It was supposed to be just a one-off thing. Friends encouraged Rebita Kongbrailatpan to compete in the local bodybuilding event, owing to her muscular frame. But she wasn’t really interested in it. In fact, her brawny build came from her enthusiasm towards Wushu, a Chinese form of martial arts. Yet she prepared. She was aware that judges gave points for six-pack abs, which she did boast of at the time. Subsequently, in the summer of 2010, she wore a two-piece swimsuit to the event, while the other competitors were covered. The then 19-year-old realised she had an advantage. But for the judges, Rebita exposing her abdomen was an outrage — due to the fact that she was a woman. Despite being of a calm predisposition, the teenager from Imphal could not resist an outburst of her own. “I shouted at them. I told them that there was no way they could ever do anything at an international level since they had a backward mentality,” she recalls.
It was the incident that drove in her a determination to actively get into bodybuilding. And four years later, at the sixth World Bodybuilding and Physique Sports Championship, held in Mumbai, the bio-chemical engineering student from the Manipur University became only the second Indian woman, other than her mentor Mamota Devi Yumnam, to clinch a medal in the bodybuilding category – a bronze.
Meanwhile, in the senior women’s fitness physique category, Mumbai-girl Shweta Rathore claimed a bronze, making her the first, of an eventual two, Indian women to win at the 3-day event. Just as it was for Rebita, Rathore too claims her medal as a symbol. For someone who had originally set up an NGO, God’s Beautiful Children, for the benefit of women, the 25-year-old dedicated her feat to a break in the stereotype of women not belonging to the fitness stream. What made the win even more meaningful was the fact that it took place on home soil. “Instead of bashing anyone else, I’d say these wins would give confidence to women to be comfortable with shaping up their bodies. Why shouldn’t we have six packs and muscles?” she asserts.
taunts & criticism
Tales of taunts and criticism are recalled in great numbers. “The most common ones involve random people commenting that we should get married rather than work out in gyms to tone our bodies,” explains Rathore. Yet the frequency of the jeering actually had its own benefit for the athletes. “It became so common that it didn’t matter anymore. It became easy to ignore because we’ve heard it so many times,” says the 23-year-old Rebita.
While the latter did receive support from her family, Rathore’s father was hesitant when his daughter, then just 12, had asked him if she could join a gym to help her fitness and boost her involvement in athletics. “He first refused, so I used to go in secret using tuition lessons as an excuse to leave home. My mother and brother supported me though. Eventually, my father noticed how my muscles were getting stronger and that I was doing push-ups and crunches very easily. So he asked me if I’ve been working out. I admitted, and he decided to support me henceforth,” she recalls.
The notoriety of the taboo that engulfs women bodybuilding had also generated a sense of fear among organisers before the event got underway. “We were quite nervous because we weren’t too sure how the audience would react,” says Chetan Pathare, secretary of the Indian Body Building Federation. Nonetheless, on all three days of the event, the audience gathered at the Bombay Exhibition Centre were found cheering keenly, especially for the Indian contestants — both men and women.
For the bronze medal winning duo, what made their maiden wins at a world stage even more special was that it was held in their home country. More than the benefit of a shorter distance of travel is the fact that it helped them prove a point. “Now there are two examples for women,” says Rathore. And it is for that very same reason, that the medal and trophy will take centre-stage on the mantelpiece. “My wushu medals can make space for this one,” concludes Rebita.