Kuldeep Handoo still remembers the time when his family moved away from Motiyar Rainawari in Srinagar to Jammu in March, 1990, renting a place at the Jullaka mohalla. While Handoo’s father worked as a clerk with the SRTC transport department, a young Handoo would often head to the nearby martial arts academy near the famous Raghunath temple and as he learnt wushu from coach Vishal Sharma, the following years would often see Handoo asking coaches to bring video cassettes of wushu training from trips to China. The 11-time national champion who had a 4th place world championships finish, took to coaching in 2006 and saw his journey crowned by the Dronacharya award conferred on him.
Given the circumstances of winners congregating regionally, he travelled to Chandigarh. This meant his trainees and family members were recording and downloading the videos of the ceremony over their TV’s and phones.
“As a kid, I would often accompany my father at Dal lake and would practice taekwondo as I was a big fan of Bruce Lee. We used to see his movies on VCR and when we shifted to Jammu in 1990, there was a martial arts academy near the famous Raghunath temple. When my father would return from his office, I would take his cycle and train under my coach Vishal Sharma. Sometimes, people would laugh at us for trying wushu as nobody had seen or heard about wushu in the state,” he recalls.
At the same time, he also learnt boxing and wrestling from nearby academies but would ask coaches to bring him cassettes of wushu training from their trips to China. When I returned to Jammu on Sunday, my family had recorded the video of ceremony and it brought back all the memories of recording wushu training on cassettes,” shared Handoo.
While Handoo would win 11 national titles between 1995 to 2007 in 75 Kg and 80 Kg in men’s sanda event, it was in 2006 that Handoo was put in a coaching role by the Wushu Association of India for the world junior wushu championships in Malaysia, where Gulshan Kumar won a historic bronze medal for India. Two years later, the Indian junior team under Kumar would fetch four medals in the world junior wushu championships in Indonesia and it was in 2009, that Handoo was made the coach of the senior wushu team.
Three years earlier, M Bimoljeet Singh had won a historic bronze medal in the 60 kg sanda event in wushu in Doha Asian Games and with Handoo as a coach, the Indian team would return with two medals each in the 2010 and 2014 edition of the Asian Games. But it was in 2018 Asian Games that the Indian wushu team had its biggest medal haul till date with four bronze medals with Narender Grewal, Surya Bhanu, Santosh Singh and Roshibina Devi winning the medals. “Bimoljeet’s bronze medal in 2006 Asian Games made the players and coaches believe that we can win big at Asian level and can also give opponents from China, Malaysia, Thailand a run,” he said. Given wushu isn’t in Olympics, the Asian Games offer the biggest competitive stage.
“We had a pool of good players like Narender, Surya Bhanu, Santosh and once the camps started to happen through-out the year, it helped the young players. We saw the results in 2018 Asian Games where youngster like Roshibina Devi too won the bronze medal. Also with time and more training and visits to China, players also understood that they have to work upon kicking, throwing and punching equally. Yes, we had boxers and wrestlers turning into wushu players but we faced issues like boxers hesitant of leg attacks or wrestlers wary of getting punches,” says Handoo.
Last year, India had its first wushu male world champion in the form of Praveen Kumar winning the title in the 48 Kg at Shanghai, China. In 2017, Pooja Kadian had won the country’s first gold in world championships. While Praveen too had started as a boxer, Handoo believes that it’s time that the sport gets more players starting wushu at a young age and starts wushu without fear of things like leg attacks or falls. “Junior categories start in wushu at the age of eight and if youngsters learn all the three things together, it benefits them. And in recent years, our players have learnt things like not countering an opponent punch and ducking down and going back and then attempt a throw on the opponent. In training sessions, we make sure that they also are thrown punches at to make them have the mental attitude to suffer punches or throw downs and recover. When Praveen won the world title in China, the chief coach of China came and congratulated us and it was bigger than winning the gold medal for the Indian team,” remembers Handoo.
Wushu was inducted into the 2022 Youth Olympic Games to be held at Dakar. Handoo’s home state Jammu and Kashmir too sees the presence of more than 30,000 players and with world/asian junior medalists emerging from places like Baramulla, Handoo is confident that his home state and north east states apart from boxing and wrestling hubs like Haryana and Maharashtra can play a big part once wushu makes it to Olympics. “At present, there are more than 30,000 players pursuing wushu in Jammu and Kashmir only and these players start playing wushu only. Junior players like Salim from Budgam won silver medal in 2018 world junior championships apart from Munaza Gazi from Srinagar, who won silver in junior Asian championships last year, can be big stars for India. While we remain hopeful of wushu being inducted into Olympics, I expect more players from states like Haryana opting for wushu at the first place. Also technology has played a big part in helping the junior players since they now see YouTube videos of various players,” said Handoo.