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Counterflows of knowledge : the transnational circulation of physical culture practices between India and the West during the early 20th century Ramachandran, Aishwarya


The aim of this study is to examine the transnational flows of physical cultures, particularly physical education, yoga, and modern dance, between India and the West during the early decades of the 20th century. I develop two case studies where individuals became involved in circulating dance and physical education practices between India, Western Europe and the United States, illuminating how colonial powers conceived of European modernity in opposition to and in conjunction with the ‘Orient’ and how Indian nationalists developed a monolithic cultural identity along rigid lines of the nation state. The first case study examines how the YMCA (‘Y’) brought American sport and physical education; particularly ideas around Muscular Christianity, to India in the form of missionary work. It focuses primarily on the efforts of the physical educator Harry Crowe Buck, who arrived in India in 1920 to direct the YMCA School of Physical Education in Madras. The second case examines the career of Indian modern dancer Uday Shankar (1900-1977), and his involvement in shaping Western ideas around Oriental dance and Indian culture in the 1930s. It also considers his reception in India where he received harsh condemnation from the public because his performances were not sufficiently grounded in Indian dance traditions. Drawing from studies in postcolonial and physical cultural theory, this thesis pays special attention to the areas of Indian physical education and modern dance during the late colonial period. Physical cultures warrant attention for their importance in shaping colonial and nationalist thought, as the body became critically important in the ‘articulation of imperial ideologies and in the often-fraught dynamics of cross-cultural contact’, particularly in shaping ideas around gender roles, race relations and national identity in India and the West, that persisted beyond the colonial period. In my arguments, I employ Edward Said’s contrapuntal approach, which involves examining documents with an awareness of the complex social, political and cultural circumstances that underlie them. This approach influences how the case studies are written, as I pay explicit attention to the contexts of British imperialism and Indian cultural nationalism, and the ways they intersected during the early 20th century.

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