Had archery been as glamourous as cricket, India’s World Cup-winning cricket captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni would have had to share the celebrity dais in his state with Deepika Kumari, the 18-year-old daughter of Shiv Charan Prajapati, an auto-rickshaw driver from Ranchi’s Ratu Chati village.
But archery isn’t half as popular, and even a medal at the London Olympics will not eat into the following of cricket in the country. But what it can do is get a few more youngsters into picking up the sport seriously, at least in Jharkhand, the state which boasts of the Tata Archery Academy, the nursery from where half of the present Olympic squad of six archers, including the men, have graduated. Jayanta Talukdar, Rahul Banerjee and Deepika hail from the academy and the rest of India, actually the North East, has produced the other three —Tarundeep Rai from Sikkim, Chekrovolu Swuro from Nagaland and Bombayla Devi from Manipur.
GIRL NEXT DOOR
In Dhoni, India have a ‘boy next door’ superstar. Stories of him dressing up as a ghost to scare railway staff during his days as a TTE in Kharagpur have added to that ‘he is one of us’ image.
Deepika is still the girl next door. Throwing stones to bring down guavas during breaks in training at the SAI Eastern Centre, or asking around why the mango trees at the far corner beyond the targets are showing signs of inflorescence in the end of June, or quietly sitting engrossed with her mobile phone tablet portrays her as an interesting mix, cutting across the rural and urban India.
But talking to her brings out the child within. “I love archery and enjoy shooting. If you think you are training, you will feel tired and fatigue is not good for archery. I think I am off studies and playing. So I enjoy all the time,” she says sheepishly flaunting her dimples, almost making one miss a flash of mischief as the smile spreads into the eyes.
If Deepika manages to scale new heights — she is the country’s best bet to win an individual medal in archery — India’s traditional sport could rediscover its true significance.
FIRSTS FOR INDIA
Deepika is already the first Indian to win gold medals at the World championships in both the cadet and youth categories and leading from the front, she has helped India win its maiden senior World championship team medal, a silver at Turin last year which also helped the team —Chekrovolu and Bombayla her teammates — qualify for the London Games.
What makes the road to London all the more significant for the women’s team is the fact that they have achieved this despite the absence of Dola Banerjee, an icon in women’s archery in the country. “Deepika has ensured that someone like Dola is not missed,” said Purnima Mahato, the coach of the Indian women’s team.
At 30, few look to make an Olympic debut. But Chekrovolu’s Olympic debut was somewhat jinxed. She was part of the team that won India qualification for 2004 Athens Olympics, at the World championships in New York. But the archer from Dzulhami village in Phek district of Nagaland lost form and missed her Olympic debut. Chekrovolu was instrumental in helping India qualify for Beijing at the World championships in Leipzig. But again she lost form and did not travel to China. It will be third-time lucky for her at London. She smiles through the question and looks heavenward. “My elder sister (former archer Vesuzolu Vadeo) has been an inspiration and it’s because of her that I picked up the sport," said Chekrovolu, an assistant sub-inspector with Nagaland Police.
MAKING STATE PROUD
Chekrovolu, who is called by her pet name Anga, is only the second sportsperson after 1948 India football captain T Ao from Nagaland to represent India at the Olympics. Tell her this and she brushes it away, saying all these only add to the pressure. “Our team is like a family. We are all focused on one goal, which is to win a medal for the country. All such stuff can come later,” she says. Literally too, her name means ‘one big family’ in her native dialect.
She has been an inspiration for budding archers in Nagaland, even more at home. Thupuvoyi, her younger brother, is an archer and could have accompanied her to London had he not been outperformed by Rahul and Tarundeep at the trials. After the men’s performance dipped at the World championships in Turin last year, Thupuvoyi had made it to the national team for a brief period.
“She brings a lot of calm and poise to the team and I think that’s important. Back home, we are proud of what she has achieved,” the 24-year-old says about his sister.
This is not confirmed, but coaches will tell you that L Bombayla Devi was born in Bombay and that’s from where she gets her name. Bombayla means ‘from Bombay’. The first archer from Manipur to win the senior nationals, Bombayla, who is fondly referred to as ‘Bom’ by teammates, burst into the limelight when she won the title in Kolkata in 2006. She was part of the team at Beijing four years back and, along with Tarundeep Rai who was part of the men’s team in Athens, they are the only two in the six-member squad with Olympic experience. “I picked up the sport from my mother who is a coach,” says Bombayla, the current national champion. Her mother M Jamini Devi was a state coach and her father, Manglem Singh, is a state handball coach.
The trio’s best achievement is winning silver at the World championships in Turin last year where they lost to Italy in the final. That was also the best show in the World championships by India and they had defeated the formidable Korean team in the semifinals. “That is history now. But that performance should give the girls confidence,” said Purnima.
“The focus now is to work hard on the single-arrow Olympic format. After seeing the scores in training, I am confident they will do well in the team event,” she added.
The team comes across as a joyful chirpy lot, giggling away among themselves every time they walk to and from the targets. “They will have to keep this camaraderie going in London. That will help ease the pressure,” Purnima said.