Centuries ago, a young Bhil prince harbouring a dream of conquering the world of archery was shunned by Dronacharya and had to make do with a statue of his teacher. Eklavya still managed to achieve his goal, making him part of mythological folklore.
The 21st century descendants of Eklavya continue to get a cold shoulder from the modern day Dronacharyas. But, at least a few of those living in the tribal belt of South Gujarat can boast of a tutor in flesh, who is willing to sacrifice his own career and prospects to hone their skills.
National level archer and National Institute of Sports qualified coach Dinesh Bhil, 27, established the Eklavya Archery Academy here, 100 kilometres from Baroda, in 2004 to channelise the traditional skills of tribals and put them on international map. And, though the target is far, the journey has begun.
"We began the academy in a defunct small scale industry compound in 2004," said Dinesh, a former national champion (Indian category of bow). "Six months ago we bought this land (five and a half acres) when Rajubhai Shroff of United Phosphorous donated Rs one lakh."
The academy, on the outskirts of the town, did not have water and electric supply till recently. While local MLA Kantibhai Bhil solved the electricity problem by helping the academy buy two streetlights and three sets of household solar lights from his funds, the trainees fetch water from a nearby well. The senior ones cook and the youngsters take care of other household work.
The results begin to come in
Bhil's trainees began dominating school and state level competitions from 2005, crowning it off with the Indian category team bronze at the Guwahati National Games this year. "That medal was a big confidence booster. It also changed the way people look at us," Dinesh said, sitting outside a hut covered with plastic sheets. The hut is the official address of the residential academy that has 25 boys aged 8-25. Ten girls also travel everyday to train at the academy.
The bows are made in-house and some of the equipment is supplied to nearby schools to earn some money. "They all know the financial condition. And the priority is always buying training material," says Dinesh. "Ideally, we should provide each player a diet worth Rs 100 each but we can only manage Rs 25 worth."
The fund crunch has also forced Dinesh to stick to 25 trainees despite a huge response to summer camps.
"Over 200 tribal kids from the Narmada, Panchmahal, Baroda and Dahod areas attend our summer camps. But we don't select too many for full time training since we can't afford their expenses," said the twice national champion.
A bright future?
However, things have started looking up after the National Games bronze, with the Gujarat government sanctioning equipment worth Rs five lakh. Five boys from the academy have been selected for scholarship under the Shakti Doot Scheme, with the government paying one lakh each for the next three years.
"The government grant has helped us buy three compound and one recurve bow. Now the older boys can start training with modern equipment and think of competing internationally," said Dinesh.
The academy is also trying to get government funds for a permanent structure. But Dinesh knows it's easier said than done. As a 14-year-old, it was the story of Eklavya that inspired him to compete in his first archery meet. After 13 years, he wants to ensure that none of the Bhil kids suffer the snub Eklavya did.