India celebrates the victory of money and glamour, not the game of cricket. The IPL, which has got under way, is an amplified form of sport-as-spectacle.
More than a week after the thrilling victory at Wankhede Stadium, India is still celebrating. But what exactly is the nation rejoicing over? On that eventful Saturday night and the following Sunday, middle-class India, probably numbering 200 million, could not get over what appeared to be a historic win at the end of a challenging contest, quite unlike the semi-finals in which Pakistan seemed to buckle under with shoddy fielding.
Party hangovers come rather quickly once daylight casts its harsh light on the reveller. One way of getting around the eventual hangover is to stay drunk, to continue the party long after its inspiration has receded to the dark corners of public memory, only to be savoured whenever the collective unconscious seeks solace in an encouraging past.
NO MORE A SPORT
But the post-World Cup excitement did not die down; celebrations continued into the following week with the heroes of the win valorised in a way that only Indians, with the help of an obliging media, can work their myth-making machines. From the Indian Air Force that wanted Tendulkar and Dhoni to fly in and, thus, bestow their mystic benediction on its best jet fighter, the Sukhoi, to the transformation of the Indian skipper into a CEO who can teach the rest of industry a lesson or two, to the elevation of Tendulkar into the pantheon of the gods — nothing seemed enough to reward success.
In this post-modern age of television, it is not cricket-as-sport that elicits accolades from a nation grateful for the reassertion of team spirit, arduous effort, craftsmanship, patience and, most important, gamesmanship — that at the end of the day it is only a game that allows human beings to transcend their worst instincts.
In the hysteria surrounding India's win, there was one aspect that was overlooked: The recognition that even losers are winners and that the only difference between victory and defeat is the size of the trophy and now increasingly, prize money.
The assertion of national pride evident in full page advertisements that explicitly valorises the players as stringently and stridently Indian is not peculiar to cricket. In Latin America, wars have followed the outcomes of football matches and all the rhetoric of pan-Europeanism cannot hide the ugly face of petty nationalism in football stadia.
A more subdued jingoism marks the middle-class celebration of the win on April 2. It stretches ‘national pride' into hubris and limits our capacity to be tolerant of those who would criticise us; Shahid Afridi may have gone on the defensive when he said that his remarks about Indians were quoted out of context, but for the Indian media, the self-appointed mediator and creator of middle-class opinion, the Pakistani captain's views only seemed to confirm the worst views of our surly loser-neighbour.
GAME AS TV SPECTACLE
Who, or what, are we celebrating? Our appreciation of Dhoni and his team's victory springs from our immersion in a spectacle created for our gratification. We were and are celebrating the idea of victory as filtered through the print but most of all through television. And television trains its spotlight on the individual.
Every issue, be it the tsunami, the Libyan crisis, fight against corruption or the cricket win is reduced to an individual's typology. The visual medium can only exploit its full potential through a persona and the larger it is, the better. But in the process of valorising (or demonising), television trivialises the context. And the print medium not to be outdone follows suit, thus abandoning the one virtue it has of retaining the reader's attention on the substantive issue, in this case, the game of cricket. Add the expert commentators and their “sports chatter” to use one of Umberto Eco's phrases, and what the viewer ends up with is an increasingly meaningless form of spectacle posing as sport.
Nothing shows up the trivialisation of cricket more than the Indian Premier League that has just got under way, extending in a perverse way the celebratory spirit of the World Cup win.
What the IPL does is to manipulate our emotional antennas; a week ago the Indian spectator was rooting for a team he or she felt bound by geography and its cultural associations. Now, the IPL expects mass emotions to be transmitted to purely commercial groupings, say the Rajasthan Royals — groups created by buying players and their uniforms just for the carnival.
How can such hothouse groupings that are not even like football clubs attract the spectator enough? The only way is to focus not only on the capabilities of individuals and their personas crafted by television's valorisation, but also on the value attached to them by the price for which they were bought.
But that alone cannot retain the attention of millions that underwrite, without knowing it, one of India's unique commercial initiatives. The only way to grab the spectator is to enchant him by turning the event into an even more fantastical version of sports-as-Spectacle.
The fourth edition of IPL is a Bollywood fantasy, a carousel of music and lights and glamour moderated by “talking hairdos” in Neil Postman's memorable phrase who shall fill the numbed mind with useless “chatter”. What the IPL audiences will experience is one long commercial meant to reaffirm their self-estimation as Glamorous Indians.
No country could have re-created cricket in the way India has; but that is because no country could have turned its players into the commodities that the IPL has turned national hero-sportsmen from around the world. When India celebrates its “cricket”, it rejoices in the game's neon-lit simulacrum played out in a hall of mirrors.