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The new Indian muscular body order

Karthik Shankar | Updated on September 25, 2020 Published on September 25, 2020

Step up: The urban gym is where workingclass trainers forge connections with businessmen and white-collar professionals   -  ISTOCK.COM

Michiel Baas’s ‘Muscular India’ is a deeply humanistic portrait of the men who use their bodies to grow beyond their middle-class realities

In a memorable fight sequence in the Tamil film I (2015), the protagonist, a relatively slender bodybuilder played by Vikram, faces off against half a dozen rivals, their massive, sculpted pecs gleaming with oil. Over the next four minutes, an intense workout ensues as he pummels their bodies with dumbbells, uses a pole to fend them off, and performs a bench press with two of them. I replayed that scene on YouTube and was able to recontextualise it after reading Dutch anthropologist Michiel Baas’s compelling non-fiction book Muscular India. Baas, a research fellow with the National University of Singapore, has long engaged with questions of migration, class, and social mobility among Indians and the Indian diaspora. In his fourth book, built on interviews with personal trainers and bodybuilders over a decade, Baas puts the Indian muscular body in the spotlight. In the process, he touches on an array of astute insights about middle-class aspirations, and how gym-transformed, cosmopolitan bodies pave the way for this upward mobility.

Muscular India: Masculinity, Mobility & the New Middle Class / Michiel Baas / Westland/Context / Non-fiction / ₹699

Rebuilding the masculine self, an ongoing project in modern India, is an attempt to break away from the past. The emaciated body conjures up images of colonial-era destitution. Meanwhile, pot-bellied bodies that denote financial success are no longer in vogue. The muscular body with its connotations of professionalism and discipline epitomises new India. But muscular bodies are not all equal. The bodybuilder physique, which brings to mind pehlwans and certain so-called pastoral communities such as Gujjars and Jats, is seen as representative of the working class. What Baas refers to as the “lean, muscular ideal”, deified on movie screens and the covers of magazines such as Men’s Health, is the type that appeals to the middle-class imagination. As he points out, “Lean muscular bodies ... point at physical control — not as a reinforcement of older, patriarchal gender relations, but as a way to seek out a new masculine self that is in tune with and even embraces societal change.” Not surprisingly, these muscular bodily ideals are exclusionary and expensive. In addition to the punishing exercise routines, they require investments in highly regulated diets, protein powders, and illegal steroids.

The trainers and bodybuilders in the pages of Muscular India are no himbos though. “Brokers in bodily transformation”, their bodies are prototypes that show off their specialist skills and encourage upper-class clients to try out this lifestyle. Their bodily capital is exercised in the gym, an urban homosocial space where working-class trainers can make connections with businessmen and white-collar professionals they would otherwise be isolated from. Seemingly rarified hierarchies within the Indian middle-class collapse in this environment. One trainer proudly says to Baas that a high-profile client refers to him as ‘Sir’.

Earlier, my perception of the muscular body was filtered through homoeroticism, but this book quickly disbanded this simplistic caste-capitalist attitude. Muscular bodies perform to a variety of spectators, each of whom engages with them differently. In one anecdote, Baas mentions young men who attend a bodybuilding competition in Chennai and take pride in the physiques displayed by the Tamil men on stage. Baas points out the contradictory ways in which we think of the muscular body. He encourages us to think of the muscular body as an actor “that makes decisions and actively engages with its changing environment”. Despite its ostensible associations with hegemonic masculinity, the bodybuilder’s physique is a “gender dissident” body, curvaceous and hairless, characteristics considered female. These are also seen as “freakish make-belief” bodies in contrast to the lean, muscular standard, even though both are inaccessible ideals.

Baas superbly lays out the dissonance between the desexualised manner in which bodybuilders relate to their bodily transformation and the gaze that erotically charges it. Despite the occasional trainer who doubles as a sex worker, that these bodies are repositories of sexual desire harkens back to older histories of caste and class.

Muscular India is a deeply humanistic portrait of the men who use their bodies to shift and expand the category of middle-classness. It’s a path littered with financial instability, social disapproval, body image insecurities, health concerns, and the labour itself of maintaining and remaking a muscular body. The stories of Kishore, the fitness trainer who opens a gym in a wedding ground, Manish, the fitness entrepreneur who lacks confidence in his English-speaking abilities, and Ravi, the trainer from a wealthy business family who takes his own life, feel achingly familiar to us.

Occasionally, Baas’s research can’t keep up with the scale of sociocultural change in India. I longed for a more comprehensive look rather than the brief mention of akharas (traditional wrestling lodges), which were refashioned into gyms. After all, the restrictive lifestyles — vegetarianism and sexual abstinence — propagated by akharas stand in tantalising contrast to gym culture, which encourages meat-eating and the chance to fit into cosmopolitan sexual standards. The book doesn’t quite say whether the heterogenous middle class who live outside metropolises exercise similar class aspirations through the muscular body. That said, can any single book capture every contradictory and multifaceted dimension of bodily transformation in India?

A few years ago, I took a month-long membership at a swanky gym in Chennai. Full of buff men beating their bodies into submission under the watchful eyes of personal trainers, every visit felt disorienting. I had little enthusiasm for fitness culture although I was invested in its muscular outcome. A few weeks on, I noticed a man furtively eyeing me while I was using the hammer strength machine. In my first few days, I had also figured out how most of the equipment worked by casually hanging around the men who were using it. My motions became swifter with this awareness that I was being watched. I wonder what Baas would have noted about my shift from spectator to star in this hasty performance of bodily knowledge, class, and masculinity.

Karthik Shankar is a writer and editor based in Chennai

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Published on September 25, 2020
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