Start-stop. Start-start-stop. The prods of the sword-point in fencing lend themselves beautifully to acoustic cues, the sort that composer David Arnold’s orchestra might pepper Die Another Day with. For India’s ace fencer CA Bhavani Devi, moreover, life by the sword isn’t too different from that dramatic soundtrack.
Carelessly cast aside for the Asian Games in one of the most baffling selection calls by the country’s fencing governing body, Bhavani’s career hit a long pause this August. Of the three categories in the sport — epee, foil and sabre — Bhavani fences sabre. The federation, in a random fit of accountability, reckoned she stood no chance at medalling. Not that others did, but they were sent anyway. Forced to sit tight and continue training at her base in Italy, Bhavani would bide her time like she always does in her sport — before charging forward, swords blazing.
At the Senior Commonwealth Championships in Canberra, Australia, last week, Bhavani Devi won a gold, beating England’s Emily Ruaux 15-12 in a closely fought final. Her decision to carry on training, undeterred by her non-selection, had been made in a split second. It followed a pattern of many years. “I know when to attack, I know when to stop,” Bhavani says.
It barely surprised her father. C Sundararamana remembers the first time his youngest daughter took a decision in her life. She was not more than a year and a half. “She’d been bathed and dressed by her mother that morning. After some time, we could not find her in the house. Do you know what she’d done?” he asks with a mix of dread and pride. “She had picked a bag, put a couple of books into it and walked to the school close to our home, all by herself!” he says.
A child who walked precociously early, Bhavani had often accompanied her parents while they dropped off her three older siblings — two brothers and a sister — to school, which is how she had made her way there and was found on the verandah, holding on to her bag.
The middle-class family from north Chennai’s Washermenpet quickly got used to the baby of the family showing a bright, blazing streak in whatever she did. There was little surprise when she announced one day, years later, that she was going to seriously pursue fencing as a sport. “You know, she was barely three when she stood in front of an auditorium of 200-300 parents and gave a two-minute speech on Gandhi on the school’s annual day. We knew very early that she would do special things in life, combined with the realisation that we might not always have enough money to fund this talent,” Sundararamana says, with heartbreaking sincerity. The family is hoping she can win an Olympic medal in what is, to be brutally honest, a long shot at the sport for an Indian.
“We don’t like talking about how we’ve scrambled for money because she might read it,” he says. While Bhavani’s mother Ramani has been a constant companion and can document every detail of every match in her junior years, her father provided the emotional heft. “Her mind should not be cluttered with ordinary things, like paying for the hotel room in the next competition,” he says, hoping help comes from beyond her existing support systems — the Tamil Nadu government, the non-profit Go Sports and the extended family.
Bhavani’s brothers Suresh Kumar and Ganesh Ram work as investment advisor and lawyer, respectively, while her sister Renuka is a lawyer. Fencing, in which India has limited expertise, compelled the 24-year-old to set up base in Italy, sending expenses soaring exponentially. “Yes, her mother has sold jewellery, taken loans from banks and pleaded with bureaucrats. Bhavani’s uncles and siblings have had to chip in and we’ve asked for a crowdfund. We’re always paying off loans, and I’ve never had savings. But we are talking about an Olympics medal here. There was no way we would stop her,” he says.
Sundararamana, who hadn’t completed his B.Sc because of health problems, insists that all his children will go the whole distance of their dreams — academic or not. He had played a spot of cricket and table tennis in his childhood, but his real interest lay in literature (English classics and Telugu). “My father was a lawyer and my grandfather a Telugu scholar in the royal court of the Maharaja of Venkatagiri. When I worked in Hyderabad and, later, at a construction firm in Chennai, I stole away time to read. Bhavani’s mother Ramani might not be fluent in English, but she had the drive to give her children the best in life.
Bhavani’s inherited this hunger for knowledge and the dogged drive from us,” he says. He also recalls how Bhavani had taught herself to read and write (“She wrote an essay on her brother once, just quietly observing what he did the whole day.”).
“We knew nothing about fencing, but we learnt about it and our support was spontaneous,” he says. He hopes there would be more medals like the freshly-fetched Commonwealth gold, so the rest of the country can learn about the sport.
Five years ago, it was at Thalassery in Kerala that Bhavani confronted the enormity of what she’d set out to do. One of India’s astute fencing coaches, Sagar Lagu, had invited her to train at the Sports Authority centre after being impressed with her speed . The Kerala stint had started with her running back home to Chennai at the first opportunity. “It was very difficult,” Bhavani starts. “I’d never slept alone in a room till then. I was afraid of nights, of the dark,” she recalls, now chuckling about the storms in her little teacup.
“Fencing cured that,” she says, laughing. “After training and studies and a day that started at 5 am, I was just so tired that I forgot about the fear of the dark. I would just drop off to sleep from exhaustion.”
The mode of instruction was in Malayalam at the college she attended, a language she did not understand. It took her time as well to warm up to the Rosematta big-grained rice.
Now when I think of it, it was silly. But back then, these were daily struggles — the different rice, the food cooked in coconut oil, and just living by yourself,” she adds. “When your mornings are about rushing to the assembly prayers at 6 am, with 20 minutes to get ready and manage everything on your own, fencing almost seems like leisure,” she says.
Bhavani had always been a decisive child. It’s a quality that’s helped her in her sport. “On the fencing strip, there is no one to help you. If you miss the moment in fencing, you’re gone. When you see a fast opponent attacking the arm, you need to know when to take a step back and defend. Fencing is as much about precision as decision-making,” she says. It explains why she could steal a march over fencers from Manipur and Punjab, who boast of a longer tradition in the sport. “My Manipur teammates are super-fast, but sometimes too much speed is a disadvantage in sabre. It’s a very mental sport, where you need to use discretion in your speed. I learnt this faster than most. I read opponents well,” she says.
A decade before she moved to Kerala, someone else in Chennai had sensed the winds changing: PWC Davidar boxed welterweight at the Madras Christian College many years before he settled into the bureaucratic high seat of the Sports Development Authority of Tamil Nadu as member-secretary in the early 2000s.
In his initial four-year stint, the IAS officer cleared files and funds for those who came looking for government help. He encountered proselytisers pushing for all sorts of sports — from squash to the martial art of Silambam. There were the floaters with fawning smiles, who roamed the corridors of power looking for opportunities to set up federations of obscure sports. They would seek him out around the circumference of Chennai’s multipurpose Nehru Stadium on Sydenhams Road.
One particular gentleman would diligently pursue Davidar, prattling on about his plans of dabbling in a couple of “associations”. One was yoga. The other involved blunted swords. The word “Olympics” and the man’s general nagging obstinacy — he lined up half-a-dozen other fencers — convinced Davidar that the state government could dip into funds for the sport of fencing. Foils (swords) and masks were procured promptly, and, that academic season, schools across Chennai offered the sport in physical education.
Fifteen years later, India took its first lunge towards an impossible dream when Bhavani picked gold at Canberra, her first major senior title. Fencing wasn’t altogether absent in the country; SAI centres at Kerala, Punjab and Manipur had been holding camps for quite some time. In Bhavani, who has medalled at the Asian level and the Flemish Open and won her first title at an Iceland satellite meet last May, India have found a winner on the fencing strip, the 14 m long piste.
Bhavani recalls being charmed by the equipment — the mask, the jacket, the electrical trail that beeped off tiny lamps. The whole ensemble was nothing less than a vision in white, she remembers. “I loved the sabre, because you could score real fast even on the slightest jab. The match can finish in five minutes,” she says, having settled into her event after five years of fencing foil and sabre.
Initially, Bhavani had chosen to play squash and fencing in school. “I was super active and would do anything to be outdoors,” she says. A child who could never sit still, she also recalls learning kung-fu, classical music and Bharatanatyam in spurts. A time came when she had to choose one sport: she dropped squash. She had been a volleyball player blessed with explosive jumping power, but she realised that fencing would be as frenetic but far more nuanced.
Bhavani missed out in the first inter-school contests. “My schoolmates won medals. I was a little jealous and decided I had to do well in the next competition. There, too, I finished with a silver. Missing on the gold made fencing an obsession. I was angry and I desperately wanted that medal,” she says.
Many schools would eventually drop the sport as the craze fizzled out but not her Muruga Dhanushkodi school. “They allowed me to skip my Class IX final exams. I didn’t have quality then, but I was so passionate about being good that I worked my heart out,” she says.
Shrewdness is a quality that her Italian coach Nicola Zanotti recognised early when he saw the Indian fencing at an international meet in Hungary. “She was very, very good intuitively when I saw her at the junior world championships. Fencing no doubt needs physical power and emotional energy, and, though her technique was simple, she was one of the fastest to learn. I saw intelligence in her,” he says, speaking from his club in Livorno, an establishment that boasts of a long scroll of world champions in Italy.
“Her speed’s good, sometimes too much, so we’ve taught her the art of controlling it — quick barge, quicker tug back. She still needs to improve in physique, confidence and strategy, but, by the Tokyo Olympics, she’ll be ready for good results. It is very tough, but that’s what we’re training for,” he says, adding that he convinced her that a stint in Italy could help her bridge the gap of technical expertise.
Fortunately for her, the then Tamil Nadu government led by the late J Jayalalithaa in Chennai had expedited funds that can go up to Rs 26 lakh till the Tokyo Games, under a scheme for elite sportspersons.
Fencing has regal origins in Europe, with each country boasting its own style, but south Italian fencers are known for their cheek. “ Our fencing takes off from our street-smarts,” Zanotti says. Twice now on the big stage, Bhavani has brought her astuteness to the piste. At her first senior worlds in Budapest in 2013, she stunned a Polish fencer with her rationed stabs. “She wasn’t expecting an Indian to know the tricks. She lost patience and started rushing. I responded smartly to her moves and won. Against a Kazakh fencer at an Asian meet once, I read her variation at 14-14, anticipated her moves and waited till the last moment to strike,” she recalls.
It’s taken a while to ignore the prejudice that the mostly-European judges could subtly pour on Asian fencers. “I’ve had some bad decisions. But now they see me regularly and it’s gotten better, though we take extensive video referrals. If I get angry, that’s also bad for me. I’ve learnt to fence cold and clear,” she says.
Italy has churned more changes in her life — she’s traded rice for pasta carbonara, which she cooks herself. “No one speaks English, but I’ve adapted here. It’s fitness in the morning, fencing in the evening and more of pasta carbonara on weekends,” she says, laughing.
Chennai and schooldays seem aeons away now. After the 2014 Asian Games showing, she had flown down especially for a felicitation by the then CM Jayalalithaa. It was a Rs 3 lakh cash award, for which she spent Rs 1.5 lakh on flight tickets at the last minute. “I really wanted to meet her. She said, ‘We are proud of you and want you to win an Olympic medal.’ I was specially struck by her strong voice, and I thought it had courage,” she says. But, most importantly, for Bhavani, it was a nod to the chief minister under whose name the sport was introduced in Chennai schools, who had arguably started her off on this long journey.
Art of the Duel
Foil: Played with the lightest of swords, the target area is the torso (shoulders to groin in front, and to the waist in the back) but not arms and legs. Touches get scored only on the tip. Scoring a touch ends one phrase of action, so only one fencer wins a point at a time. The phrase “proved a good foil for” can trace its origins to the balancing act between the attacking sabre and the defensive epee.
Epee: Heavier than the foil, the epee sword also thrusts with the tip, except the target is the entire body. Both fencers can score points simultaneously or one after the other. It is the most defensive form of fencing, and relies on counter-attacks.
Sabre: This is the fastest of fencing swords, and the target area is anything above the waist, except the wielding hand. Hits with the entire blade, as well as the point tip, are valid. Off-target touches don’t stop action, but like foil, only one fencer scores at a time. It’s fast and aggressive and demands split-second decision making.