The ‘popularity’ of some sports stems from the government and the media marginalising others, particularly on the basis of gender
Haranpreet Kaur, Subhalakshmi Sharma, Punam Raut. Odds are, all these names are unfamiliar to you. They are some of the women who were instrumental in winning India an international sporting event very recently — the Asia Cup T20 women’s cricket tournament. Our girls posted a convincing 18-run victory over none other than arch-rival Pakistan at Guangzhou, China to claim the inaugural Asia Cup title for India on October 31. But you would be forgiven for your ignorance, for there has hardly been any publicity for the event in the major media outlets, either at the national or at the regional level.
A win in an all-Asia tournament by the women’s cricket team is made a non-event while even a bi-nation ‘series’ played by men cricketers would have hogged the limelight for weeks. Not surprising, given that women’s sport in general and women’s cricket in particular is a neglected domain in Indian media.
Indeed, the world of sports in India is deeply class ridden. Some sports, namely tennis and (men’s) cricket, are popular entertainers and are, therefore, blessed with big ticket corporate sponsorship and have the halo of ‘glamour’ around them. Other games that are not so popular remain neglected and obscure. It is to be noted, however, that in our media-driven culture, ‘popularity’ is as much a construct as a matter of uncomplicated mass favour. The relationship between the popularity of a particular sport and the attention it receives from the government and the media is a symbiotic one rather than a one-way causation. Moreover, often the nature of a sport and its origins determine its acceptability to a largely middle-to-upper class sports viewership generated by satellite television. Thus, plebeian indigenous sports like kho-kho or kabaddi, which are not perceived to be genteel enough for our attention, are bypassed by the media though a large number of the Indian youth participate in these sports. On the other hand, golf and car racing, big-money games played by a minuscule minority, are given more than adequate media coverage.
Politics of popularity
Gender, of course, is a major driver of this politics of popularity. Though people in India have slowly learnt to concede the normality of the working woman (so long as she is not the boss), women in sports have not yet found favour among the majority of Indians, women included. Perhaps it is the elements of active physicality and strength involved in playing a game that our masculinist culture cannot countenance in women, who are expected to be delicate and passive in order to be perceived as sufficiently ‘feminine’. Thus a hugely popular game like cricket when played by women is not at all popular, is hardly noticed by the media and is sometimes even derided. Women’s tennis should not be cited as an exception since its popularity is the function more of the personal charms of the players or the height of their hemlines than of their backhands or serves. In general, being played by women is a factor that secures the marginality of a sport in India — never mind the host of women champions thrown up by the Commonwealth Games in 2010.
This complex interplay of the media, the market, elitism and patriarchy was illustrated in the silence and the neglect with which the win of the Indian team in the women’s kabaddi world cup was received some months back. Kabaddi is a ‘low profile’ game supposedly unpopular except on school playgrounds. Women’s kabaddi, therefore, is doubly marginal and even a world cup win is not sufficient to raise it from its obscure depths. We would much rather spend our leisure, or so the media thinks, in deciding whether Sachin Tendulkar is a greater batsman than Don Bradman or if Virat Kohli shows the promise to outshine Tendulkar (live ‘issues’ in mainstream media at that time) than in knowing about the hard-won achievement of a group of girls in a sport that was probably the only one available to them. Tales of passion and perseverance, achieving success despite odds are appreciated on the silver screen. In real life, the media perceives, we would like to spend our leisure on more ‘glamorous’ and more ‘normal’ things. Therefore, while the world cup win of the Indian cricket team was greeted by a deluge of awards and adulation the world cup winners of another sport did not get even a modicum of media attention for their pains. Yes, a few of them hailing from Maharashtra were rewarded by the Chief Minister of that State — the Deputy Chief Minister being the chairperson of the controlling body for kabaddi — but the rest of the team and the win itself was all but ignored.
Our sporting future
Can this state of affairs augur well for the sporting future of a diverse country like ours? What does this speak of India’s sports policy and our attitude to sports in general? These are questions both the citizenry and the government would do well to ask themselves in the wake of India’s lacklustre performance in Olympics 2012. The infrastructure provided by our national and State governments for sports, particularly the marginal ones, is nominal. Ministers and political leaders become interested in the obscure sports only when some success story built entirely on personal endeavour and private resources unfolds. They then emerge to bask in the reflected glory of the success and announce awards. In the midst of all this the real issue — that of the inadequacy of sports infrastructure and the lack of support for the less popular sports — gets lost. Neither the government nor the public, who are the ‘consumers’ of the spectacle of sports, bother to think this over. The sigh of the subaltern is a mere whiff in the air thick with celebratory noises made over ‘legends’ of (men’s) cricket or the ‘glamorous’ F1. Who is bothered? Are we?
(Suparna Banerjee is the author of Science, Gender and History: Mary Shelley and Margaret Atwood (forthcoming).)