Fencing in Madras: An ’80s movement that remains strong, thanks to Bhavani Devi’s Olympic debut

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A quiet Chennai movement that began in the 1980s swells with students inspired by CA Bhavani Devi from Old Washermanpet, the first Indian fencer to participate in the Olympic Games

Sword in hand, armour fastened, helmet on: a boisterous group of teenagers gets into fencing gear at Jawaharlal Nehru Indoor Stadium.

Ever since the lockdown eased, this group resumed training here: gathering every morning and evening, as well as in between online classes, to practise at the stadium’s ashy Fencing Hall. Now that Tamil Nadu’s — more specifically, Old Washermanpet’s — CA Bhavani Devi has taken Indian fencing to the global stage as the first Indian fencer to participate in the Olympics, the pressure on these young fencers from Chennai has skyrocketed.

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The practice bout begins: they duel in pairs. Step, lunge and jab. The opponent blocks, takes a few quick steps back and lunges again. Their quick footwork is music to the ears. Agility, swiftness and presence of mind in these precious few minutes are what makes a good fencer, says D Nagappan, secretary of Chennai District Fencing Association (CDFA), as he looks on.

Fencing is far from new in Tamil Nadu’s sporting history. While the interest came about as a natural offshoot of 1980s Tamil cinema pop culture — sword duel was an oft-seen trope in period movies — it was soon formalised, when it was offered as an option for the ‘Sports in Schools’ initiative started by the late Chief Minister, J Jayalalithaa. Students were required to choose between fencing, gymnastics, squash, boxing and swimming.

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Where it all began

“I was nine years old when I got inspired by vaal sandai in movies. I would watch only action movies. And, even in action movies, I was only keen on sword or knife fights, not even silambam. I remember duelling with my relatives using keerai thandu (amaranth stems) when I was a kid,” laughs 73-year-old P Vishwanathan.

Now credited as the pioneer of fencing in Chennai, Vishwanathan founded the Tamil Nadu Fencing Association in 1987, and has trained over 150 students in his time as a coach, including Bhavani Devi when she started out. Military officer RK Singh informally introduced him to the basic techniques of fencing. “He had learned it from British officers. He told me that my defence and speed were good and I could continue,” says Vishwanathan. With the help of stunt artistes and rule books, he carried on until he received training from a Russian coach.

There are over 300 students currently training in Chennai

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There are over 300 students currently training in Chennai
 
| Photo Credit: JOTHI RAMALINGAM B

Then, in 1991, the Chennai District Fencing Association (CDFA) came into existence. In the beginning, Vishwanathan travelled across Tamil Nadu to train PT teachers from various schools. “Most of them didn’t even know that fencing was an Olympic game. That too, one of the oldest sports to be inducted in the first Olympics Games in 1896,” he exclaims.

Finally, in 2006, the country’s first Commonwealth Youth Fencing Championship was held in Chennai’s Jawarharlal Nehru Indoor Stadium. And, in 2010, the city also hosted the first South Asian Fencing Championship.

Know your sport

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  • Modern fencing has evolved to be a combination of three disciplines: the épée, the sabre, and the foil. While in épée, the entire body is a valid target area, in sabre, the upper body becomes the target and in foil, only the torso can receive a strike. Weapons used in each also differ in terms of their make and flexibility.

All said and done, fencing was and continues to be an expensive sport. But that never deterred Vishwanathan. In the ‘90s, he fashioned swords and non-electrical fencing equipment himself, using steel — a few prototypes stand tall in the corner of his room. “Even when we had to go for National-level competitions, we would borrow the equipment from other states like Manipur and Assam,” adds Nagappan.

Bhavani says she started with bamboo sticks since they saved the little equipment they had for competitions.

Room to grow

“Earlier, when I used to win international medals, many wouldn’t even understand what the excitement was about,” says Bhavani. But now, people have started recognising the sport in India.

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Though some institutes like the Centre for Sports Sciences in Chennai offer fitness training for fencers, no private institutions have emerged for coaching. Such institutes are likely to crop up, thanks to Bhavani’s run in the Tokyo Olympics. “With Bhavani’s global recognition, the city hopes to see a new crop of fencers emerging,” says Vishwanathan.

Back at Nehru Stadium, we are in the company of this burgeoning talent — National-level medallists — who have been steadily training through lockdowns: sometimes, a wall at home was the opponent, at others, a pillar.

National-level fencers training under the Chennai District Fencing Association

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National-level fencers training under the Chennai District Fencing Association
 
| Photo Credit: JOTHI RAMALINGAM B

There are more than 300 students currently training under CDFA. Sasi Prabha, a 14-year-old national gold medallist sabre player, has been training for five years now. “The speed got me hooked to sabre. I was curious about the game since Class II, when I would accompany my sister to the stadium,” she says. Her sister, 17-year-old Swarna Prabha states that the fact that fencing is an individual sport makes it attractive. “It is similar to chess, in terms of using one’s mind,” she says.

Sixteen-year-old Dhivya Darshini remembers fighting with her mom for pushing her to practice. She was in Class IV then and had just started training. A foil player, she now juggles training and school effortlessly.

While their love for the sport is unmissable, some of them hope to see an improvement in the infrastructure. “We work on a cement floor here, sometimes we play very well here and go to the Nationals, see the facilities there and get nervous,” says Sri Saravanan, an 18-year-old foil player. After their previous coach G Nagasubramanian moved to Gujarat on a posting, they are still waiting for a coach to take charge.

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“In any case, I want to be an Olympian,” says Saravanan. Swarna Prabha adds, “I can’t express in words how lovely this game is. It is an emotional connection.”

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