Ratheesh Kumar is Assistant Professor at the Centre for the Study of Social Systems, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India. He is CRASSH’s Charles Wallace India Trust Fellow 2021-2022.
Q: Ratheesh, you recently joined CRASSH as a Charles Wallace India Trust Fellow. Could you tell us a little bit about what you are working on during your fellowship?
My current research explores the sites of sport and physical culture in a south Indian small town with a view to understand social processes and identity formations from its colonial past to the political present. In India, Sociological and anthropological explorations of sport have always been at the margins of scholarly efforts at understanding social life. Apart from limited instances, academic writings have tended to ignore the possibility of studying social formations through the lens of sport culture in India. This research underlines that sport history is crucial to make sense of not only the embryonic sporting heritage of a nation, but also to understand the politics of colonialism, nationalism, and the social relations and identity formations that stem from its social context. My study aims to trace the transitions of youth culture and the formations of religious and caste identities in a colonial small town in South India through an exploration of its cricketing past and juxtaposing it with the present-day political dynamics. The research combines the methods of historical anthropology and ethnography.
According to the local narratives, Tellicherry, a British administrative small town in the erstwhile Malabar region of north Kerala, had experienced the excitement of cricket during the last decade of the 18th century, when Lord Arthur Wellesley, later the Duke of Wellington, introduced the game to the local population. Lower caste communities like the Mukkuva (Fishermen) and Dhobi (Washermen) were the major social groups actively involved in mastering the foreign game at that period. Tellicherry Cricket Club was one of the early cricket clubs in India. However, the longstanding ‘provincial’ past of a colonial game, of such fundamental social and cultural importance in the present times, finds little space in academic writings as well as in recorded histories of the game. Scholars of cricket history like Ramchandra Guha, Ashis Nandy and Boria Majumdar among others have scripted the history of Indian cricket primarily from the big cities of Bombay, Calcutta, and Madras. While attempting to write the social history of cricket from below, the research hopes to chart out a distinct set of locations and manifestations of caste and religious identities in the backdrop of cricket and its colonial past.
Q: What drew you to your research initially and what parts do you find particularly interesting?
During my growing up in Tellicherry, the small town of my research location in north Kerala, I came across a multitude of storytelling about cricket and its origin in this part of the world in the colonial times. But when I started exploring the materials on cricket in Tellicherry, I could find nothing concrete to substantiate the local narratives in the ‘mainstream’ historical documentation. Even though my search for more ‘reliable’ sources continued for years, I did not enter into research in a formal sense as doing research on sport cultures was unconventional and not viable in India in those days.
In 2002, a cricket match, played between the veteran cricketers of India and Sri Lanka, was held in Tellicherry to commemorate the 200th year of the game in the subcontinent. While celebrating the bicentenary of cricket in the southern coastal small town, the organisers had made a claim to own the cradle of Indian cricket in the last decade of the 18th century that traces the early history of cricket in India, hitherto unmarked by sports historians. On the occasion of the match, a book and a souvenir were published and both these texts represented the narrative of an untold story of cricket in India during the British colonial period. An illustrated narrative of the Dhobi and Mukkuva men participating in playing cricket with Lord Arthur Wellesley and his officials when there was a shortage of English men in the field gets rehashed in almost every write up in the souvenirs and similar other documents. In sharp contrast to this, Wellesley’s biographies provide little information on his cricketing life, rather they display his indifference to cricket. The locally published books, articles and the new social media texts under circulation in recent times, which evoke the nostalgic past of cricket in Tellicherry since the earmark of the eventful celebration of the bicentenary of the game pause a striking problem in the making of history that I attempt to unpack here. However, rather than confining myself to a textual analysis of the aforesaid documents, I seek to capture the moments of circulation of those texts and in the process how they create enduring lore of cricket shared by a large number of people including the cricket enthusiasts to scholars, in the form of history made from below. As the local narratives of cricket contradict the conventional historical documentation of cricket, the paradoxical production of sport history triggered my interest to look into the context through ethnography combined with the perspective of historical anthropology. The concepts of place, time and memory make crucial inroads into the frame of my analysis. I hope to gather historical documents and colonial records during my stint at CRASSH, which may throw light on the paradox of history-making that I find interesting in this project.
Q: Are there any writers that have impacted your research in particular?
I get inspired by diverse flairs of writing from a range of authors who engage in different genres. Georg Simmel’s engaging inscription on the less structured crystallisations of social interaction, where he brings focus on the aesthetic dimension of society and sociability, had captured my attention as I became more interested in the so-called trivial and banal aspects of social life. Norbert Elias’s account of the civilizing process provided a unique lens to explore the micro-configurations of social relations and the unattended isolated human experiences. Steven Connor’s take on ‘acousmania’, the exceptional sound bites in his explorations of the sonic world were of heavy influence on my listening sense and in my journey to sound studies. Jonathan Sterne’s ‘audible past’ and Kaja Silverman’s ‘acoustic mirror’ laid amplifying effects to my ‘sound thoughts. My recent entry into the domain of sensory studies was triggered by all the aforementioned scholars and their unconventional and inventive approaches to the subject matter. Apart from academic writings, my fiction world is of thrillers, non-linear and experimental world of Indian cinema, of course not the mainstream Bollywood, the exceptional works of Sriram Raghavan, Anuragh Kashyap and Lijo Jose Pallissery—the Tarantinos of the subcontinent.
Q: You are currently working on a book, could you tell us about it?
I am currently working on an edited book titled Practicing Interdisciplinarity: Convergences and Contestations (Co-ed). Routledge, India (Forthcoming 2023), with Professor Babu P Remesh (Ambedkar University Delhi, India). This edited volume brings together a range of ideas, questions and reflections on the concept and practice of interdisciplinarity in the academic discourses in contemporary India.
One of the core concerns of the book is the temporal shifts in the structuring of academic disciplines, which has at least two distinct dimensions. One is the creation of new disciplines like Area Studies, Post-colonial Studies, Women’s Studies, Cultural Studies, Media Studies, Labour Studies, and so on. The other is the relatively inconsistent and never-ending movement of subject matters and methodologies of conventional disciplines, entering into other territories. This process of interfacing and expansion resulted in the restructuring of disciplines and made their conventional definitions redundant. Accordingly, defining disciplines in their current structures and practices and drawing strict boundaries became challenging and less possible in the present day academic practices. The centrality of understanding national/regional settings as determinants of the issues concerning disciplinary expeditions will also be captured adequately in the book, with due attention on state-policies governing academic engagements, socio-economic, historic contexts, as well as regional and linguistic variations. The book will clearly illustrate that though the idea of being interdisciplinary is valued and celebrated in contemporary academic practices and overwhelmingly encouraged by funding bodies, certain institutional traditions and rigidities bring academic constraints and make both pedagogy and research a complex task.
The volume hopes to bring together critical engagements from different vantage points on practicing interdisciplinarity with reference to humanities and social sciences in India today, through contributions of twenty researchers/scholars, who have been following interdisciplinary routes in their respective fields of academic practices. As the book adequately blends both conceptual/academic discourses on interdisciplinarity and the personal experiences of the pioneer practitioners, it is expected to attract a wide range of audiences.
Q: What is your most recent book about?
My recent book titled Friendship: Brackettinakathum Purathum (Friendship – In and Out of the Brackets – 2019), published in Malayalam, explores the micro-politics of cultural identity and everyday social relations in the informal sites of higher education in India. It focuses on the everyday power dynamics of domination and subordination among the participants belonging to different castes and classes located in a social hierarchy. How caste makes its covert manifestations in increasingly subtle modes of practices makes the running theme in the making of friendship circles that I explored in the five chapters in this book. I hope to get the English version of this book done in the near-term.