Cheerleaders and Cheer Queens of the Indian Premier League: A Controversial History
Ready or not, cheeerleaders are now a common sight in India and a class of American import in a league of its own.
If you attend virtually any U.S. junior high school, high school, college, or professional basketball or football game, you are likely to find cheerleaders, pep bands, or marching bands in action, working hard to energize the athletes and entertain the crowds. These are a deep-rooted part of Americana, a tradition woven into the very fabric of many thousands of communities nationwide over the course of a century and half of a sports-crazed country’s history. Female cheerleaders and majorettes are sometimes known for their skimpy clothing and semi-suggestive dance moves, yet they fit snugly into the wholesome tapestry of deep-rooted American culture. Parents and parochial institutions in fact often encourage their daughters to join cheerleading squads.
The benefits for these young ladies are obvious to those of us who grew up around cheerleading. Like other sports (and believe it, cheerleading can be fiercely competitive) it helps promote athletic skills, health and fitness, practice habits, teamwork, friendship, school pride, and confidence. Sometimes males are cheerleaders too, and at least one U.S. president in recent memory once jumped up and down the sidelines at Philips Andover Academy.
Cheerleading somersaulted awkwardly onto Indian soil via the Indian Premiere League (IPL). The IPL is made up of professional cricket franchises in India’s largest cities. It’s loosely modeled on the American professional sports franchising system, where the focus has long been on big athletes, big speed, big power, big noise, and big money all around. Controversies abound in the IPL, especially when it comes to evidence of match-fixing on behalf of billion-dollar gambling interests, but there is no questioning the wild popularity of the IPL and its T20 speedy format jerry-rigged entirely for enhanced excitement. In April and May of each year when most kids are out of school, millions upon millions of Indians spend their afternoons or evenings glued to the TV watching IPL cricket, which is on daily for nearly two months running through the in-season. Those privileged enough to have the access and funds fill up seats in one of the nine cities’ gleaming stadia. Bollywood stars and major industrialists have fallen over themselves to buy a piece of each team. Top cricket talent from places like Jamaica, Australia, and England have come to the IPL to wow Indian crowds and earn massive paychecks in India’s first big-time pro sports league, now in its fifth season.
Unsurprisingly, controversy has surrounded cheerleading in India from the first crack of the bat in 2008, an era of relative innocence before the concept was even a part of the nation’s collective awareness. There was no tradition of cheerleading on a large scale in India before. Scandal was to be expected in a country where skimpy clothing and premarital dating are severely frowned upon in nearly every region, every culture, any religion, tribe, or caste. Moral judgement can be harsh and intricately interwoven into the nation’s politics as well. It’s quite possible that IPL organizers saw potential scandals related to cheerleading, which weren’t at all difficult to foresee, as free marketing for their primary product. The advent of cheerleading has also cheerfully coincided with the steadily increasing sleaze factor in Indian movies over the last two decades, especially the racy dance numbers.
A clash of civilizations resulted. Many are upset. Many are pleased. It is an apt battle in the larger generational war playing out across India. Most older Indian people are seriously and justifiably concerned by the fast-paced cultural westernization going on around them and sometimes led by their own offspring. Blue jeans are replacing traditional clothes. English is replacing the local dialect. The Avengers outsells the Hindi action film Tezz at the Indian box office. More time is spent on MTV and foreign video games than on age-old religious rituals. Less and less women know how to cook. The country’s best and brightest still try to leave. There is an open question regarding where the lines will be drawn, and what it will mean to be Indian in the near future if Western traditions are blindly adopted at the expense of millennia-old practices.
On the other hand, many believe that we live in a marketplace of ideas, and that market should be allowed to decide organically what stays and what doesn’t in the future based on individuals’ freedom of choice. This includes languages, clothes, religion, and yes, cheerleading. Change comes everywhere and to all. But even I admit to viewing this phenomenon with a hint of sadness and even nostalgia for the India I used to know as a kid.
Feelings aside, cheerleading seems to be a key part of the IPL now. It has in fact bred a fascinating new hybrid form of art balancing the sensibilities of both East and West: the cheer queen. Here are some of the issues that came up along the way.
Tradition, tradition. Time and again, those who have tried to blindly copy Western cultural ideals in the Indian setting have faced trouble. It’s better to study the market first and adapt for it. McDonald’s for example offered a modified Big Mac during its initial foray into India, not made from beef, which represented the first time McDonald’s ever altered its signature hamburger for a specific market. MTV India pulled its little-appreciated Chinese and American pop music videos and shows in the mid-90’s and replaced them with local hits. While cheerleading may not be an inherently bad idea, to suddenly introduce it in a place where there is no exposure was bound to cause problems. Five seasons in, audiences are probably getting used to its presence. Perhaps some are now realizing that it’s not so bad after all. Time will tell.
Foreign girls vs. local girls. Trouble brewed with the initial decision made by the IPL’s powers-that-be to hire almost all foreign white dancers to fill the few slots available on each team- an oddity in a nation of 1.3 billion brown people, some of whom ostensibly know how to dance. For example Vijay Mallya flew in some Washington Redskins cheerleaders halfway around the world to cheer for Bangalore’s Royal Challengers.
It was and still is a surreal sight to see thousands of Indian men ogling at a small group of white women dancing in tight shorts and skirts and sports bras around the field in a bizarre incarnation of American post-colonialism. Worse, it was viewed as a gross fetishization of caucasian women- and audiences who come for the cricket are forced to watch whether they like it or not. It begged the question whether in Indian men’s eyes, Indian women were not talented enough or even worse, good-looking enough to play. Or is the question really whether Indian women should be considered too good to be cheerleaders, and above it because Indians are superior?
Enough Indians made a fuss to enable the entry of some Indian cheerleaders into the IPL, though there still appears to be an uneasy truce going on. Many feel that their good, decent Indian girls are being “spoiled” by participating in an ugly foreign tradition. This argument loses sight of what the spirit of cheerleading was supposed to be about in the first place: women’s empowerment. But even this is a perilous position.
The feminist stance. Feminists can fall into a conundrum here. They should unconditionally support a woman’s right to work, make money, wear what they want, and enjoy their jobs if they choose to. This appears to be consistent with IPL cheerleaders, all of whom participate of their own free will. But what if the profession is inherently exploitative and radically against what the local culture stands for? And what if they are treated badly by the chauvinistic players and executives, as at least some dancers have come out and claimed? One of those who complained anonymously of this behavior on a blog, Gabriella Pasqualatto, was outed, summarily dismissed and then deported from India back to her native South Africa.
Enter the Cheer Queen. Thus, the time was ripe to introduce the new hybrid phenomenon known as the IPL cheer queen in May 2011. Cheer queens are dancers who will try to excite the crowd every time a player hits a sixer, just like a normal cheerleader. Except instead of a miniskirt she will sport a traditional outfit, such as a sari or salwar kameez and have her hair braided in a typically Indian way, dancing bharatanatyam or other Indian styles. My feelings are mixed on this. Somehow I think cheer queens are kind of cool. At other times the concept seems weird, fake, doing neither genre justice. And at times cheer queens just frighten the hell out of me.
Tacky uniforms. Cheer queens are one thing, but doing the Western cheerleader uniform halfway is not always viable, even if forced to follow a state government’s edicts to cover up. There have been some truly ghastly uniforms, and even someone with no sense of style like me knows it.
Politics. If there’s a whiff of scandal in the air, politicians in India usually aren’t far behind to take advantage. In the first season politicians from Maharashtra and Bengal called cheerleaders things like “wild, vulgar, absolutely obscene, no better than bar girls (prostitutes in the Indian context), and demeaning to Indian culture; cricket is watched by entire family, including women and children, and they might find it offensive.” Indian state and national governments have bandied the issue around, forcing temporary bans on cheerleading and setting outfit specifications, which precipitated the cheer queens for some teams. It’s unclear whether any votes were gained or lost on this issue.
We have a feeling that the future of cheerleading in India will hinge on the almighty rupee. This is appropriate for an American import, as “the business of America is business.” Cheerleaders the world over tend to draw eyeballs to the TV, and buttocks into the seats of stadia. If they continue to squeeze into the cost-benefit analysis favorably, cheerleaders will be here to stay. Who knows, one day IPL cheerleaders may be world-beaters, just like its cricketers.
Mahanth S. Joishy is Editor-in-Chief of United States – India Monitor.