DIPA KARMAKAR is 25% short of perfection in the Produnova, considered the riskiest vault in gymnastics. Behind the 75% she has mastered is an invisible hand from Haryana.
As in the epic Mahabharata, every Arjun of Indian sports is moulded by a Dronacharya, not all – like Dipa’s coach Bisweshwar Nandi – recognised officially. Nandi’s Dronacharya was Dalip Singh, from village Bewal in Haryana’s Mahendragarh district.
Singh couldn’t quite produce an Arjun, for he had an army of gymnasts to give attention to. But Nandi, one of his better disciples, did an Arjun after donning the guru’s garb; he concentrated on and hit the eye of the bird.
That eye, gymnast Dipa, has now caught everyone’s eyes with an Olympics berth, the first for an Indian woman.
Singh, an instructor at Pune-based Army Institute of Physical Training, came to Tripura capital Agartala in 1965 via the National Institute of Sports in Patiala, Punjab. That year, Bharat Kishosre Debbarman became Tripura’s first to win a gymnastics gold at the national championship.
“Dalip Sir was a man possessed. He would go from house to house, scouting for boys and girls who would hop, skip, jump and run about, and convincing parents that their wards have a future in sports,” 62-year-old Montu Debnath, former gymnast and Tripura’s first Arjuna awardee in 1975, said.
Tripura has only three Arjuna award winners, all gymnasts. The other two are Kalpana Debnath (2000) and Dipa (2015).
“Tripura’s journey to gymnastics glory with Dipa has to be credited to Dalipji. He was a fountain of inspiration, a legend who had unconventional ideas that helped overcome hurdles,” Manik Saha, founder vice-president of Tripura Gymnastics Association, said.
Former gymnast Balaram Shil, now DIG of CRPF, recalled how Singh would purchase logs and shape them into parallel bars for training, or gather grass to help his trainees land relatively safely. Those were the days when gymnastics meant working out in a tin shed.
The state government eventually acquired the expansive house of one Gedu Mian and turned it into a passable gymnasium.
“Whatever I am today is because of my guru (Singh). I have just added value to the skills acquired from him to train Dipa,” Nandi said.
Gouri Karmakar attributes daughter Dipa’s success to her dedication, discipline and Nandi’s unwavering attention to details. But she also believes in the power of ‘aashirwad’ (blessings) from people in India, more importantly from someone “up there” – not God but the Father of Gymnastics in Tripura.
That father is Singh, who died six years before Dipa was born in August 1993.
Bridging the gap
For 21 years since 1968, Tripura’s gymnasts swept the sub-junior, junior and senior national championships. Singh’s death in 1987 changed all that.
“Besides shaping gymnasts, Dalipji readied generations of coaches but Tripura just could not match the level of excellence achieved while he was alive,” Shil said.
Niyoti Debnath, who as physical instructor spotted Dipa’s talent as a second-grader in Agartala’s Nazrul Smriti Vidyalaya, blames it on the “job flood” in the 1980s. “All athletes got jobs in far-flung schools, in the armed forces, railways and there was hardly anyone left to train the next crop of gymnasts properly,” she said.
Tripura’s first woman gymnast, Niyoti Debnath hopes Dipa’s feat will help bridge the gap.
“What gap?” asked Dilip Chakraborty, secretary of Tripura Sports Council. The state’s gymnasts and other sportspersons have never ever dropped the intensity, he said.
Sporting parents and teacher
Parents are the biggest hurdle to talent-scouting, Nandi says. “Most athletes come from poor background. The government runs a sports school for potential athletes, but parents want regular schooling because they want their children to have 9-5 jobs.”
Dipa feels she is lucky to have weightlifter Dulal Karmakar as her father, a mother who understands a sportsperson’s needs, and relatives who are into one sport or the other.
“We let her do what she wanted to do, but there are many others responsible for what she is today,” the father said.
One of them is Shobhana Dutta, who retired a few years ago as headmistress of Dipa’s school. She let Dipa practice after attending only four out of seven periods every day, and miss exams if the schedule clashed with her exams.
“Dipa was academically quite good. She had the required aggregate even if she missed a few exams. That was possibly because she was as serious in studies as in pursuing per passion,” Dutta said.
Then there’s the spiritual inspiration – from Dalip Singh – whose house in Ujan Abhaynagar is barely 50 metres from the Karmakars’ two-storey building on a 1,600 sq ft plot.
“It feels good that Tripura’s future in gymnastics has not forgotten the past. My husband was the spirit behind many a gymnast, but it needs a spirited person like Dipa to attain new heights,” pathologist Salam Susheela, Singh’s widow, said. Hailing from Manipur, she married Singh after meeting him in Agartala in 1968.
Dipa resents the celebrity status at home because “I have miles to go”. But she has in a decade inspired many girls and boys.
“After Rio, my focus would be on eight girls who have the potential to equal or better Dipa. I am hopeful about three – Asmita Pal, Priyanka Dasgupta and Rishita Saha,” Nandi said.
Another responsibility is to train the next set of gurus for the next set of shishyas (pupils). This is something Tripura chief minister Manik Sarkar wants done as much as providing a foam pit so that Dipa can hone the Produnova at home.
“I have 25% more to go for a perfect Produnova. I will train 22-23 times a day after I reach Delhi to prepare for Rio,” Dipa said.
If the hard work pays, her mother will have to find some space to showcase the medal. She had pushed her husband’s weightlifting medals and trophies some time ago to accommodate the daughter’s.
The father does not mind the memories of his flyweight and featherweight days going into trunks or the storeroom. “I want every father in India to see his child outdo his achievements,” he said.
PHOTO CAPTIONS (IN DESCENDING ORDER)
- Dipa Karmakar with coach Bisweshwar Nandi at their Tripura Sports Council office in Agartala.
- Former gymnast Balaram Shil, now Deputy Inspector General of Central Reserved Police Force.
- Dipa with parents Gouri and Dulal Karmakar at their Ujan Abhaynagar home in Agartala. (This pic by Abhishek Saha)
- Pathologist Salam Susheela beside the photo of her late husband Dalip Singh, who came to Tripura from Haryana in 1965 to become the landlocked northeast Indian state’s Father of Gymnastics.
(A variant appeared in the Hindustan Times on 24 April 2016)