One of the consistent refrains running through European knowledge of Indian physicality was the latter’s inferiority. Indians, especially the Bengalis, were often portrayed as physically and hence intellectually incapable of keeping pace with the strides of modern civilization.
The stereotype proved humiliating for groups of Indians who, from the mid-nineteenth century, strove to dispel this myth of the physical downfall of a once proud culture. Numerous akharas (gymnasiums) sprang up across India, mostly in modern-day Bengal and Uttar Pradesh.
Quite a few political leaders and associations espoused the cause of cultivating strong physique in retaliation to European criticism of Indian fragility. A strong body started carrying nationalist connotation.
The physical culture movement grew strong in the late nineteenth century, but its political overtone moderated in the 1910s as Indian politics entered the non-violent phase. Yet, a sportsperson having a well-built body and a strong-willed mind evoked appreciation bordering on awe, which is nowhere better manifested than in the response to Nayudu’s body and attitude.
Biographies and the media have consistently highlighted the majesty of Nayudu’s gait, his proclivity to strict discipline and imposing leadership. “Eskari” shares a story in which a navy captain with no knowledge or interest in cricket recognised Nayudu at a dinner party simply by finding his hand signal to a waiter similar to that of a skipper to his players at a cricket field! Wisden described India’s first Test captain as “tall and well proportioned”, “possessed of supple and powerful wrists and a very good eye”.
A tall, dark man with sharp features, he supposedly never touched a drop of alcohol and was a pure vegetarian, yet he was capable of hitting sixes against any bowler.
The “wrists of steel” recur in numerous recollections. What did not get much recognition despite the promise were his legs, which helped him break the Indian high jump record in 1914. In short, Nayudu’s body has been an object of a good deal of discussions, eliciting reverential response nearly every time.
The pure body and the sharp mind aided not only good performances on the field but also promoted a charismatic psychosomatic self which, justified by Nayudu’s aggressive playing style, became a metonymy for resisting colonialism.
Photography played a central part in constructing the magnificence of his personality. A picture showing him cuddling a lion cub during the England tour of 1932 was widely circulated in newspapers and even sold as picture postcard, moulding him into a cast of masculinity otherwise reserved for the robust Europeans.
All his photographs show him either in playing whites, blazers, military uniforms or in an immaculate three-piece suit. Such representations produced an image that embodied the aspirations of both the intellectual bourgeoisie and the working class contrary to the class structure in Pierre Bourdieu’s work on body habitus.
Bourdieu’s work stresses the role of the body in the creation and reproduction of social difference.
He says that bodies bear the imprint of social class. The working class supposedly visualise their body as an instrument to earn subsistence. They tend to characterise their body as a machine in relation to health, illness, exercise and lifestyle which should always be kept working properly.
On the contrary, the dominant classes purportedly view the body as a project and have available resources to choose the course of action and modes of functioning of the body. Again in comparison to working-class groups, middle-class groups are deemed to have more control over their health which can be exercised by choosing an appropriate lifestyle.
The Indian elite, middle and working classes are too heterogeneous to be defined by Bourdieu’s parameters, but it will not be bare essentialism to argue that Nayudu brought together and embodied middle class rectitude and working class defiance instead of representing one class. He carried himself with a dignity and panache that conjured up a graceful militancy.
The plain life he led despite surrounded by riches multiplied his appeal. He owned only the second Rolls Royce in Holkar state, held a prized post in the state army, and yet did not alienate himself from Indian society as Ranji did. People liked the gusto with which he approached each match and wanted his players to follow.
His fans found an answer to British ridicule of the soft, weak Indian body in his unabashed ruthlessness. What common people would have called brutality in everyday circumstances became synonymous to unpitying, aggressive masculinity when done by Nayudu, evident in the string of anecdotes narrated below.
During the Pentangular final against the Muslims in 1935, Nayudu incurred a bout of mumps during the second day’s play and retired to the hotel bed. As the fever grew worse, he was in no condition to take the field. Set 300 to win, the Hindus had started their second innings well. C. K. hit a brisk 53 but a post-tea collapse on the fourth afternoon left the Hindus staring at defeat. Nayudu desperately summoned C. S. to stem the rot. This is what followed next:
Nearly everyone was opposed vehemently to the idea, but the majestic Nayudu was unbending in his attitude…Groping for his cricket clothes from under the rug, C. S., nevertheless, was up on his tottering legs in an instant and dressed up in a hurry stumbling and swaying…[C. S.] now fell in an unconscious heap on the pavilion steps… the indomitable spirit of the Nayudus brought forth respect and admiration from all.
An obstinacy that could have killed his brother gained the senior Nayudu’s the status of a ‘true sportsman’.
During the 1944 Ranji Trophy finals, to ensure that his players do not relax and keep up the intensity, he waved away the drinks trolley during the breaks. Only Denis Compton, the great English batsman then playing for Holkar on temporary relief from war duty, was allowed to pull a glass of lime juice out of the box. This incident, widely reported in the sport press, was constructed as a clever subversion of the tough European. He dutifully epitomised the nation’s aspirations, however unintentional it might have been.