Interview: Michiel Baas, author of Muscular India
The author talks about his book Muscular India, which explores India’s ecosystem of gym trainers and body builders, and looks at how caste and class play out within and outside the gym
India has been your academic focus. What informs such interest? And what drew you to such a niche subject in Muscular India?
I have often wondered about what first got me interested in India. Peter Brook’s adaptation of the Mahabharata in 1989 awakened an interest in Hinduism. When I visited family in Singapore that year and they took me to an Indian temple in China Town, this first cemented a feeling that I wanted to know more about it. Gradually, I also became interested in Indian fiction in English, ranging from RK Narayan to Salman Rushdie, Vikram Chandra and Arundhati Roy. They showed me an India that I had never imagined to exist. When the country celebrated its 50 years of Independence in 1997, international magazines such as Time and Newsweek all had long articles on how India had developed since. It was for the first time that I became aware that India was also gradually becoming an important hub for information technologies. All these different Indias contributed to a long-lasting fascination with the country.
My interest in fitness and bodybuilding in India only developed much later. I had spent quite a bit of time with IT professionals in Bangalore who showed me the lush campuses they worked in. This was around 2003 and I distinctly recall how it was the first time that I would encounter modern well-equipped gyms in India. But they didn’t really seem to exist anywhere else yet. That would change a few years later with movies such as Om Shanti Om and Ghajini which suddenly focused on the male actor’s body. A fitness boom quickly followed. It led me to wonder who these men were who worked in these gyms. And what might be the appeal of a muscular body to a middle-class male who, previously, might have been proud of his budding waistline as a sign of prosperity.
In what major ways did your research on Muscular India make you reassess your past perspectives on India and its notions of masculinity?
I find this idea of a crisis of masculinity quite a problematic concept. In recent years, the Indian male has become a symbol for everything that is wrong with the country. Of course, there is plenty of reason to be concerned: atrocious rape cases have made headlines, women experience eve-teasing in the streets, etc. But this is not the Indian male I encountered over the years... See, we often equate the muscular body with a masculine self. The idea being, this equals bravoure or bravery, aggressive behavior, even in a sense an uncouth person who bullies others. These are all stereotypes that I found did not add up when I conducted my research. For one, bodybuilding is an incredibly expensive sport which brings considerable financial insecurities. The endless striving for perfection impacts notions of self-worth since it feels that the work on one’s body is never done; the mirror is always there to remind you of your flaws. The men I met and interviewed, including fitness trainers and bodybuilders, all seemed equally concerned about the perception bias against them. But they all had families, as well as female colleagues and clients. Working with female clients and colleagues didn’t seem to damage their masculine selves at all. Instead, it seemed that their own trajectory of bodily transformation and the completely new profession they were making money in had already helped them rethink certain norms and values in society.
The book jacket features the tiger. You’ve spoken about tiger-elephant symbolism in the book too, in terms of an old vs new India. But how do most of the men in your book engage with ‘old’, familial stability, something their tiger-like aspirations cannot override?
The picture on the cover is by Bangalore-based artist-photographer Cop Shiva. I think it perfectly captures what the book aims to describe: a young man from Coorg who has found his way to the city and succeeded as a trainer and bodybuilder. But of course, there are always roadblocks to be dealt with along the way. My informants frequently told me that in their ambition to climb the middle-class ladder, they would often, quite unexpectedly, realise that they did not quite belong yet -- something they struggle with. They are often from vernacular backgrounds and have to work on their English-language capabilities and learn the codes and mores of what it means to be middle-class. But since they have decided to do something so radically different, support from the family can be limited. Families often have no clue about what these men do in their daily lives or have some old-fashioned ideas of it -- like they are at risk of becoming goondas, for instance. You must realise that the services they provide for upper middle-class clients in terms of personal training is not something their own families could ever afford. This sets them apart.
Do you feel the oft-cited “muscular brand of nationalism” of the current government is a natural manifestation or culmination of a new, muscular India?
In my book, Muscular India stands for a country that now offers opportunities for men for whom this may previously have been unthinkable. India embarked on an ambitious path of economic development post 1991. Fitness training is one of these new professions that emerged out of economic growth and offers an alternative career opportunity for mainly lower or new middle-class men. I often get asked if these men also identify with a brand of muscular nationalism but find that this is not really of their concern. They are mainly interested in their own brand and how they can capitalise on the way they have transformed their bodies. This is also what their clients are interested in. Politics interests them very little because they don’t see an avenue for their own growth in it.
You’ve mentioned people talking of trainers who are good at “mimicking middle-class behaviour”... Did you later explore conversations about ingrained class bias and casteism with them? Because a lot of people claim they haven’t seen caste growing up or in their circles.
Indeed, among my many conversations with clients, caste rarely came up. I have also come to understand it as something that, within the context of an upper-caste environment, does not really matter. At least not in daily-life meetings with friends and colleagues. Of course, things start to matter quite a bit when it comes to marriage, the temple etc. But these are aspects of life far removed from the gym. There is also a certain expectation of high-end gyms as cosmopolitan places that could also exist abroad. You see something similar with Starbucks which aims to reflect a very globalised idea of what such a space should be. So the moment you step through the door as a client, and also as a trainer, you assume yourself to be free from all sorts of constraints that are important outside.
The book also features Victor, a Tamil Brahmin, eating meat to bulk up. Do you feel this space forces a certain casteless-ness on the bodybuilders’ world view? How do bodybuilders like Victor navigate caste generally?
Yes, definitely. But there is a difference in terms of how one deals with one’s caste identity and whether a person engages in caste-based discrimination. Victor is certainly not the type to get involved in the latter, even when he proudly wears his sacred thread on occasions while posing on social media. Like many others I met, he is well aware of his humble upbringing where he was instilled with a very firm set of values but was also allowed to explore his own trajectory. Eating meat was one of them. And in the end, his parents as well as his wife were very supportive and proud of what he had achieved. I guess what happens when you follow informants as long as I have is, you start realising that nothing is ever truly set in stone. Daily lives can show quite a bit of flexibility in terms of caste and class.
In the book, some are aware that their equation with upper class clients is bound to the gym only. Do you feel for many trainers that is the ultimate aspiration -- to be sharing the same social space where they are equals, and, in fact, higher up in the hierarchy inside the gym?
This is definitely part of the ambition: to be equal, to “matter”. But, at the same time, these men are also very proud about where they are coming from and what they have achieved. In the end what they are seeking is to be respected. One of my informants once phrased his appreciation as a client calling him ‘Sir’. This is a big thing because outside the gym this would never happen. But clients coming to them with their physical issues and concerns, and admiring them for their bodies is something that is quite empowering. And they build on this to climb the ladder and claim their own place in society.
Asad Ali is an independent journalist. He lives in Delhi. He is @AsadAli1989 on Twitter.