The ostentatious government-sponsored celebration of Kolkata Knight Riders' victory in IPL-5 is negative poriborton
The recent victory of the Kolkata Knight Riders in IPL-5 was clearly significant for the people of Kolkata. There were reports of street-side celebrations, the traditional exchange of sweets, a flurry of firecrackers, spontaneous outbursts of joy capped off by a massive celebratory parade and show at Eden Gardens. For a city that three weeks previously was torn between supporting the hometown team and the team captained by a hometown hero, the seemingly unanimous joy that the KKR victory led to, demonstrated primarily by the full house at the Eden and the thousands who thronged outside on a sweltering mid-May afternoon, was a revelation. It made me wonder: what does it really mean for a city to win? And what makes people celebrate such a victory? Especially when the team representing the city has tenuous connections to the city at best, like KKR, owned by a consortium of film stars and businessmen from Mumbai, captained by a cricketer from Delhi, managed by a professional cricket coach from Sydney and comprising players from around the world? Is it just a case of nothing succeeding like success or does it point to a deeper connection between the city and its people that transcends received categories of identity?
Cities and sporting identities
Universally, the city has not been the primary representative unit for competing in sporting events. While sport most prominently involves competition between individuals or countries, there exist strong parallel club competitions in several team sports. Clubs, especially smaller ones, are sometimes formed on the basis of city affiliations — Bolton Wanderers, Blackburn Rovers, Wigan Athletic, Preston North End, all examples of Lancashire football clubs founded to represent particular cities and originally comprising local players. But more often than not, sporting clubs are metaphors for equally strong, or even stronger, sub-city identities or political ideologies: The Old Firm of Rangers and Celtic, both Glasgow clubs divided by religious belief, Boca Juniors and River Plate, Buenos Aires clubs representing distinct economic classes in the city, Real and Athletico Madrid, separated by their historical differences in degrees of proximity to the ruling establishment in Spain, and, closer home, Mohun Bagan and East Bengal, their support contingent on whether one's ancestral home fell in West Bengal or the erstwhile East Bengal (now Bangladesh).
Intertwined with the idea of supporting a club, at least in the early phases of its existence, is thus the idea of identity with the club, based on a number of entrenched factors among which the fact of a club belonging to a city has been one, albeit to a limited extent.
It was only in the United States that the idea of a city as a widespread standalone sporting unit emerged, shorn of any overlapping markers of identity. This was facilitated by a view, which saw sporting clubs as “franchises” which were to be run on business principles. A fan base had to be created and their loyalty earned with the ultimate end of generating revenue for the franchise. Cities were fungible components of this business: the team could be located in whichever city held out the maximum scope for profit. Thus the Seattle Supersonics, a championship winning basketball franchise in the NBA moved to Oklahoma in 2008 following three decades in Seattle, after failing to reach an agreement for stadium expansion with the municipal authorities. The promise of generating greater ticket sales, a wider fan base and the presence of pliant municipal authorities in Oklahoma were deal-clinchers for the move, notwithstanding vociferous protests by local fans in Seattle. Such relocations are neither uncommon nor a recent phenomenon: the history of the NBA documents about 20 relocations spanning the length and breadth of the country in the last half-a-century, including most notably the move by the Lakers from their lakeside home in Minneapolis to Los Angeles in 1960, heralding the creation of the redoubtable but oddly-named Los Angeles Lakers, the NBA's most valuable franchise. Support for such a mobile franchise therefore had to be painstakingly constructed — the inclusion of local players, aggressive marketing, and, most importantly, the conceptualisation of the playing arena as a convivial shared space where city residents come for the first time as consumers, but leave and return as loyal fans.
Franchises to the fore
It is the successful implementation of this American idea of a city-based sporting team as a popular, overtly commercial entity that has been responsible for the widespread popularity of the IPL and provides a key explanation for the celebrations following KKR's success. Central to KKR's popularity is the reconceptualisation of Kolkata, the city, into Kolkata Knight Riders, the cricketing brand. A Bengali-spouting Shah Rukh Khan professing his love for the city and its people, the ill-fated anointment of Sourav Ganguly as the first captain of the team, the team's Bengali theme song, its wide-ranging merchandise with the KKR logo emblazoned prominently, backed up by arousing chants and electronic diktats at the Eden Gardens galvanising the home crowd into getting behind the team are all elements of the aggressive marketing campaign that has both created and sustained a faithful fan base, which provides the plinth for this reconceptualisation.
Clutching at straws
Without these, Kolkata, or any city for that matter, would primarily remain a shared physical space, where the business of life is transacted, deals struck, stories swapped, relationships nurtured. Such a space can never win or lose, it can only exist; happily for some, less so for others. But the IPL, and particularly KKR with their branding hard sell, have proved that a city's identity, even in this day and age of large-scale inter-city and international movement, can be moulded into a marketable brand, which people and companies can buy into and sustain. So KKR's victory is not a victory for Kolkata the city, as has been vainly claimed by many, it is the victory of KKR, the brand that is fundamentally fungible and cares little for the city it actually belongs to. After all, let's not forget that Shah Rukh Khan's Red Chillies Entertainment bid for the IPL teams of five cities, Delhi, Mumbai, Chandigarh and Jaipur, apart from Kolkata, whichever could be fetched at the best price. So much for their love for the city.
So what does the victory mean for Kolkata, the city? At a time when its image locally, nationally and internationally has been tarnished owing to the sheer disregard by the present dispensation of the most basic norms of good governance, this victory, albeit in an annually held, corruption-tainted and conspiracy-fuelled cricket tournament has been seen by some, and most certainly the present Chief Minister as evidence of the turning tide, of the much-vaunted “poriborton (change”) she had promised. But what shape and form did this change take? Have babies stopped mysteriously dying in public hospitals in the city? Have the fire safety units in public and private establishments been subjected to a thorough inspection? Are industries from near and far queuing up to invest in Bengal? Is the State's unmanageable debt situation showing signs of improvement? Can people speak their mind freely without being branded communist conspirators? Unsurprisingly, none of these and several equally crucial issues have seen even the slightest change. Instead, KKR's victory led to a parade and state-managed jamboree that choked an arterial city road on a workday afternoon with inadequate arrangements for redirecting vehicles, foisted a further debt on the State exchequer owing to the government's inexplicable decision to award gold chains to a squad of high-earning cricketers and provided audiences with an unplanned and mindless spectacle at the Eden Gardens where sections of the city's population who had bought into the KKR story could eat their heart out watching Shah Rukh Khan gyrate to popular Bengali music.
As a city boy myself, the alacrity with which my fellow Kolkatans claimed this victory as their own was pitiful to witness. Much like Biswambhar Roy, the protagonist in Satyajit Ray's masterpiece Jalsaghar who, despite his crumbling wealth, organises one last grand concert that heralds his ultimate ruin, Kolkata's celebration of KKR's IPL victory smacks of a once-proud city clutching on to its last vestiges of misplaced greatness. In doing so, it remains intentionally oblivious to the fact that in this ostentatious self-assertion of KKR's success, lies its own demise as a cerebral and cultured city.
(Arghya Sengupta is a Kolkata boy.)