By: Omkar Prasad Choudhury
When Dipa Karmakar became the first Indian woman gymnast to win a bronze medal at the Glasgow Commonwealth Games, it brought back memories of the golden years of gymnastics in the tiny state of Tripura — my home state. I still remember my father telling me a story about how a little-known Indian called Mantu Debnath surprised and surpassed Soviet gymnasts to clinch the vaulting horse gold at the Indo-Soviet cultural exchange meet held at Kazakhstan, then in the USSR, in 1969. His feat — and later, his coaching prowess — inspired a whole generation of children from Tripura to take up gymnastics.
Debnath’s win was no fluke. Tripura already had a tradition of gymnastics. Local clubs called byamagars had been functioning for years, albeit in an unorganised and haphazard manner with members training in gymnastics, body-building, weight-lifting and some traditional forms of the martial arts. It was with the arrival of the late Dalip Singh, a Sports Authority of India coach, that the local culture got an infusion of professional guidance. The golden journey of gymnastics in Tripura under the watchful eyes of Singh, who started serving in Agartala in 1964, began at Vivekananda Byamagar.
Between 1964-80, Tripura produced several national champions. Singh’s protégés like Debnath, Bharat Kishore Debbarman, N.N. Dey, Bisweswar Nandi (Karmakar’s coach), Balaram Shil, Ratan Debnath, Kalpana Debnath and Manika Debnath ruled the Indian gymnastics arena for many years and brought home many international laurels as well. Alongside other disciplines, byamagars had traditionally taught yoga and asanas that were probably the precursor to the fantastic flexibility in movement displayed by these stars.
Among the first generation of Tripura gymnasts to make a mark was Kalpana Debnath, who won all the gold medals at the Surat National Championship in 1978. It seemed that the next step was a medal at a major international event. But that never happened. Gymnastics in Tripura has been limited by obsolete infrastructure, lack of encouragement and government apathy — the story of many sports in India — till Karmakar brought renewed attention to it with her bronze.
Mantu and Kalpana are the state’s only two Arjuna awardees. But after their reign came several decades of underachievement, when gymnasts from Tripura would do well in junior, sub-junior and school-level events, but little beyond that. Banasree Debnath was the last to win a gold medal at the Karnataka National Games in 1997, under the guidance of stalwarts from the golden generation.
Karmakar’s historic achievement will instil hope and presumably provide the required impetus to make Tripura a gymnastics powerhouse and bring home many more medals for India in artistic gymnastics. This triumph could be equivalent to Sushil Kumar’s bronze medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, which had an encouraging effect on wrestling in Haryana. The onus is now on the Tripura government to incentivise Karmakar’s win — give her a cash award, promotion, whatever it takes. The Gymnastics Federation of India should support and encourage Tripura’s budding gymnasts. The need of the hour in Tripura is a reputed international coach who is cognisant of modern methods of training and can use that to hone the state’s talent into potential world champions.
Gymnastics, like many other sports, is undergoing rapid changes to make it more attractive. This is where international coaches become important. If other Olympic sports like hockey, table tennis, archery, badminton and football can have international coaches to improve the standards of the respective disciplines, why should gymnastics suffer?
Dipa Karmakar’s feat stands out as it has been achieved entirely on local expertise and deserves all the celebration and pride it has evoked. With just a little guidance and infusion of resources, the platinum generation of gymnasts from Tripura could follow and make India proud.
The writer is a Delhi-based doctor from Tripura