On Writing a Historiography of Western Sport in Colonial India

by | Jun 16, 2023 | General, Guest Posts, RHS Publications, Transactions, Writing Race Two | 0 comments


In ‘The Limits of the History of Western Sport in Colonial India‘, Subhadipa Dutta offers a historiographical review of the history of Western sport in colonial India. Here Subhadipa explains how she came to her subject as a PhD researcher, and how her research broadens understanding of sport in colonial India beyond the establish focus on adult male participants.

Her article appears in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, and is one of the first essays in the journal’s new ‘Common Room’ section: a space for topical commentary on all aspects of historical research, to which submissions are welcome.



The history of Western sport in colonial India has moved on and broadened considerably since the early historical (and sociological) accounts of colonial sporting past were first published. The burgeoning scholarship in this field has blossomed into a multifaceted exploration of sport’s role in conditioning Indian experiences during the age of the empire. My historiographical commentary, now available in the Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, engages with some of the most significant interpretations that now shape our understanding of how the introduction, diffusion, reception, modification, and refutation of modern Western sports in colonial India were directly linked to the complex issues of imperialism, nationalism and communalism as well as race, caste and gender.

The lacuna in the extant scholarship inspired me to examine the unexplored issues of childhood sports in colonial Bengal.

My engagement with these critical studies was initiated during the final semesters of postgraduate study at West Bengal State University, Barasat, India. Through a series of insightful and thought-provoking discussions on the cultural history of modern India, we were introduced not only to the history of sport in India but also to the most recent trends of research on this subject. This was the starting point of my later study of the literature on Indian sport. The fascinating works of Richard Cashman, J. A. Mangan, Allen Guttmann, Tony Mason, Richard Holt, Ramchandra Guha, Ashis Nandy, Paul Dimeo, Boria Majumdar, Ronojoy Sen, and Kausik Bandyopadhyay, to name a few, drew me to research on colonial sport in the subcontinent.


Figure 1: The Mohun Bagan Athletic Club team which won the 1911 Indian Football Association Shield against the East Yorkshire Regiment. This was a historic moment for Indian football as well as the struggle for independence, as the barefooted Indians beat the booted Englishmen in their own game. Image originally printed in the Modern Review. Source: Wikimedia Commons.


In part, this is a field covered from diverse angles of domination, resistance and agency in a colonial setting. At the same time, it’s one mostly dominated by the adult male-oriented concerns. Until now, the crucial fact that Indian children and adolescents were also targets of both imperialist and nationalist implementations of goal-oriented sports has interested few scholars. This lacuna inspired me to examine the unexplored issues of childhood sports in colonial Bengal — present-day Indian state of West Bengal and Bangladesh.

My observation challenges some dominant assumptions, methods and approaches taken up by recent studies on the dissemination of Western sport in colonial India.

I began by writing a long essay for my Masters’ degree. Subsequently, I developed a research plan for my doctoral study to explore the sociocultural discourses on children’s sports through the prism of child-juvenile literature written in Bengali in colonial Bengal. My doctoral dissertation historicises the colonial Bengali child and juvenile readers — who experienced phenomenal changes under the aegis of colonial modernity — as a crucial figures upon which the modern Bengali knowledge of sport was conceptualised. It shows the ways in which the sport-related knowledge for youngsters was produced and disseminated through the medium of printed Bengali child-juvenile periodicals, primers, readers, biographies, storybooks, and other texts for children.


Figure 2: A painting by Jatin Jana, depicting childhood play in the cover page of colonial Bengali child-juvenile periodical Mauchak (The Beehive, 1934). The original material is located at Sadharan Brahmo Samaj, Kolkata. Source: Endangered Archives Programme, British Library, London.


Popular Bengali literature on sport-related knowledge for children underwent remarkable developments during the nineteenth and early twentieth century. This was a change characterised by a complex interaction between the traditional indigenous understanding of childhood play and the modern Western perceptions of children’s sport. My observations challenge some dominant assumptions, methods and approaches advanced in recent studies on the dissemination of Western sport in colonial India.

It goes without saying that the analysis set out in my historiographical review for Transactions is largely moulded by my doctoral research. It pays critical attention to sport historians for their contributions in understanding how Western sports shaped colonial society and culture in India. But it takes issues with their methods of source analysis, their predominantly adult male-centered concerns, and their stated or unstated assumptions about the existence of traditional indigenous views of leisure and body culture movements. Drawing on theoretical and methodological approaches developed in history’s ‘literary turn’, ‘The Limits of the History of Western Sport in Colonial India’ indicates possibilitIes to expand the extant boundary of sport history in India.





Subhadipa Dutta holds master’s degree in history from West Bengal State University, Barasat, India. Her research interests focus on the ideological formation of sport in modern India, to which she has contributed research on the reflections of childhood sport in pre-colonial and colonial Bengali literature. Her recently submitted PhD thesis is entitled Play, Pleasure and the Children: Sport and Nationalism in Colonial Bengali Child-Juvenile Literature.

Subhadipa’s publications include ‘The Genre, Games, and Gender: The Textual Representation of Childhood Play in the Maṅgalakāvyas of Pre-colonial Bengal’ in Folklore (2021) and , ‘The Limits of the History of Western Sport in Colonial India’ in The Common Room section of the Transactions of the Royal Historical Society (2023).






The Transactions now welcomes submissions for The Common Room. This section creates a space for diverse contributions that speak to concerns and discussions pertinent to History. The journal’s co-editors encourage shorter pieces that may focus on historiographical issues, methodological problems, intellectual debates or engagement with the latest scholarship. For more on The Common Room and how to submit a proposal, please see here.


HEADER IMAGE: ‘Ground of Calcutta Cricket Club, 15 January 1861, by Percy Carpenter Wiki Commons Public Domain

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