Icertainly do not count myself in the ranks of cricket’s innumerable “purists” for whom the plodding rhythms and rituals of the sport carry a kind of holy truth. But there is at least one aspect of the glitzy and compelling Indian Premier League (IPL) that will not win my grudging acceptance: cheerleaders.
Now in its third year, the IPL has made cheerleaders an integral part of its brand. Whenever a wicket falls or a batsman clobbers a boundary, dancers leap upon stages at the edges of the field to gyrate for the cameras and the crowds. This sort of impromptu, threadbare jigging was new to both cricket and the landscape of Indian sport, and its introduction has generated no small amount of interest and enthusiasm (as any casual Google, Twitter or Flickr search will reveal). IPL grandees are well aware of the popularity of its mostly foreign, mostly white cheerleaders, organising reality TV shows and fan contests to further cash in on their appeal.
Not so conservative
From the inception of the IPL, much of the opposition to cheerleading has come from conservative religious groups, who staged heated demonstrations in 2008 when the dancers first took to the IPL stage. Even this year, a rightwing group in the coastal state of Orissa demanded that matches staged there should eschew cheerleaders altogether.
While this species of angry conservative austerity may be getting noisier in India, its prudishness is familiar to us all. Social conservatism the world over shares a strange mix of sanctimony and prurience, the mingled terror of and obsession with the flesh. I'm not offended by cheerleading, more bored by it. In any grown-up context, it offers a dispiriting definition of both leadership and cheer. Many cricket fans, including myself, would be happy to see the (metaphorical) back of these cheerleaders.
It is the larger dichotomy suggested by this unfortunate image that I find troubling, that of Indian men ogling mostly white, non-Indian women.
All too common in India is the belief in the licentiousness of foreign women. In recent years, stories of sexual violence against tourists in India have proliferated, a tragic byproduct in some cases of the impression that foreign women are naturally promiscuous. While I wouldn't draw a direct line between these two, the very nature of IPL cheerleading feeds deeper, insidious notions about race and sexuality in India. The choice made by IPL organisers in this regard suggests, first, the unsettling marketing conclusion that Indians really just want to see white skin.
Second, and perhaps more troubling still, it suggests a quiet acquiescence to the view of the conservative elements of society that Indian women are somehow more sacred and less carnal than their western counteparts.