Laxman, aesthetics and stoicism

Written by  //  February 20, 2011  //  Philosophy, Religion, Culture  //  5 Comments

The world cup article in our section is about V.V.S.Laxman. This is ironical in many senses and it is not the least of those senses that Laxman is not going to be part of the world cup. I want to discuss 2 essential attributes that define Laxman and discuss how these two attributes seem to have absolutely no role to play in modern society’s benchmark of achievement or success. These 2 attributes are aesthetics and stoicism. I will shortly get to explaining what I mean by those two terms but the point I want to make is that Laxman probably is the last representative of these 2 qualities in modern cricket. And the fact that he cannot find a place to figure in the most important tournament of the cricketing calendar tells us a lot about modern cricket and modern society.

Aesthetics

What makes something beautiful? If I had an elegant answer to that I would be hailed the greatest philosopher of the modern generation. I don’t. I don’t even want to bore readers with a learned discussion of what philosophers have thought to be beautiful (mostly because I cannot). I want to just draw on one of the many contestations of what is considered to be beautiful. The notion that what is beautiful is what is natural. What is spontaneous, non-artificial, non-manufactured and not fake. Each of these terms are loaded and cannot be logically delineated. But everyone intuitively knows what they mean. Just as they intuitively know that the following shot by Laxman is heartbreakingly beautiful:

watch?v=y9yNLn3wuNU

While this shot from Matthew Hayden is very effective but will not be remembered after the next over is bowled.

watch?v=JkzbMdbgqEA

There may be many factors that go into making that shot played by Laxman beautiful. Elegance, poise, craft, method etc. But what is underlying the beauty is that it is the natural shot to play in that situation. He is not forcing the situation to do something that was not meant to be. If it is an out swinger in the corridor he is happy not to play at it. He is not going to move across the stumps and try and reverse slog it. He won’t do that because it is just not natural. And this is why possibly he cannot play in the twenty twenty form of the game. He could have had a glorious career in one dayers, but he was denied it, according to me, due to some dubious selection but he definitely looked an embarrassment in the Deccan Chargers team. It was as if Pandit Bhimsen Joshi was made to sing remixed item numbers with an obscene rap sequence thrown in between. Laxman is most certainly the orthodox classical stylist in the Indian team. It is this natural-ness that makes your heart skip a beat in ecstasy when you watch that mildly coaxed off drive which makes the fielding team stand and gawp in awe.

Which brings me on to his next attribute. Orthodoxy and religion. It is not a sufficiently well known aspect of Laxman’s career that he reads the 12th Chapter of the Bhagavad Gita every single day. This is mentioned in a documentary about Laxman you can see here:

watch?v=xpDCq-Y-mIs&playnext=1&list=PLED6EAAA596A7C20A

I feel the significance of this fact goes a long way in explaining the man.

He is undoubtedly the most gifted batsmen in the artistic mould of this generation. But how many advertisements have you seen him in? Suresh Raina, who is a child in comparison probably has far more endorsements and visibility. Laxman quite clearly enjoys whenever he is able to guide India to victory but he can never be part of what is considered to be the ultimate success in cricket – victory in the ODI World Cup. He is a prolific run getter who thrives in long innings but his position in the test batting order means that he rarely gets a mature partner who is able to support him get a big total. His position also means that he is never going to go down in any of the impressive record books. After all “saving matches in spectacular fashion on the last day battling injury playing sublime cover drives in foreign conditions and herding the tail” is not a readily recalled statistical category =- like say a 100 100s is. He is the most delightful player to watch of the fabulous four of the golden generation of the Indian middle order but his name will always be mentioned last on the list.

The point I wish to make here is that his is a story of natural talent having to be curtailed, having to adjust, of never being in the limelight, of always having to answer for its place in the team, of always having to explain for his art. He does not run fast enough, he is not fit enough, he does not bowl a couple of quick quiet overs and get the over rate rolling. In fact he can barely field. He is not utilitarian in the least. he is purely artistic. This means that everyday he has to face demons that someone like Sachin Tendulkar never has to. He has to keep his mind fit and not let it slide into negativity. He needs to train his mind to tell himself that acting in a cola commercial with a heroine is probably never going to be his fate nor is he going to rake in the millions like his more junior go-getting peers. He probably will not get recognised in the airport on a year that India do not play many tests. Everyday he has to resist calls on him to play quicker, to play ugly shots, to slog and to get the run rate to over 12. Everyday his response has to flow from his fidelity to his art. He has to stick to his breathtaking cover drives because that is what causes the heart of a cricket fan to go soft. It is what makes many lives worth while.

Every day he gets his strength from the 12 th Chapter which outlines in beautiful verse the qualities of a devotee who settled in his own discipline.

Chapter 12:

“He for whom no one is put into difficulty and who is not disturbed by anyone, who is equipoised in happiness and distress, fear and anxiety, is very dear to Me.”

“My devotee who is not dependent on the ordinary course of activities, who is pure, expert, without cares, free from all pains, and not striving for some result, is very dear to Me.”

One who neither rejoices nor grieves, who neither laments nor desires, and who renounces both auspicious and inauspicious things—such a devotee is very dear to Me.”

The crucial words that I want to pick out are: “..who is pure, expert, without cares, free form all pains and not striving for some result”. Laxman is certainly all of these things.

This brings me on to the broader question. What do we make of a cricketing world in particular and the world in general, which cannot find a place to accommodate someone like Laxman in the mainstream? It is a world which denies itself of the sublime pleasure of watching the graceful straight drive race to the boundary. Such a world is pitiable in the extreme.

5 Comments on "Laxman, aesthetics and stoicism"

  1. Suhrith February 20, 2011 at 4:16 pm ·

    Brilliant piece, Subra. I do, though, find it a tad difficult to agree with your conception of beauty. If what is beautiful is what is natural, then a swipe over midwicket from Raina may well be beautiful, for that could be what comes naturally to him. At the core of it lies a subjective idea, one way or another. And also, to say that the Laxman on-drive, for instance, is a purely natural stroke and is therefore beautiful may be difficult. Because if you ask a layman who has never played cricket ever before to bat, his most natural stroke may be some kind of grotesquely ugly swipe. Similarly, I think when Laxman flicks a ball that has pitched a foot outside off-stump through midwicket, looks anything but natural, even if it feels for Laxman like the most natural stroke to play. And by Laxman’s own admission, his propensity to play wristy flicks to balls that would otherwise be hit through the covers was a result of him having modelled his batting on Azhar’s.

  2. Shantanu February 20, 2011 at 6:05 pm ·

    Delightful piece Subra! Agree with you entirely. The slam-bang of T-20 has also had pernicious effects on the other forms of the game.

  3. Vikas NM February 21, 2011 at 1:07 pm ·

    Tend to agree with Suhrith… a lot of those shots that make you replay the video over and over again arent always the most natural.. was trying to think of an alternative.. in Laxman’s case, the first word I can think of is lazy (if I think of him leaning into a drive and caressing the ball through covers) but it would do injustice to those wristy flicks through mid-wicket, or those pull shots he brings out from him armoury once in a while – to call them lazy.. But you are right… you know a beautiful shot when you see one!

  4. Subramanian Natarajan February 25, 2011 at 4:28 pm ·

    Thanks guys.

    I probably agree that all of Laxman’s shots are not natural – to other players. But they look natural when he plays them. Whereas most of Harbhajan Singh’s slogs over mid-wicket are natural responses to him and possibly others but they dont look the least bit natural to anyone. This is the quandrary of aesthetics.

    I do not claim to have an easy aswer to the question – “Why do all of Laxmans shots looks so beautiful?”. I merely want to propose an answer. In light of your comments- probably I should rephrase my argument as follows: His shots look beautiful not because they are natural in an objective sense of the word but because he makes them look natural subjectively.

    Subra

  5. aandthirtyeights March 1, 2011 at 10:14 am ·

    Mark Waugh was prettier, I think. But Laxman is a far greater batsman.

Comments are now closed for this article.