Breaking out: Fencing starts to find its feet in India
Bhavani Devi's success has inspired curiosity about the sport and the increased participation at the national level is a good sign
At the 2018 Asian Games, India had four members representing its fencing contingent in two events. Five years on at the Hangzhou Asian Games, the country has nine fencers across three events. There could’ve been more in a fourth if the women's sabre team, led by the face of Indian fencing Bhavani Devi, had not been cut from the final list for not meeting the selection criteria.
India’s lone sabre fencer, as it turned out, lost in the individual quarter-finals on Tuesday to China’s 2018 silver medallist Shao Yaqi (both semi-finalists are guaranteed bronze). Yet as Bhavani fell one step short of what would've been a historic first medal for Indian fencing at the Asian Games, her high of being at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021 continues to have an impact deep down through the grassroots of the niche sport in India.
At the fencing senior nationals in Pune in March, a giant indoor hall comprising 14 pistes was brimming with activity. Seated on one side of it was Bhavani, frequently approached for a picture and a few words. At the other end of the hall, Kritarthi Kotwal was going through her warm-up drills.
The 19-year-old sabre fencer hails from Jammu, which has produced plenty of national-level medallists in fencing. Still, Kritarthi says, most hadn't even heard of the sport until a couple of years ago, when Bhavani became India's first Olympic fencer in Tokyo.
“Pehle toh koi player hi nahi tha fencing mein (earlier, there were not many competitors in fencing). Now, it’s a lot different. After Bhavani, a lot of people came to know about fencing,” Kritarthi says.
Bhavani wasn't just the first Indian fencer at an Olympics, but also the first to win a bout in Tokyo. A lot of people back home — notably parents and kids — saw that on television, and the curiosity kicked in.
“Earlier, we would have to go to schools and other places to introduce fencing. After the Olympics, we’ve been getting calls from parents asking about the sport and how they can enroll their child," says Bharat Thakor, secretary of Gujarat’s fencing association which currently has 278 registered national fencers.
The intangible surge of awareness reflected in a tangible uptick of numbers. This year’s nationals in Pune had around 600 participants from across 29 states, up from the region of 400-500 in the previous nationals, according to Maharashtra State Fencing Association secretary Uday Dongare. Every state-level meet also has around 300-400 fencers now.
“More than the top, there has been a big boost in grassroots development post Bhavani Devi and Tokyo, which wasn't there before. Earlier, around 200 people would play fencing in Maharashtra. That has gone up to 300-400 now. State academies have sprung up in various districts,” Dongare says.
Around the time Bhavani had begun breaking barriers for Indian fencing, infrastructure and access to equipment was steadily improving in the country. Gone are the days of fencers sharing equipment in domestic events. Over the last decade, Dongare says, state and national meets are held on 10 and 14 pistes, respectively, have moved to electronic scoring with video referrals and real-time online results through the use of Fencing Time software.
Sports Authority of India’s National Centre of Excellence too begun focussing on the sport, with fencers spread across its centre in Patiala, Kerala, Guwahati, Assam, among others. From practicing in Jammu, Kritarthi is now based at SAI’s Patiala centre, where supply of equipment — a costly affair in fencing — isn't a worry.
“When more kids are playing the sport, more are the chances of us spotting good talent and giving them proper facilities in centres like at SAI,” Rajpal Yadav, a fencing coach in Haryana who has 55 kids in his academy, says.
“In the last few years, there has been a sudden improvement. People didn’t understand the sport before whereas after Bhavani Devi, fencing is not new for people. State and national meets also weren’t competitive earlier,” he adds.
Thakor jokes that fencers from Gujarat were considered a “second bye” in national meets some years ago. Now, they are taken much more seriously.
“Five years ago, there wasn't this level of competition in the nationals," Kritarthi, who competed in the Budapest World Cup in January, says. “There would 2-3 strong states, but not much beyond that. Now, that has also improved along with the awareness and infrastructure.”
While domestically the competitive hole may have narrowed, the gap between India and world fencing remains wide. For every Bhavani Devi competing with the elite, there are thousands in the country for whom taking the step up remains a tall ask.
Need for exposure
Yadav reckons the only way towards bridging that is to identify a select bunch of potential fencers and hand them international exposure — in terms of both competition and training in “fencing hubs”. Bhavani trains in France, and so does Karan Gurjar, India’s top male sabre fencer who went there in 2021 realising the importance of training with foreign fencers to match up to them.
If that happens, Yadav believes Indian fencing’s growing grassroots strength can translate into its rise not just at the Asian but also the world level.
“In the coming years, fencing will grow further in India. It will take time, but it can happen,” he says.