In a few hours, the curtain will rise on the 19th Commonwealth Games, the largest multi-sport event that India has ever hosted. Not a day has passed in the last few weeks without mention of the Games – front page headlines in newspapers, prime time discussions on TV and incessant mentions on Twitter. And so, while we’ve all had more than than our fair share of controversies and scandals, we didn’t think we had heard enough about the people behind the scenes who actually matter – athletes, designers, volunteers, writers – and probably many more.
Therefore, while the rest of the world cheers for its sporting heroes, we cheer a young girl from Guwahati, the youngest Indian player in the Commonwealth Games, all set to steal the show in a game unknown to most Indians; we cheer a team of talented designers who have made Shera one of the cutest mascots that we can remember; and we cheer the thirty thousand volunteers who have been training tirelessly for over two months to ensure that everything runs smoothly over the next 12 days. Just for a minute, we say, forget the controversies and raise a toast to the festival of culture, camaraderie and sportsmanship. It’s time to come out and play.
Youngest player: Tania Choudhury
‘Balancing studies and sports is tough’
Her friends have parties on their minds. Parties, music, clothes, movies… But 15-year-old Tania Choudhury is not like her friends. A class X student at St Mary’s School, Guwahati, Tania is the youngest member of the Indian contingent at the Commonwealth Games (CWG) – participating, ironically, in one of the oldest sports in the world: Lawn bowls. Lawn bowls have been played as a competitive sport since 1913, and without them, the Commonwealth Games are considered to be incomplete. The only time the sport was missing from the Commonwealth Games was in Kingston in 1966. Born and brought up in Guwahati, Tania developed an interest in the game three years ago when it was played as part of the National Games. “I was quite intrigued when I saw it for the first time and wanted to try it,” she says. “Fortunately, Guwahati is one of the training centres for lawn bowls, so I was lucky.”
Her initial fascination with the sport did not dissipate and Tania progressed to such an extent that, last year, she won a silver in the Asia-Pacific Championship that was held in Kuala Lumpur. “The best thing about lawn bowls is the fact that it’s not just a strength game,” she says. “It’s also a very mathematical game that requires you to calculate every move you make.”
The game is special for Tania for another reason. Her father, Anoop Chaudhury, a retired serviceman, had joined her in learning the sport three years ago, and is also part of the team that will be contesting in this discipline during the CWG. “Age is no bar in this game as chances of a serious injury are slight,” explains Tania. “In fact, I feel lawn bowls is a good way for senior citizens to keep active,” adds her father, 54-year-old Anoop Chaudhury, the oldest member of the Indian contingent. “It’s a great mind game too.”
Though age is not an issue, fitness levels are. Standing on your feet for close to eight hours, as you must do in this sport, can take a physical toll. “Though we have stopped gym workouts, we did a lot of treadmill and cardio exercises for our legs earlier. We also did some weight-training initially,” says Tania. The 15-year-old has an eight-hour practice schedule that involves skill and gameplay training, and also does yoga and meditation to calm her nerves and improve her concentration on the field. “A sport like lawn bowls requires us to develop our mental skills,” says Tania.
Those mental skills will be much required even after the Games, because once they are over, Tania will have to focus on her board exams which will be held next year. “Balancing studies with sports can get tough at times,” she says. “I am a good student but my friends have been helpful, especially now since I have been away from home for close to three months.”
It is not just friends who Tania has to thank. The youngster who loves chicken, Indi-pop and singing, knows she wouldn’t be where she is now if it weren’t for her parents. “Both my parents have been very supportive,” she says. “My father does give me some tips from time to time but he prefers letting our coach Richard Gale do his own thing. And my mother, who is a lecturer, has also encouraged me through these three years.”
Richard Gale, the team’s coach, has been with them since December 2008 and has high expectations not just from Tania but from the whole team. “We have been training hard for the last 16 months and the whole team is in a position to provide a formidable challenge to seasoned teams like Australia and New Zealand who have been playing this sport for years,” says Gale who has played A-grade soccer and cricket. Ask him whether Tania will be someone to watch out for and this is what he says: “She is a very mature 15-year-old who has the ability to be a big star if she decides to stay on.”
What is lawn bowls?
Lawn bowling is a popular game across the world and suitable for participants of all ages. The object of lawn bowling is to roll a ball (or bowl) across the lawn to land as close to the target ball, a small white ball called a jack, as possible. The ball’s design, slightly flattened on one side, creates the challenge of the game since its shape causes it to travel a curved path or bias.
Lawn bowling requires little equipment: a set of matching balls; a pair of flat, smooth shoes; a jack and a mat. Two teams compete, each with 1-4 players. Usually, lawn bowling takes place outdoors on a green – a grass or synthetic surface – measuring 120 feet (11.15 m) square. A green contains multiple rinks, and each rink has marked boundaries.
The Indian team is the youngest team and will be participating in the Commonwealth Games for the first time. But, they are strong contenders for medals. Especially the women’s team that is supposed to be even better than the men’s team.
Creating the look
On the trail of the tiger
He’s the official ‘face’ of the CWG, featuring on posters and banners, and making appearances at malls to urge people to ‘Come Out and Play’. But just like Delhi, which needed a makeover to host the CWG, Shera, the sporty long-whiskered tiger who is the official mascot of the event, also underwent a transformation from the time he was unveiled at the close of the 2006 Games in Melbourne.
“When we inherited Shera, he looked like a poor copy of the stuffed tiger from Calvin & Hobbes,” says Sonia Manchanda, co-founder and principal designer at Idiom Design and Consulting, a Bangalore-based firm that is responsible for Shera’s current look as well as the design and look of the Games, including the logo, the venues, main sporting events, sub-events and all pictograms. “While we felt that Shera was conceptually the most appropriate mascot, we realised he needed to be cooler, sportier and fitter – so that he would be aspirational and yet friendly and cute,” Manchanda adds. “Kids must love him, but our sports persons must also be inspired by his confident body language.” So Manchanda and her team of designers decided to give Shera a certain attitude. “The tiger stands for speed and courage. Shera had to reflect that,” says Manchanda.
“As the official mascot, Shera couldn’t look too aggressive or too wimpy. His gestures and look had to be just right to make everyone feel excited and welcomed,” says Chitra Sarwara, one of the designers of Manchanda’s core CWG team.
One of the first things the team worked on was Shera’s clothes. “We decided to make him wear a white vest with the Games logo on it, matched with blue shorts, white socks and sporty shoes. Even the body had to look more muscular as in the original design, he was too thin to be used for merchandise like keychains and so on,” says Manchanda, a National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, graduate.
The team worked on every detail, including Shera’s facial expressions. “How he should smile, and even how many whiskers he should have, were also thought of. We wanted him to present the image of a global Indian youth icon. Shera is confident and cool, like the youth of our country, who are constantly preparing, constantly playing and whose endgame is to win for India,” explains Pawanbir Singh Cheema, another designer from the team.
Manchanda and her team also did the logo of the Games. “When we learned that the organising committee was inviting agencies to bid for the look as well as the design of the Games, we were very keen to showcase our talent,” she says. “The Games are a matter of pride for the whole nation and we didn’t want any international firm to get the credit.” The logo, Manchanda says, “is inspired by the Ashoka Chakra from the national flag. It reflects India’s journey from tradition to modernity, her economic transformation into a superpower and it reaches out to the world, even as India enthusiastically embraces all the 71 nations and territories of the Commonwealth to become one and host the best ever Games.”
Manchanda’s team also drew from the fact that the Ashoka Chakra has 24 spokes, each of which represents an essential quality in a human being. “This is a wonderful opportunity to revive these qualities in ourselves. The logo brings the chakra alive, spiralling out of its embryonic form, gathering energy and momentum to become a young, emergent and resurgent India,” explains Manchanda. “The Games are not just a sporting event, they are more like a festival celebrating sportsmanship, camaraderie and more. Moreover, these are also the first ever Green Commonwealth Games to be held.”
Manchanda’s next challenge is to participate in more international sporting events where her team can showcase Indian design skills. In that, she is very like the athletes who aspire to win more medals. “The Olympics would be our ultimate goal,” she says.
‘We are the face of the Games’
On a rainy Monday morning, the mood around the table in a tiny conference room at Amity University, Noida, the official volunteer training partner for the Commonwealth Games, is upbeat. Clustered in the room are a bunch of young, chirpy volunteers. “We are the face of the Games,” they chorus. “We are representing our country before thousands of people from all across the world.”
Over 30,000 volunteers have signed up to help organisers for the duration of the Commonwealth Games that kick off today. Most are college students, others come from fields as diverse as banking, teaching and telecommunications. There are even a few retired military officials. Together, they will assist the organisers in everything from looking after guests and VIPs to testing athletes for doping.
“When I got the opportunity to volunteer, I cancelled my vacation in a heartbeat!” says Devyani Kacker, a journalism student and a press relations volunteer. Adds press relations volunteer Swati Shahi: “My duties include assisting the media in every way possible, making sure they are provided with the correct facts and figures. I aspire to get into TV news and you can imagine how handy this training will come in then!” But since the Games have been getting such bad press, will her job be difficult? “Oh yes,” Shahi says. “I think it has become challenging and chaotic. I don’t mind admitting that I am a little scared.”
Hemali Pradhan, a student at the Amity Institute of Physiotherapy, has an interesting job. For two weeks, she will assist officials in the anti-doping committee to test athletes for banned substances before they participate in any event. “I’m supposed to be a watchdog,” she grins. “The procedure is strict and highly confidential. Fifteen minutes before any event, I will find out which athlete I have to test. Then I have to stick to him or her like a leech and follow her or him around everywhere, including the restrooms! Once I’m done chaperoning the athletes till they go into the testing section, I may be asked to help the officials take samples.”
Is it going to be tough in the weeks ahead? “There’s no doubt about it,” says volunteer Madhav Monga. “We’re going to have to be on our toes at all times and put in a minimum of 6 to 7 hours each day. But hey, there are perks – prizes for the best volunteers of the day, uniforms, bags, shoes and windcheaters from Reebok! And oh, the food is being sponsored by Kingfisher or the Taj, I heard,” he says to general applause from around the table. “And we get free Metro travel for the duration of the Games!” someone chips in.
Contrary to popular perception, the volunteers will not get a stipend or monetary compensation. “We’ll get a certificate,” says Shahi. “It means that tomorrow, people will look up to me because I served my country by volunteering for one of the biggest events we’ve ever had.”
What is everyone most excited about? “The mind-blowing venues, seeing Indian sportspeople up close and most of all, seeing Rahman perform at the opening ceremony,” they chorus. “And Vijender Singh,” a few girls titter. “Also,” says Imran M Khan, who will be a liaison officer (he will assist VIPs during the Games), “During these two weeks, Delhi will be a melting pot of cultures from all across the globe. That’s quite something!”
But aren’t they apprehensive of being associated with an event that was tainted even before it began? “Controversies keep happening,” says Khan thoughtfully. “But seriously, right now, all we can do is pray that no other ceiling comes down.” We’re praying too. Let the Games begin.
General training: Manners, etiquette and psychological pumping up
Role-specific training: The volunteers were trained specifically for the roles they were to play during the Games
Venue-specific training: Before the games, they were taken to the actual venues they would be working at and shown around
The name Shera is derived from the word ‘sher’ and represents the Royal Bengal Tiger, India’s national animal (though technically, the correct word for tiger is ‘bagh’). Shera represents grace, power, majesty, and courage. He also reminds us of the delicate environment in which he resides, and the fact that, if care is not taken, he may soon be extinct.
A thicker neck since the old Shera’s neck was considered too thin
A puffed-up chest to portray courage and pride
A flattened stomach for a healthy body
Sporty uniform and shoes provided the finishing touches
It is inspired by the Ashoka Chakra from the national flag – the symbol of freedom, unity and power. Spiralling upwards, it depicts the growth of India into a proud, vibrant nation, her billion people coming together to fulfill their true destinies.
Delhi by the book
There’s at least one good thing coming out of the Commonwealth Games - book lovers are in for a treat! No less than three major publishers are coming out with brand new books (and republishing old favourites) about Delhi and the Commonwealth to coincide with the Games that start today. They include Penguin, which is bringing out the Delhi Bookshelf, a collection of 21 biographies, histories, anthologies, stories and much more.
Rupa & Co, on the other hand, has taken a different approach by publishing the Commonwealth Quiz Book by Vijaya Khandurie. The book contains over 150 questions related to Commonwealth trivia. “Right now, the only stuff people are hearing from the media is about scandals and corruption. In our book, we only focus on the facts,” says Kapish G Mehra, publisher, Rupa.
HarperCollins is bringing out a set of four books about Delhi by the Hindustan Times’ own Delhiwalla, Mayank Austen Soofi. So if all you want to do during the Games is curl up with a good book (or ten!), you know what to get.
City Improbable: Writings on Delhi by Khushwant Singh
Writings by immigrants, residents, refugees, travellers and invaders who have engaged with Delhi over different eras
Road To Commonwealth Games 2010 by Sunil Yash Kalra
An analysis of Delhi's level of preparedness for the Commonwealth Games 2010 – infrastructure, tourism, security and other things that matter
Capital Vignettes by R V Smith (repackaged)
Publisher: Rupa & Co
A collection of pieces by the author that have appeared in various newspapers
The Delhi Walla by Mayank Austen Soofi
A set of four books for the hardcore Delhi lover! Hangouts, monuments, food and drink and more