‘Muscular India: Masculinity, Mobility and the New Middle-Class’ review: Slow change

An anthropologist traces the relatively new obsession with bodybuilding among Indian men

Published - September 12, 2020 04:03 pm IST

Some 10 years ago, while going walking in Kolkata’s Rabindra Sarovar lakes at the crack of dawn as part of my still ongoing get-slim regime, I would stare wide-eyed at the ripped young men huffing and puffing all around — some swinging from bars, some cartwheeling, some zooming past me at supersonic speed — and repeat after the poet, “I had not thought death had undone so many.” The assumption being that they must be having some underlying fatal condition, physical or metaphysical (as, in my case, a dogged desire to be incorporeal), to overcome which they were tormenting themselves so. Bengali that I am, having a fit body for its own sake never struck me as a plausible reason for self-flagellation.

Class prejudices

Unbeknown to me, India had changed: anthropologist Michiel Baas traces the relatively new obsession with bodybuilding among Indian men to the release of movies like Om Shanti Om (2007), in which Shahrukh Khan sported six-pack abs, and the launching of the magazine, Men’s Health , in the same year. Gyms mushroomed overnight — the smithies where trainers and clients alike forged their Superman-like bodies. In the case of the trainers, life trajectories were also forged, since the gyms offered them not just an alternative career option but also sound possibilities of upward social mobility.

Baas analyses this trend, examining different aspects of this ‘change’ in relation to male trainers — he talks to several from the big cities and shows how “India’s change does not necessarily translate to the same pace at the individual level, where things move slowly.” The trainers might be earning more than their parents ever did, wearing designer clothes and speaking English, but India, with its dogged class and caste hierarchies, still tends to judge them by their origins, resisting their movement up the social ladder.

For Indians living the ‘change’, this might sound like a foregone conclusion: while we do not hesitate to enjoy the fruits of economic liberalisation, we remain notoriously intolerant of the army of ‘new labour’ it has brought into being, not just in gyms but also in malls, restaurants, beauty parlour chains or coffee shops. The upside, even if a cynical one, is that money goes a long way in bridging divides in India. Baas quotes a gym trainer who also provides escort services to men on the side while self-confessedly not being gay as saying “Money talks and everything can be done for money... And eventually money is stronger than morality.”

It’s stronger than class/caste prejudices too — if successful trainers are really earning in lakhs per month, as Baas says they are, then they might just walk through the hallowed portals of the upper echelons in the near future without the old members of that class batting an eyelid. Indeed, we see some of the trainers making it big in the Epilogue: Delhiite Amit, for instance, now combines his business in personal training with involvement in the local chapter of the BJP, helping out families not as flourishing as his own. An avid supporter of Narendra Modi, he is the “poor man with three cars”.

Baas’s study is nuanced — he steers clear of generalisations, letting his subjects speak for themselves. The book’s experiential quality gives it authenticity besides making it eminently readable.

Muscular India: Masculinity, Mobility and the New Middle-Class ; Michiel Baas, Context, ₹699.

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