Ever since I had started listening to rock music in my early teens, one of the most unusual figures I have come across is Henry Rollins. Rollins began as a front man for Black Flag, a band that is part of the canon of punk rock in its later period, and later made a name as the founder of Rollins Band. Rollins’s career went beyond music, hosting online radio and tv shows, practicing spoken word art and writing, giving expression to anger at injustices. Yet when I first saw the video for the Rollins Band single ‘I am a liar’, I was struck by how ‘ripped’ he was compared to others I saw on MTV. In one interview Rollins discusses how he was encouraged by a school teacher when he was a teenager to take up weight training which he regarded as a formative experience for someone who otherwise lacked confidence and capital. While Rollins espouses values that are against the establishment, this sense of working on his body and the sense of achievement and aspirations resonates interestingly with the book Muscular India by the anthropologist Michiel Baas.
Set half a world away and in a different, socio-economic and political context, Baas’s book describes the lives of Body builders and Gym trainers in metropolitan India. Based on long-term fieldwork and interactions in New Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Bangalore, Baas puts together an engaging story that follows of his respondents, their lives, aspirations, dilemmas and hardships, to open up a larger discussion on social mobility, class and how social change took place in India in the aftermath of economic liberalization since the 1990s. As Baas points out, what is especially intriguing in the study of social change in India is a sense of how rapidly things are changing. Yet, in this journey into the lives of men who are engaged with the task of remaking themselves into something better, Baas also depicts how in actual practice change is rather slow.
Written in a style different to most academic texts, each chapter of this book focuses on a specific theme and moves across sites in different cities. There is a constant move between aspirations as expressed in public culture and by his respondents, and what Baas reports of their everyday lives. The first chapter looks at ideas of masculinity, beginning with images from commercial Hindi cinema as an indicator of changing fantasies about the male body and the emergence of new spaces such as health magazines for men to promote ideas of the male body, even though in reality most middle-class Indian males would never be able to approximate to ideals they enjoy in the movies. The second chapter takes us into a Gym, that is marked by being a space where a new bodily ideal can be achieved. What emerges critically here is how the Gym trainer as a profession and body building as a vocation and passion can be understood, offering new modes of self-invention, improvement and a chance for those who worked as trainers to pick ideas, networks and practices in their interaction with clients, thereby achieving some kind of upward social mobility that may either not be possible in other traditional avenues for aspiring to middle classness or following a way that speaks to passion.