At his home in Delhi’s Lajpat Nagar, Abhijeet Bhattaycharya stands in what he calls the ‘Haati-Naati-Baati’ pose: right arm outstretched, much like an elephant’s trunk, and knees bent. 2,000 km away in a village in Assam’s Jorhat district, a group of 30 children follow suit.
It is 7.30 AM on Wednesday and a Zoom call hosted by Bhattacharya, former captain of the Indian volleyball team, is underway. From three windows on his computer screen, one can hear giggles, chatter and frequent applause, interrupted every now and then by a lag in the network.
“Learning a sport is a continuous process. You can’t leave it midway,” says Bhattacharya, who for a month now has been holding lessons in his ‘virtual volleyball academy’: a strategy to adapt a decade-long initiative — that of training young boys and girls in rural Assam in volleyball — to the post-Covid world.
In March, when the lockdown was announced, life at Bhattacharya’s otherwise busy volleyball academy in Tezpur, housing scores of youngsters from far corners of Assam, came to a standstill. So did ‘Mission Volleyball 100’, a drive to scour potential talent from 100 villages in the state.
“All our efforts in training rural kids had to be put on hold,” says Bhattacharya, “Initially, I used to record video clips of simple exercises and send it to them but there was no enthusiasm.”
On July 15 — inspired by the virtual Yoga lessons organised by his daughter’s school — the sportsman decided to start some of his own: The ‘Abhijeet Bhattacharya’s Virtual Volleyball Academy’ for beginners had 30 children from three tea garden villages (Deha, Munumoi, Goghramukh) in Assam’s Jorhat district in attendance. “The video was shaky, it froze a hundred times but the enthusiasm made up for it,” he says.
A month in, the network still plays spoilsport but every morning Bhattacharya is in front of his computer, bellowing instructions to his students, teaching them a sport he says “gave him everything.”
Bhattacharya’s tryst with volleyball started in 1996 in his hometown in Tezpur, after which he went on to play for the national team, captaining it between 2003-2005, as well as for the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) team, where he was employed. Post-retirement from the sport, on a visit back home in 2007, he came across a group of boys who were unable to play because they did not have a ball.
That is what sowed the seed for Bhattacharya’s volleyball initiative and more than a decade later, his efforts, supported by well-wishers as well as ONGC’s Corporate Social Responsibility wing, have established a dedicated volleyball academy in Tezpur, producing at least 20 state-level professional players. But Bhattacharya’s primary aim has always been to reach the hinterland.
“Volleyball a rural-centric game and popular across Assam’s villages: low investment, easy, entertaining,” says Bhattacharya, who shuttles between Assam and Delhi, where he lives with his wife, Priyanka (also a volleyball player) and two daughters. “To really reach the villages, we train young boys and girls as master trainers, who would go back to their respective villages, taking the sport to the children.”
Among the 46 villages he has covered as part of ‘Mission Volleyball 100’, three are tea garden villages in Jorhat district, also the pilot project for the virtual classes.
The classes — overseen by volunteers from Jorhat-based NGO Navakiran Manch— are from 6 am to 8 am every day at a common area in the village.
“We have never done something like this before,” says Siva Mahli, a 26-year-old from the village who is in-charge of the Goghramukh centre, “The kids find it intriguing that the instructions come from a mobile phone.” Another volunteer, 18-year-old Bobita Mahli, says that for areas like this, where she grew up, such opportunities for kids are rare.
“For the tea garden children, getting two square meals a day is tough,” says Dr Archana Bhattacharjee, a retired teacher and founder of Navakiran Manch, which promotes youth and women empowerment among Tea Tribe communities of Jorhat district. In 2019, she tied up with Bhattacharya’s Mission Volleyball 100, and set up a centre to cater to these villages, which now benefit from the virtual volleyball academy. “Education may be free but the dropout rate is high because of a lack of motivation,” she says. In two centres, they are yet to buy a ball. But Bhattacharya has taught them how to make one, bundling together a piece of cloth, with rope and adhesive.
Despite the excitement around it, Bhattacharya admits that it is “impossible to teach sport online”. “But what I am focusing on now is basic beginner level of volleyball, mandatory exercises which involves brain-eye coordination, hand-leg coordination etc which can be pulled off online,” he says, adding that his customised drills are sent to the in-charges a day in advance so they can prepare. “During the actual lesson, we repeat the same exercises,” he says.
There are plans of expanding virtual lessons to more villages and talk of a mobile app too. “We need to keep it going — pandemic or no pandemic,” he says.
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