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The policing of the sportswoman’s sexuality

J Devika | Updated on March 10, 2018
Big Top draw: Female artistes remember how they were in full control of their lives in the circus tent. Photo: K R Deepak

Big Top draw: Female artistes remember how they were in full control of their lives in the circus tent. Photo: K R Deepak   -  The Hindu

J Devika

J Devika

Strength, speed and flexibility continue to be seen as evidence of masculinity and, consequently, denial of femininity and marriageability

Watching the performance of Indian women at Rio on television last month, a close friend recalled with bitterness how her family had forced her to give up her interest in athletics despite talent and early achievements. That sounded strange to our daughters, but not to me, who can remember being told that riding a bicycle was unbecoming of ladies. Ours was also the generation which saw many remarkable women athletes who became popular heroes, whose achievements were, however, often dismissed by uppity circles as driven by the sole desire for a government job that sporting achievements could secure. In other words, another version of the familiar argument about underprivileged people’s ‘lack of merit’.

Sport was perhaps one of the few sites where the elite nature of femininity in Kerala stood revealed. Here, only women of privilege, bound to the reproduction of elite caste-communities and removed from activities requiring strength and flexibility, could be truly ‘feminine’. No wonder, then, that snide remarks about a highly successful Malayali woman athlete abated only when she married, gave birth, dressed ‘like a woman’, all after quitting active competition.

Strength, speed, flexibility — all of it was seen as evidence of ‘masculinisation’, and upper-caste families feared that it would make their daughters unmarriageable.

Are those times truly in the past? As was evident at Rio and elsewhere, female sportspersons often have to struggle against the opposite: hyper-feminisation and the conversion of sport into entertainment at their expense. Yet, if Serena Williams’s experience of the femininity police is anything to go by, the denial of femininity to non-elite women is alive and kicking, and clearly not an Indian predilection alone. Closer home, the policing of sportswomen’s sexuality is a reality, and continues even after tragic consequences such as suicides of young women in training.

But before women’s sports in Kerala, there was the circus. VK Suresh’s recent book on Malayali women in Indian circus ( Circus Lokathe Penjeevithangal, Green Books, 2016) chronicles the lives of these one-time superstars, whose physical strength, agility, and perfect timing were the stuff of legend. These women, mostly of non-elite communities, often hailing from Thalasserry in north Kerala, a famous centre of Indian circus since the early 20th century, often did enter the circus to escape dire poverty. Many of them have now fallen on hard times, but almost all remember how they were in full control of their lives in the circus tent, how the training was constant and arduous, yet empowering.

But most importantly, their memories of living in the tent are often aglow with the remembrance of affect. These recountings of infectious emotional ‘highs’ seem close to what Daniel Stern calls the ‘vitality affect’, which surfaces in a “ rush of anger or joy, a perceived flooding of light, and acceleration of thought, an unmeasurable wave of feeling evoked by music”. Affect connects human beings and resonates through their bodies as movement and emotion. In some of the descriptions that Suresh’s interviewees offer of their time in the Ring, the circus emerges in a new light. The insight that an invisible ocean of affect swayed and rocked behind the grace and perfect coordination of trapeze, carrying all the artistes together and alike in its wave after wave of pleasure, danger, and fear too, leaves me awestruck. No wonder, it sometimes rose to the heights of an aerial dance, leaving all of us below utterly speechless, but equally swayed by the high-tide of affect.

Through these accounts, the reader also acquires a completely different sense of life in the circus tent. The warmth and security of a community of human beings attuned affectively to each other opens up in these words, wiping off stereotypical impressions which portray the circus as hierarchical and ruthlessly exploitative. Yet, this world was so tragically fragile, shattered, usually by death, debilitating injury, or commercial losses. Life after circus was painful not just because of financial difficulties and bodily ailments; the struggle to reinsert oneself into a brutal world outside, completely impervious to affect, is as, or more, challenging perhaps.

I am sure that sport also has moments in which affect triumphs — often echoing in sportspersons’ accounts of victory. Yet it remains impoverished by the stifling bureaucratic domination, which kills affect as it goads sportspersons to deliver ‘selflessly’. The burden of ‘national success’ probably falls more heavily on sportswomen, given the persistence of the colonial habit of making ‘women’s condition’ the index of social progress. However, it is they who are probably denied affect the most, as recent events at training camps reveal. And Hindutva or urban elite nationalisms which denigrate non-elite women elsewhere, cannot generate the kind of affect that can propel them to the heights of victory. That can come only from a genuine love of sport, which, in turn, can ride only on the buoyant waves of socially-levelling affect.

J Devika is a historian and critic based in Thiruvananthapuram

Published on September 23, 2016

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