Sourav Ganguly and Dadagiri: Bengal’s Boldest Contribution to Modern India


Sourav Ganguly and Dadagiri: Bengal’s Boldest Contribution to Modern India

Illustration: Reynold Mascarenhas

When England set India a target of 326 at Lord’s Cricket Ground in 2002, the chase seemed nearly impossible. But in an unforgettable cliffhanger of a match, the Men in Blue, led by Kolkata’s own Sourav Ganguly, accomplished the unthinkable, resulting in a visual that will live on forever in cricket lore.

The scrappy captain watched his team score the winning runs from the balcony, and the power of the moment prompted a fiery display of emotion. He took off his jersey and waved it over his head, while mouthing expletives for the whole world to watch, in awe of the unexpectedness of it all. To the thousands of cricket fans and Bengalis watching this event, that gesture – cheeky and perhaps inappropriate in the gentleman’s game – was a shout-out to the world: The Prince of Kolkata had not only earned the sobriquet of Bengal Tiger, but owned it.

Prince of Kolkata, Bengal Tiger… Sourav Ganguly goes by many names, but the one that has stuck most with his legions of fans is “Dada”. And the news that Bengal’s own beloved Dada had been “nominated without opposition” to the post of BCCI president was met with unbridled joy reminiscent of his own famous celebration in his hometown, Kolkata. That a stunning match victory and unabashed celebration against England by a confident team captain can be compared to his dramatic ascent to a purely administrative position, says a lot about Dada’s charisma. 

The giddiness greeting the news was proof that Ganguly’s latest headlining act could not have come at a more opportune moment. For the past couple of years, there has been little to cheer about in our news: An under-construction flyover crashing down in the heart of the city, political violence, vandalisation of statues and colleges, medical students and junior doctors going on strike for better security and facilities, police officers playing a cat-and-mouse game with the CBI, and BJP MP Babul Supriyo being heckled by students at Jadavpur University. Already the butt of jokes for flaunting their love for non-vegetarian food and other eccentricities, Bengalis have had a tough and busy time defending their Bangaliana against the rest of the country.

But, when it came to Dada, all the heckling taunts would be rendered impotent in any argument over cultural supremacy. From the  birthplace of “anti-nationals” such as Amartya Sen and Aparna Sen, of effete and ineffectual Bengali professionals who don’t shine unless they settle abroad, came an aberration – someone who pioneered chest-baring nationalism and aggression blended with sophistication, long before the Virat Kohlis of the world were in the picture. Ganguly championed “Dadagiri”, a brand of masculinity that was unexpected from a Bengali man from a cultured, upper-middle class family. And in that, he was the perfect brand ambassador for a new kind of Bangaliana. Charming and erudite, yes. But also savage.

The common narrative describing the Bengali as weak and ineffective was birthed way back in the 19th century, during the time of Thomas Babington Macaulay, the British historian and politician who said of the bhadralok: “Whatever the Bengali does, he does languidly. His favourite pursuits are sedentary. He shrinks from bodily exertion; and though voluble in dispute, and singularly pertinacious in the war of chicane, he seldom engages in personal conflict…” In other words, the Brits saw the babus as lazy, argumentative, cowardly, and unfit for physical activity, let alone sports. Despite the nationalist counter-movement to disprove this theory that led to the rise in physical culture clubs in Kolkata neighbourhoods and a passion for football, Bengalis are still better off as passionate spectators and armchair critics. Perfect, as the British found out, for desk work. 

Imagine then the kind of hope and confidence that Sourav Ganguly inspires in the Bengali man, who has tried in vain to convince his colleagues that he does wear the pants at home.

That image has been perpetuated and nurtured ever since. In fact, even now, the only times a Bengali could be baited to the battlefield was to contest for the best biryani or chicken roll, the right to eat meat during Pujo, and stake claim over the origins of the roshogolla. Which makes them a bit of a social misfit in these times of robust and even toxic masculinity. 

It is a truth widely acknowledged, that the effete Bengali man is only too happy to let his women take charge. Imagine then the kind of hope and confidence that Sourav Ganguly inspires in the Bengali man, who has tried in vain to convince his colleagues that he does wear the pants at home. To legions of his female fans, who secretly wish their men too would have the confidence to take off their shirts in a stadium with hundreds of cameras and millions of eyes on their dad bods. So what if the world got a good view of the dozens of good luck charms and taveez that jingled and jangled with every move? It just makes him a bit more Bengali, more endearing, that is all.

Ganguly is a legend, not just for his brilliant record on the field, but also for revitalising a gentle cricketing side by adding fighting spirit to a team that was used to being sledged and subjected to racist slurs. Dada’s defiant act at Lord’s catapulted him to the league of extraordinary gentlemen who could also be a brat when the moment demanded. That was the day he rose from being a sporting icon, to a cultural one as well. Dadagiri became a compliment that would become a part of our lexicon: Bengal’s boldest contribution ever to modern India’s popular narrative.

Ever since he retired, Ganguly has served two terms as the head of CAB, while making eager noises about taking on the Team India coaching gig that Ravi Shastri has been doing. He has remained a household name in his hometown, even with women who have no interest in cricket, thanks to his TV show, called, what else, Dadagiri, and his mug is still visible around the city on billboards, selling gold jewellery and retirement homes. But as BCCI President, Ganguly is once again going to be strutting on the national stage, reminding people what the Bengal Tiger’s roar sounds like. While the rest of the country might be having a laugh at us Bengalis’ expense, we’ll always have Dada.