[Originally published July 16, 2011]
My friends: this is my obligatory, here’s-what’s-going-down, lemme-fill-you-in kinda post. Where to start? I’m about to set off on the BIGGEST, baddest and most unpredictable adventure of my 22 years.
Sunday morning I’ll set off from Boston to Chicago; from there I’ll grab another flight that will land me in New Delhi some 15 hours (and probably as many granola bars) later. From there, I’ll be ushered with my fellow grantees to the Fulbright House where we’ll spend a day at orientation. After that the plan is to train it to Aligarh, about a 1.5 hour ride outside of New Delhi, to register with the local police because my university affiliation is there. I’ll then finally be flying across the country to Pune, the hub of happinen’ things, to uncover my story.
My research? I have an inkling that I am the only Fulbright scholar packing mouthguards and IcyHot in the name of academia.
Camera in hand, I aim to photodocument the rise of women’s rugby across India. The complex social system under which India operates (the Caste system, the hierarchies, the traditions, gender inequality and saturation of multiculturalism) is thousands of years old is as old as country’s rich sporting culture. In India, they play anything and everything (my latest gem of a find? Kabaddi). But, neither of these settings — social or sporting — have treated seen women to be equal with men. With these factors in mind, I want to know how women’s rugby become one of the fastest growing sports, and why now? Where is this push coming from, and who is supporting it? Why are these women — from cities, villages and slums alike — coming out to play? What does that tell us about India, its people and social evolution taking place?
1) Why India?
My little sister, Kshanika, (silent on the ‘K’; affectionately known as ‘Niks’ and ‘KshaniQUA’ was brought home from Nagpur in 1996 at the age of 21 months.
She was a perfect little nugget addition to our crew of three kids. My mum, who went to fetch her, came home with pictures of cows in the streets and stories of the other children left behind. It was a place that we were promised to go back to someday when we were all old enough to appreciate and understand. It’s a country of paradox and intrigue, a spectrum of cultures and dense history. In the metropolitan areas, you can find IBM headquarters and McDonalds (hold the hamburger, please) and discos. Mumbai, India’s largest and most cosmopolitan city, has a population almost as big as all of Australia. However, 70% of the country’s entire population still lives rurally, untouched and unchanged for thousands of years. At orientation, the Fulbright and IIE officials told us to brace ourselves: we could take the anti-malaria pills and watch as many BBC documentaries as we could find, but we can’t even fathom India until it hits us.
2) Why photography?
I grew up around cameras (my mum is a photographer) but never really got into photo until high school. During my junior year I underwent an ankle reconstruction due to a soccer injury; I refocused all of that angsty energy on my independent study in fashion photography. Something clicked. But, in the end, it wasn’t the clothes that I was drawn to — it was the people in my images. My interest shifted to photojournalism which I pursued my senior year of high school, photographing the likes of nuns and tattoo artists and war refugees.
3) Why rugby?
I’ve been a feisty little ragamuffin since I popped out of the womb (word has it that I was the talk of the nursery). The bicycle training wheels came off at age two and it was all over from there (my poor parents). Though my dreams of being the star of the X-Games was never realized, I ran, kicked and boarded all my way up through high school. A case of broken ribs and a punctured lung (you know, that whole “last run of the day on the slopes” things) kept me from going on a track recruiting trip to Marist. But, all the better:
I got an offer to sign on with the Florence Freshman Experience instead. When I came back to campus I needed a change of pace. Rugby seemed like a good choice. I could still run, and I could spend the next three years hitting people? Right up my alley: Sold!
When you tell people you play, you never hear “Oh dahhling, that’s so nice, all of those classes at finishing school have really done you well.” More often than not you get a “RUGBY?!” or “Girls play rugby?” or “it’s so violent!” There is some novelty to it. People loveddd (woed) to black eye (above): how could a nice, sweet girl subject herself to that? These reactions gave me lots of fodder for my gender studies coursework. It appeals to me in all facets: the sweat and blood of hard work, the brute physicality, the discipline and raw determination…but it also appeals to my nerdy, sociologically-curious self. Girls can indeed hit. And they can hit hard. My experience turned into rich fodder for one, big bruised social experiment.
1+2+3= ) But why photograph rugby in India?
(here we go:)
The concept of dehvada, or “the way of the body,” rooted in India’s Vedic histoy, stressed the importance of realizing the body’s fullest physical and spiritual perfection through activity. India, in body and in mind, has always valued athletics. First sending women to the Olympics in 1952, India only recently committed itself to the U.N.’s 1995 Beijing Platform which encouraged governments to create equal playing opportunities for girls in schools, clubs, and workplaces. Delhi was the site of the 2010 Commonwealth Games where almost 200 female Indian athletes took part in competitions from swimming to weightlifting. Yet the playing fields, literally and figuratively, are still not equal. Indian women, often very aware of the need for a suitable marriage, grapple with the societal belief that they cannot be physically strong and gracefully feminine, relentlessly fierce and gracefully maternal. However, today we see that India’s humanist consciousness and notions of female empowerment are rapidly evolving though the Caste system still has a stronghold. Through rugby, these women are now proudly claiming their space within the grand tradition of Indian athletic heritage while navigating their evolving societal roles.
Pune, the city I’ll be living in, plays host to a number of women’s tournaments this fall (including a national 7s tourney shortly after I arrive!). There’s a strong push across India to develop the sport and get more women involved: clinics are being held, camps are being run, NGOs are recruiting children from the slums as a vehicle of social empowerment. As a former British colony, it’s curious that rugby didn’t take hold earlier. But, because the women’s rugby front is so new and blossoming, even national level play is accessible to women who have only played the sport for a few months. I want to know: who are these women and, literally, how rugby is changing their lives. It’s that simple.
So, in some form of cracked nutshell, that’s my story. It feels very right; I feel like this is exactly what I should be doing. I can’t really believe that I’m packing up again, but it’s time to get going and see what’s out there in this little wild world of ours.