. We can call it tribalism.

It is unlikely that the IPL will reproduce the Roman scenario because the players are local, national and international. Pakistanis jostle with Australians and Indians in one team, which, unlike the Roman spectacle where gladiators were not Roman, makes it hard for the spectators to feel Indian against the outsiders. In the IPL, the stakes are not life and death, and the boundaries are not between citizens and outsiders.

If not the Roman scenario, will the IPL produce fierce localism verging on hooliganism? The European experience with football suggests that fans would use any means, including hooliganism, to push their teams to victory. Hooliganism for sociologist John Clarke is a reaction on the part of alienated youths from disintegrated working class communities against the commercialisation and spectacularisation of football. The advertisements for IPL certainly suggest that the ideal viewer ought to possess almost tribe-like loyalties to a team. For fierce tribe-like city loyalty, IPL has to have a core fan base, which is not yet present and may never materialise.

“How can you generate city loyalty in a sport that is so focused on national identity?” says cricket historian Ramachandra Guha. Committed cricket fans are still ambivalent about IPL because they argue that the Twenty20 variant is a batsman’s show and does not give a fair chance to the bowler. Guha and others argue that IPL commodifies cricketers and denudes the craft of the game. IPL may produce consumers, not committed fans, so fierce localism may not materialise either.

A nation is an imagined community, said British social anthropologist Benedict Anderson. Imagined because members of even the smallest nation will never meet or know all their fellow members “but in the mind of each lives the image of their communion”. Every sport has its own imagined community. For instance, football and rugby in England attract the white, male, working class audience and exclude those like women and ethnic minorities who do not fit the category. Basketball is the favourite of ethnic minorities (mainly black) in the UK. But cricket transcends class, religious and linguistic cleavages. Go to any park or street in India and you will see poor and rich boys playing cricket, perhaps not together. Cricket fans include men and women of all ranks.

Will IPL produce Amartya Sen’s multiple and overlapping imagined communities among the cricket fans of the world? What IPL may do is to bring fans and others together for three hours in a stadium, instead of just watching it from a distance on the small screen. The combination of sport and spectacle in the IPL games may generate an imagined community that transcends jingoism. There are promising signs for such a development. Notwithstanding the Bhaji-Sreesanth slap episode, the interaction between players on the field has been characterised by camaraderie rather than conflict. Among viewers too, there was fellow feeling as we, in one Delhi game, struggled to make sense of the scoreboard. Finally, people started using their cell phones to check with friends who were watching the match on TV and gaily shared the information with the rest of us. The start of a civic community perhaps? Maybe that is premature, but there are auspicious signs.

Tocqueville noted about America that citizens’ groupings formed around sport to cultivate cultural values of equality, liberty, excellence and virtue. IPL could create a community based on the shared experience of watching a game. But to do so depends on several factors: a hassle-free experience for the fan in the arena, good security and policing, non-prohibitive ticket prices, players who display camaraderie with the opposing team and play in the spirit of the game, and more competitive pitches that offer batsmen and bowlers a fair game.

Unlike international cricket or any other game where India’s national pride is at stake, an IPL game generates less jingoistic nationalism, and more community-like feelings. I asked a Delhi-based friend’s driver whom he and his friends supported in IPL. He said that he supported the Delhi Daredevils and the Kolkata Knight Riders. He was not a Bengali. It turns out that they support teams with good players from the under-19 contingent. So speaketh the true cricket ‘affectionado’ for whom the sport trumps parochialism.

The teams that comprise players from New Zealand, Australia, Pakistan and India, among others, are melting pots that subsume racial, class and religious differences. One supports the entire team like Kolkata Knight Riders, not just Sourav Ganguly or Ricky Ponting. This helps educate and acclimatise fans and viewers into thinking globally not locally. One hopes IPL will produce more communities of viewers who share an enjoyable experience for three hours and learn to be civic-minded. But we have a long way to go.

(Shylashri Shankar is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research. She can be reached on shylashris@gmail.com)

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