It’s known as the city of babus because anyone seeking a better life looks for a government job. While private companies and multinationals have been the source of many stirring rags-to-riches stories elsewhere in the country, for the people of Allahabad a government job remains the Holy Grail.
It is in this backdrop that the most unlikely phenomenon has unfolded, empowering people to believe in themselves, and in some small way, take charge of their own destiny. Gymnastics, still referred to as the ‘mother of all sports’ by purists, has provided a leg-up to so many in search of a livelihood in Allahabad.
Where there is a phenomenon, there usually is a driving force, and in this case look no further than UK Mishra, whose dream projects — National Sports Academy and Khel Gaon Public School — have churned out more champions than most institutions you can think of.
In the last decade, products of the NSA have won a total of 1125 medals — 863 at nationals and a further 262 at international events.
The 65-year-old Mishra had many successes, but few shone brighter than Vikas Pandey. The son of a clerk in the electricity department, the eight-year-old Vikas was in a situation where his family could barely meet ends for his education. But an NSA sponsorship changed all that.
At the 2001 National Games in Punjab, Pandey won all eight gymnastic gold medals on offer, and was declared the ‘best athlete of the country.’ Pandey, along with fellow Allahabadi Vikas Yadav, made it to the finals of the Pommel Horse and Parallel Bars at the 2002 Commonwealth Games. “Most of the gymnasts here come from lower middle-class families, and today I am proud to be a gymnast from this centre as it has changed my life as that of several others in the city,” Vikas Pandey told Hindustan Times. Almost the entire Indian gymnastics contingent in that competition was from Allahabad.
Yadav, along with Mayank Srivastava, another NSA graduate, is now in America coaching and pursuing a management degree. Back home in India, several prominent former NSA trainees are part of the CRPF, BSF, UP Police and Railways.
Before Mishra won the National Championships on Parallel Bars and Roman Rings in 1967, he practiced mostly in mud pits. The lack of infrastructure for gymnasts haunted Mishra and he began establishing small centres wherever he could.
Mishra began with the ‘Goodwill Gymnastics Club’ at Kanpur (1964), added the ‘Swasthya Mandir’ at Rishikesh (1968), and then ‘Hanuman Gymnastics Centre’ at Kanpur, which functioned till 1979. A gap of nearly 10 years ensued before Mishra took on his biggest project yet, establishing a gymnastics centre that began with just 4-5 pupils at the Mayo Hall Sports Complex before establishing an international-standard centre at the Boys High School in 1992.
Several hundred people joined Mishra in his venture, even performing shram daan (physical labour) to dig ground for the construction of the Allahabad Gymnastics Hall, which is an integral part of the NSA.
“Instead of clubbing education with sports, I always wanted to club sports with education so I decided to start Khel Gaon Public School in Jhalwa in 2005. The mission is to redefine education to meet global challenges,” says Mishra, who retired as Assistant Commissioner, Excise in 2006.
His work with gymnasts, though, continues on.