Chanu Saikhom Mirabai at the Tokyo Olympics, July 24 (Photo: Getty Images)
When freshly minted Olympic silver medallist Mirabai Chanu was 12 years old, veteran weightlifter Anita Chanu saw her carrying heavy logs in her hometown Nongpok Kakching, 44 km from Imphal, Manipur. That in itself was and is nothing unusual. Mary Kom’s parents were jhum farmers in Manipur, and a generation before Mirabai, Mary had traversed the distance from working in a small field to boxing in the global ring through sheer daring and determination.
In much of rural India, women are the bearers of burden. They ferry huge loads of firewood and fodder, which can weigh 20 kg or more. This is done several times a week and the loads are often carried over long distances, and even hilly terrain. Carrying water is another female job in India’s villages, while in agriculture, women’s work can be backbreaking. Paddy transplanting and weeding is done manually and predominantly by women, while the jobs that men do involve animals or machines, such as ploughing, harvesting and threshing.
In Manipur, that convention of physically demanding work by women has found an outlet in sport clubs where they find a way to keep themselves busy when not in school. Football, archery, weightlifting and boxing are popular, especially after the National Games were held in Imphal in 1999. Add to that the examples of women who excelled in sport and made a living for themselves, from Kunjarani Devi in weightlifting to Mary Kom in boxing, and you have a potent mix for the emergence of a new kind of ideal.
It’s not just in Manipur. From increased monetary benefits to international champions in Haryana or the Odisha government’s move to sponsor the national hockey team, several states have recognised the transformative power of sport in the lives of young people, especially women. It is an effort that has captured the zeitgeist. If Sushmita Sen and Aishwarya Rai sparked the imagination of girls in the 1990s, creating a bevy of beauty pageant hopefuls, badminton star Saina Nehwal and tennis ace Sania Mirza did so in the noughties, triggering an interest in individual sport as a means to individual success and national glory. The paradigm shifted, even if ever so slowly: the Beauty Queen changed to the cult of the Strong Woman, with slimness being replaced by physical fitness, and anorexia being substituted with healthy eating. Fans followed Saina and PV Sindhu’s endurance regime with as much dedication as they had once kept track of Kareena Kapoor Khan’s size zero figure, and no one batted an eyelid when Sania Mirza and Mary Kom graced fashion magazine covers, usually reserved for actors and models.
Former sport journalist Sonali Chander points out that the Sania-Saina moment in Indian history coincided with a time of 24-hour news, social media and, most importantly, live telecasts of sport events. PT Usha’s feat in the 1988 Olympics, where she came fourth, missing a medal by one-hundredth of a second, or that of Milkha Singh, who missed the bronze by a fraction of a second at the 1960 Olympics, was what this country lived on for Olympic success until Leander Paes won his Olympic medal in 1996. Now, she says, footage goes viral, the prime minister speaks about the hardships of our sportspeople in Mann Ki Baat, Harleen Deol’s catch gets tweeted about by industrialist Anand Mahindra who calls her “the real Wonder Woman” and Domino’s offers free pizza to Mirabai Chanu. “The buzz around sport has increased 100-fold,” she adds.
So why are women in particular doing well across the board in India—cricket, hockey, athletics, weightlifting, boxing, golf and badminton? In Olympic sport and team sport, Chander, who now runs a sport production company, says it is definitely thanks to the Government, with the restructuring of the Sports Authority of India (SAI), cutting the fiefdoms of sport federations and bringing in posts like the CEO of the Target Olympic Podium Scheme (TOPS). Chanu, in fact, has thanked SAI’s TOPS that allowed her to train in the US for 50 days before the Olympics at a reported cost of `70 lakh. Individual commitment like that of Sania, Saina, badminton player PV Sindhu and archer Deepika Kumari is always a factor but they have got a coach like P Gopichand or a financial backer like the Tata Group (in Deepika Kumari’s case) to support the Government initiatives. All PT Usha got when she missed her medal in 1988 were brickbats for her all-controlling coach Madhavan Nambiar. By the time Usha tried again, 10 years later, with her husband as coach, it was too late for Olympic glory.
Generally, in Kerala, the rise of sportspersons was largely through the efforts of parents or individual coaches or the individual. The scouting programmes, according to experts, are not effective. Parents give more importance to studies and talent gets permanently eclipsed. Also, there is the paradox of prosperity. As families from rural areas improve their standard of living through education, sport becomes only one of the many options to make a better living.
But where the fire of hunger still burns, women are dreaming with their eyes open, their fists flying, their wrists smashing and their arms lifting. While the ideal in the 1970s was someone like an Indira Gandhi or a Golda Meir, in the 1980s, it was an international sportstar like Chris Evert. But points out writer and director Nupur Asthana, while we watched Chris Evert on Doordarshan, the notion that India could have a Chris Evert or Steffi Graf did not even exist. The ideal role model changed subtly due to the beauty pageant winners in the 1990s. Suddenly, Sushmita Sen/Aishwarya Rai/Priyanka Chopra became aspirational, with hundreds of women in small towns and cities wanting to become beauty queens and supermodels. It was seen as a way to make India proud, travel the world, gain exposure, transition to films, which by the 1990s became a “respectable” profession for middle-class Indian women. The concept of beauty became restricted to size zero as well.
By 2010s and 2020s, we began to see Indian women excelling in sport. Mary Kom, Sania, Saina and the Phogat sisters suddenly brought about a burst of energy and renewed interest in individual sport. They began to be idealised
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By 2010s and 2020s, we began to see Indian women excelling in sport. Mary Kom, Sania, Saina and the Phogat sisters suddenly brought about a burst of energy and renewed interest in individual sport. They began to be idealised. Winning a medal became a ticket to a job, money, funds to train better and as the athletes got better year after year and spreading into different sports, suddenly the country started looking at our athletes with respect, says Asthana. As we began to field archers, shooters, swimmers, gymnasts at international levels, suddenly it seemed achievable; the red tape/bureaucracy/politics seemed to be waning to ensure the athletes could shine and prove their worth at world events.
The concept of beauty and attractiveness also changed to strength and personality. No longer does the aim of every family remain at getting a daughter married. Sport is a fantastic career option for women that never existed a couple of decades ago. The valorisation of women in sport, such as in Chak De! India (2007) created new role models where skill and perseverance were more important than beauty. Sport commands respect, brings in financial stability and athletes as well as players today in every field are huge role models for young women across the country. It is somewhat troubling though, points out scholar Shoma Munshi, that the Phogat sisters and Mary Kom were not household names until Dangal (2016) and Mary Kom (2013), the movies, came out. Arya, the actor who plays a boxer in Pa. Ranjith’s Tamil epic Sarpatta Parambarai, says he meets a lot of women boxers in his gym in Chennai who are there because of the Mary Kom effect. “Boxing is not as popular as cricket, so a movie helps people to identify with it. Each sport has to get this kind of recognition because the individuals work really hard—their training and their sacrifices are immense,” he says.
In 1988, PT Usha had said, quite wisely, that coaching had overtaken competition. For every star woman athlete, there is the story of a coach who has worked as hard, whether it was turning Deepika Kumari from the daughter of a nurse and autorickshaw driver from Ranchi, who would use a handmade bow and arrow to aim for mangoes, to one who would shoot for a medal, or whether it was Olympic bronze medallist Sakshi Malik, daughter of a bus conductor and health worker from Haryana who wanted to emulate her wrestler grandfather against all odds.
Each generation has inspired the other, and each generation has corrected the mistakes of the past. The environment is so much more supportive now, points out Chander. By speaking about Mirabai’s period and how it necessitated a change in strategy, her coach Vijay Sharma is signalling a new kind of empowerment and validation. The body is no longer something an Indian woman has to be ashamed of, or keep out of sight. The gait is more confident, the head held high, the chin higher, the shoulders back, not hunched forward to shrink the space occupied. As the Dangal song says about the girls: “Nikkar aur t-shirt pehen kar aaya cyclone/Laga ke phone bataa de sabko/ (There’s a cyclone on its way wearing shorts and t-shirt, just tell everyone).”
No doubt there is some writer in Bollywood already working on the first draft of a biopic on Mirabai. It will join a growing gallery that already features movies on Mary Kom, Saina Nehwal, and one in the offing on Indian cricketer Mithali Raj. Goodbye, Miss World. Hello, Ms Olympian? The head that once ducked for a tiara will now do so only for a medal.