Michiel Baas, "Muscular India: Masculinity, Mobility & the New Middle Class" (Context, 2020)

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The gyms of urban ‘new India’ are intriguing spaces. While they cater largely to well-off clients, these shiny, modern institutions are also vehicles of upward mobility for the trainers and specialists who work there. As they learn English, ‘upgrade’ their dressing style and try to develop a deeper understanding of the lives of their upmarket customers., they break with an older kind of masculinity represented by the pehlwans in their akharas. Equally, the gym aspires to be a safe space for women—a break from the toxic masculinity they must deal with outside its walls.

Yet, the more things change, the more they remain the same. Class barriers are less permeable than they appear. The use of bodily capital to breach them is more fraught with danger than one might anticipate. And the profession is riddled with pitfalls and contradictions.

Michiel Baas has spent a decade studying gyms, trainers and bodybuilders, and finds in them a new way to investigate India. He walks us through the homes and workspaces of these men—yes, they are almost all men—to bodybuilding competitions and also into their most intimate worlds of ambitions, desires and struggles. In Muscular India: Masculinity, Mobility & the New Middle Class (Context, 2020), Baas unveils a fascinating world, hidden in plain sight.

Lakshita Malik is a doctoral student in the department of Anthropology at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Her work focuses on questions of intimacies, class, gender, and beauty in South Asia.

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