Guardian (London), March 27, 2010
I certainly 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) tournament that will not win even my grudging acceptance: cheerleaders.
Now in its third year, the IPL has made cheerleaders an integral part of its “brand”, its heady cocktail of world-class sporting talent, rippling corporate muscle, and unabashed Bollywood glamour. 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.
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. Their twists and pumps add nothing to what is, in truth, a wonderful sporting spectacle. They are a reminder of the ocean of inanities that commercial modernity promises our lives, drowning all occasions in froth. First the fall from grace, then the flood.
But I can’t just grit my teeth or laugh it off. Regular viewers of the IPL are now familiar with the sight of leering spectators separated from the cheerleaders in some stadiums by cage-like fences, an image that brings the cricket arena uncomfortably close to a zoo. 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 IPL cheerleaders and such incidences, the very nature of IPL cheerleading as a spectacle feeds deeper, insidious notions about race and sexuality in India.
The paucity of Indian cheerleaders tells its own story. In a country where an entire film industry is sustained by beautiful women dancing, it is hard to believe that the appropriate “talent” is missing. 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 counterparts. Not for them the tight tops and bared thighs of IPL cheerleading. Just like the licentious foreign woman, the idea of the modest Indian woman is closer to fiction than truth. It is the kind of fantasy that animates attacks on girls who had the “audacity” to have a drink at a pub (as happened in Mangalore last year). It is an ideal that masks the sexual violence perpetrated against Indian women on a daily basis (an issue about which I have written in these web pages before).
This is not a problem that can simply be “solved” through levelling the balance of Indian and non-Indian cheerleaders, through equal opportunity objectification. By enshrining cheerleaders in its commercial product, the IPL has opened a can of worms and made stilted perceptions of sex part of its image. This image is a global one now; IPL matches are screened live on YouTube and on ITV in the UK. If the IPL is indeed one way through which aspirational India projects itself on the global stage, Indians should consider the messages it sends. We should recognise the unsavoury manner in which we can represent others, and ourselves, to the world.