Muscular India: In a new book, Michiel Baas examines masculinity, mobility and the new middle class

Michiel Baas’ book explores how fitness trainers in the gyms of urban India use their ‘bodily capital’ for ‘upward mobility’

Chintan Girish Modi September 01, 2020 10:20:39 IST
Muscular India: In a new book, Michiel Baas examines masculinity, mobility and the new middle class

“What does it take to become middle class? Or perhaps more succinctly: what does it take to convincingly pull off the idea of ‘confidently’ belonging to the middle class? As a new entrant, how does one lose the skin of newness, one’s entry being suspect and up for inspection and judgement?” asks Michiel Baas, author of the fascinating new book Muscular India: Masculinity, Mobility and the New Middle Class (2020).

Published by Context, an imprint of Westland Publications, Baas’ book explores how fitness trainers in the gyms of urban India use their ‘bodily capital’ for ‘upward mobility’. It is based on 10 years of research that involved building relationships, spending time with his research participants in their homes and workplaces, and trying to make sense of their stories in the broader socio-political context of a transforming India. The author is an anthropologist by training, and is currently with the University of Amsterdam.

Baas has had a long engagement with India. In the past, he has researched Indian student migration to Australia, and the lives of IT professionals in Bengaluru. He was also associated with Nalanda University (Delhi/Rajgir), a coordinator with the International Institute of Asian Studies (Leiden), and a long-term research fellow with the Asia Research Institute of the National University of Singapore.

Excerpts from an interview:

Filmmaker-writer Paromita Vohra has called your book ‘a tender and absorbing story of muscular men, their searching hearts, their quest to matter in the world’. How did your training as an anthropologist help you tell this story?

I am trained to listen and observe. Spending longer periods of time with the guys in this book — and visiting them over the years — helped gain insight into their lives in a way that a shorter term project probably wouldn’t have. One of my reasons for writing this book was to give young, new middle-class men to have space to breathe and talk about themselves. They are often reflected on negatively, up to the point that all they seem interested in is eve-teasing and mistreating their wives. This was not my experience. They appeared to share these concerns about the ill-treatment of women in public spaces.

Could you share a bit of the process that went into your striking book cover, the elements in it, and what it means to you?

The cover picture is by Bengaluru-based photographer Cop Shiva. It is part of a project where he captures newcomers (internal migrants) to the city in front of fading murals. My book is partly set in Bengaluru, and explores how new middle-class men make sense of the rapid urban changes around them. Cop Shiva’s work does something similar. He is a friend, [and] when I mentioned the book, he immediately proposed this picture; it really does capture what I am trying to describe. Here we have a bold young man who is proud of his body, posing in [a] public space, thinking of the city as his own; his presence can no longer be ignored. But who is he, what is his story, and how did he come to master his body the way he did?

I have been coming to India for about two decades now, and the city of Bengaluru is the one I am most familiar with because my partner is originally from there. Earlier I have written about the way Bengaluru has changed because of the influx of IT companies. There are interesting parallels in the way the older/upper middle-class reflects on social climbers. These new middle-class Indians are perceived to lack the comportment, morality and behaviour that the upper middle-class likes to associate itself with.

Where did you conduct your fieldwork? How did you make contact with people? What was the incentive for them to participate in your research? 

Most of the research was conducted in Delhi and Chennai, besides Mumbai and Bengaluru, but I also spent time in Patna where I interviewed men in two different gyms. In the book, I focus only on the four megacities. They are easier to compare as they struggle with similar issues of urban expansion, growing populations, and the mushrooming of new places of leisure and consumption. When I was involved with Nalanda University — at the time mainly operating from Delhi but now located in Rajgir (Bihar) — I joined a small neighbourhood gym, which became an important site of research. It gave me a deep understanding of how Delhiites from various class positions reflect on and relate to each other.

Muscular India In a new book Michiel Baas examines masculinity mobility and the new middle class

Cover for Michiel Baas' Muscular India

Making contact with people in the fitness industry otherwise was never hard. Since their bodies are central to how they see themselves, they are highly present and visible online. I have often argued that one of the reasons fitness and bodybuilding took off the way they did, has to do with social media. How else to reveal six-pack abs and dinner plate pecs? You have to take off your shirt at some point. One wouldn’t do this so easily in [the] public space but there’s no stopping anyone online. I would often contact people online first, which also allowed me to explain a bit more about the project. It also allowed me to stay in contact when I was not in India.

The incentive for participants was often a mix of things. For one, people simply like talking about themselves. The advantage of talking to me is that I will rarely ever interrupt. Trainers and bodybuilders would often describe it as if being on the couch with a psychiatrist, even though that was mainly something they knew from American movies, not from actual experience. With me they could talk about things without having to worry that I would share these concerns with their family and friends.

Though these guys’ bodies radiate utter confidence, they often struggle with all sorts of issues, ranging from body dysmorphia to substance abuse, concerns over money and unsupportive family members. Even if clients are impressed with their bodies, trainers compare themselves with others, and see their bodies as a project that is never quite finished. Body dysmorphia is a condition whereby a person no longer properly registers what he looks like in the mirror. He may see only the flaws, or simply no longer how muscular he already is. Anabolic steroids, growth hormones and diuretics come with serious side-effects, not just with respect to the body but also in terms of depression.

In the book, you have mentioned that, as an openly gay researcher, you were cautious about how people might misunderstand your interest in the subject. How did you navigate this emotionally and intellectually?

My partner and I have been together for more than 17 years but this is not something that I always shared with informants. Often it was simply not that important. I wasn’t doing this research to meet attractive men but I was well-aware that it could be understood that way. Surprisingly, that was never a concern among the trainers and bodybuilders I interviewed who did know. Instead, my gay friends were far more obsessed with the idea and reasoned that I had literally figured out the perfect research topic.

Such discussions were quite revealing for class dimensions in urban India. Who did my friends think these men were? Why were they convinced that, even though these men identified as straight, they wouldn’t mind same-sex contact? How come sex or even notions of attractiveness played such minimal role in the conversations I had with these men? They never talked about relationships; rarely ever seemed to have the time or energy for them. Even if they would label their bodies online with hashtags such as ‘sexybeast’ or ‘hotbody’, in their daily lives it never seemed to matter.

From your observations and analysis, how did these trainers use 'bodily capital’ for upward social mobility?

I explore the idea of bodily capital as an alternative to social and cultural capital. A key difference between the new/lower middle-class and the older/upper middle-class is not economic capital, which newcomers often have in abundance. In one of the later chapters, I describe this with respect to Jat and Gujjar families in the NCR. Financially well-off, what they lack is the kind of social and cultural capital that upper middle-class families in south Delhi consider their own. This is not just about the social networks one is part of but also about how one speaks English, schooling as such, and even a history of middle-classness.

English-speaking upper middle-class families often have a history with belonging to the middle-class, because of which their place in society is firmly cemented. For newcomers, it is very hard to gain a foot in the door and climb the middle-class ladder. Bodily capital can come in handy here. The fact that trainers were able to transform their bodies appeals to their clients who desire to have such bodies themselves.

Obviously this requires a long-term commitment during which a trainer will perform as a sort of life coach. This allows a trainer to come close to a client in a way that would ordinarily not have happened. During a training session, there are lots of moments to talk. Clients share insights into their lives and lifestyles, thoughts on business ideas, or simply speak to trainers in English, which helps them improve their own language skills.

Muscular India In a new book Michiel Baas examines masculinity mobility and the new middle class

Michiel Baas

What role did patriarchy, Bollywood and their own sexuality play in shaping their ideas of masculinity?

Even though the muscular body radiates notions of masculinity, gyms are often mixed places. Trainers have female colleagues and female clients. Their certification courses also deal with questions of how to interact and work with people of the opposite sex. Gyms even provide self-defense classes. All this requires a trainer to distance himself from older ideas of the place of women in society. Far more important are the choices they have made themselves in life, which already required them to reflect on their own options and place in society.

Fitness trainers rarely come from families that have previous experience with this line of work. Their interest in bodybuilding and male modelling competitions often means that they have to convince their families that their careers and life-course trajectories may take a different turn altogether. Instead of joining family businesses or opting for more secure middle-class professions like accounting, IT or medicine, these men do something different. They are less likely to think along patriarchal lines. But of course they frequently meet with stereotypical ideas about who they are and where they come from.

What was it like to be welcomed into their homes, and to interact with their families? What did they think of your interest in their lives?

I was warmly welcomed as I have always been in my years in India. It wasn’t always easy though to explain what the project was about. Even if families were familiar with what it meant to attend college and gain a degree, this did not mean that they also understood what academic research entailed, let alone that a university would actually pay for this. I think it helped when I simply let people talk. People rarely get to talk about themselves like that. My listening, occasionally taking notes, put people at ease.

What did you notice about the relationship between class and caste as you got more involved in their personal and professional journeys? Did that tell a larger story about the narrative of economic liberalisation in India?

Caste is omnipresent in people’s lives in India but the way it operates is often less clear-cut than it would seem. Non-Indians in particular think that each and every thing about India can be explained through the notion of caste. This is simplistic. Caste explains a trajectory, especially in terms of middle-class belonging. Obviously upper castes have dominated upper middle-class strata for generations but this is less about notions of purity and much more about socio-economic difference.

While initially this may have been facilitated by a caste position, caste itself gradually stops being an actual factor in things. It has simply cemented a family’s position in society. Marriage may take place along caste lines but ideas about proper careers, social circles, and daily lives are much less controlled by it. Of course, this is typically a client’s or upper middle-class perspective that I sketch here. They can also afford themselves for caste not to matter.

In my interactions with trainers, I rarely found caste to be something they were worried about. Certainly, on the gym floor, it did not appear to matter. They were more preoccupied with class difference, and how clients reflected on the way they spoke and behaved. Perhaps, inherently, they understood clients to know of their (often) intermediate caste backgrounds but the cosmopolitan atmosphere in the gym also meant that this was not supposed to matter.

Muscular India In a new book Michiel Baas examines masculinity mobility and the new middle class

When your gay friends suggested that you had “opportunistically located (the) research in a candy store with the owner absent and the laddoos up for grabs,” how did that alter your perception of the gym as a “straight and straight-forward place?”

It showed me the limitations of upward social mobility. In the end, trainers were considered to be delivering a service. Their position in society, even if doing well financially, was inherently different compared to their clients. Hailing from lower middle-class families, their access to women was understood to be limited. Same-sex encounters did not lead to questions of identity for them, as it was explained to me. Instead, it was understood as a relief or ‘time-pass’, I was assured.

Even if my friends had had some experiences with this, it did not explain why trainers never spoke to me about this. I was less interested in figuring out the ‘truth’ about these stories, and more in how people from different social layers interpreted each other’s intentions and being. Why were my friends so convinced that these trainers were up for grabs? Were they not unlike their cooks, drivers, gardeners and security guards — people who delivered services as they always had?

Of course, in the final part of the book, I do explore a trajectory of a trainer who now provides same-sex services and performs in pornographic movies. This is a relatively new development, which shows that men will find new ways to capitalise on their bodily capital and sexual potential.

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