Ten-year-old Aabid Khan is one of the casualties of the Kashmir conflict. He had lost his father in a terrorist attack. His heart was weak as was his eyesight. His weak physical condition limited his outdoor activities, and the child became frustrated, restless and aggressive. His harried mother felt some sport would do him good. She took him to former international martial arts champion Fasil Ali Dar’s training centre, Ali’s Sports Academy, in Bandipora, Jammu and Kashmir.
Other children do not have such tragic pasts. Mohini Bhowmik says enrolling her seven-year-old son Harsh in a Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) class was the best decision she has taken for him. And she trained along with him, making it fun. Harsh, who had been initiated into Taekwondo while he was still in playschool, found the MMA moves quite easy to handle.
At six, another child Laksh Puri happened to catch a glimpse of Bruce Lee on television and became a fan forever. His mother Shruti was quick to tap into his interest and enrolled him in martial arts classes at Knockout Fight Club. New fighting art forms are gaining a wide following in India and children as young as five and six are learning to defend themselves. It is not just boys like Aabid who are learning the art. Eleven-year-old Liaka Mushtaq, a J&K policeman’s daughter, is a martial arts expert who is Dar’s student.
Her father Mushtaq Ahmad was keen that his daughters should learn martial arts, given they were growing up in violent times. Liaka was impressed with Dar’s academy, when one day she accompanied elder sister Lubna who was already a student there. Fascinated by the deft kicks, punches and chokeholds, she told Mushtaq that she wanted to join the academy. He readily agreed. Three years of training in kickboxing under Dar has earned her many medals. From training eight-year-old world kickboxing champion Tajamul Islam, to seven-year-old Asian Karate gold medallist Hashim Mansoor, Dar has single-handedly managed to help children earn recognition for their motherland in martial arts. “It is overwhelming to see these children do well.
Their energy has been channelised in the right direction,” he says. His student, six-year-old Mohammed Suhaib, won gold at the South Asian Karate Championship. Abiroo Bashir, 14, was a silver medallist in the World Kickboxing Championship 2018. In fact, Abiroo is the first girl from J&K and the only one from India to bag a medal in the martial art form. “Sabahat Aafreen, 15, and Syed Nazim, 15, are doing the country proud in Taekwondo,” says a beaming Dar. Laksh was not the only one to be inspired by Enter the Dragon. Kurash champion Malaprabha Yallappa Jadhav’s coach, Belgaum-based Triveni MN, is a movie buff who became inspired by martial arts when she was in Class VI after watching Bruce Lee films.
Coaches are the ones who make atheletes proud in every game. It’s no different with martial arts. Iqbal, director general of the Indian Pencak Silat Federation, and chief coach of the Indian team, was once a bullied child. His parents, keen on instilling a fighting spirit in him, enrolled him in a martial arts class when he was nine years old. Iqbal started with Karate, before mastering Taekwondo and Thang Ta—a Manipuri martial art form. He finally decided to make a career out of teaching and training others in Pencak Silat—an indigenous martial arts of the Indonesian/Malay archipelago, which includes Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei. “It is an effective system of self-defence using equal emphasis on both upper and lower limb techniques. It involves punching, kicking and dropping off the opponent,” explains Iqbal.
Besides the usual kickboxing, Kung Fu, Taekwondo, kids today are being drawn to newer forms such as Wushu, Kurash, MMA, Krav Maga and Sambo. Mannan R Dattah, founder and director, Knockout Fight Club, who teaches MMA, a combat sport that is gaining popularity among children, says, “It is a complete fighting style that allows fighters from different backgrounds to go toe to toe against each other.” On the other hand, Krav Maga is one of the self-defence-based martial arts.
“Students are taught to bite, eye gauge, use deceptive tactics that may be considered unethical in other forms—anything and everything that helps defeat the opponent,” he clarifies.Talking about yet another lesser known martial art, Sambo, D R Sharma, secretary general and chief coach of Sambo Federation of India, says, “It is a combination of wrestling and Judo techniques.” When compared to other forms, these new ones stand a better chance as they have evolved after elimination of complexities of the existing forms. “With proper support from the government, these arts can become prominent forms in India,” believes Ravi Verma, national media coordinator and secretary of technical council, Kurash Association of India. Agartala-based Nishtha Chakraborty took to martial arts at her parents’ insistence. Today she is doing her country proud, having won medals at national and international championships first in kickboxing and now in Pencak Silat.
Jagdish Tytler, president, Kurash Association of India, is a firm believer that martial arts work for overall development of a person, and the sooner one starts, the better. “It works at three levels simultaneously—mind, body and soul. It is 90 percent fitness and 10 percent technique,” says Tytler, adding that Kurash is a form of martial art which originated in Uzbekistan around 3,500 years ago. It gave two medals to India at the Asian Games 2018 with Pincky Balhara and Jadhav winning silver and bronze, respectively. Delhi-based Pincky, who started off with Judo before taking up Kurash, says, “As a kid, I was quick to pick up a fight. My mother decided to channelise my energy productively. I was put under my maternal uncle Samundra Tokas’ tutelage.” Like her, Wushu player Santosh Kumar too was an aggressive child, and loved the idea of martial arts which he was introduced to in school.
Thanks to his sporting background and winning streak, the story of 14-year-old Tanishtha Tokas learning martial arts is different from Santosh’s. It was a matter of chance. She was on a walk with her grandparents when Pincky landed a blow on her opponent at Samundra Tokas’ Baba Gangnath Judo and Kurash Academy at Munirka, Delhi. The young girl couldn’t wait to be a fighter. The very next morning she got herself admitted into the academy. Tanishtha says candidly, “I was never good at studies. My parents thought my laurels in Kurash will compensate.” A student of Class IX at Sadhu Vaswani International School for Girls, she’s already won a gold at the Under 14 Kurash Championship.
Kashmir seems to be the arena of martial arts training in India. Zakariya Bhat was barely four when he ventured into Silat under the tutelage of Iqbal in Srinagar, becoming the youngest fighter to win two awards by the J&K government; a State Award in 2014 and the Sher-e-Kashmir Award in 2017. He also won a gold medal at his debut district-level championship in 2007. Since then, he has been on a medal-winning spree. Zakariya attributes his victories to his mother’s constant support.
Unlike Kashmir, Haryana’s genderscape is not conducive to women champions inspite of the Phogat sisters. However, Simran, who comes from a conservative family in Hisar, is the three times Asian Silat champion. She did not have it easy in the beginning. “I got into martial arts for self-defence when I was in school. My parents weren’t in favour of a girl learning to kick and punch, especially when they got to know that I will have to pay for my travel expenses at championship matches abroad.” But luck was on Simran’s side.
Her achievements made her the toast of town, and sponsorships flowed in. Slowly, her parents came around, and now she’s on a roll. Now an undergraduate student, she is looking forward to the 2nd Delhi State Pencak Silat Championship to be held at Talkatora Indoor Stadium in the capital on November 20, and the 18th World Pencak Silat Championship in Singapore in December. Pencak Silat has quite a following among Indian children.
If kids can land a blow, why not the mothers? Odisha-based Tapaswini Nayak, who has a child, can’t thank her in-laws and husband Kali Prasad Nayak enough for letting her pursue her passion. She has been practising martial arts for five years and has been training for Pencak Silat under Prem Singh Thapa for the last three years. Now she trains 25 kids at Vedanta Aluminium’s Sports Institute in Jharsuguda. Tapaswini has bagged gold and bronze for her state, and participated in the 4th Asian Pencak Silat Championship held in J&K recently. “I am happy to be representing India at the 18th World Pencak Silat Championship to be held in Singapore from December 13 to 17,” she says.
Unlike Kurash and Pencak Silat, Wushu is a priority sports in India, having fetched rich dividends for the country at the Asian Games since 2006. Kuldeep Handoo, chief coach of Wushu, India, and Secretary, J&K Wushu Association, says: “Wushu is a combat sport and is known as the mother of all martial arts. It is quite popular in India, in all the five zones, especially J&K.”
As a child, Srinagar resident Zahid Ashraf, 15, was shy and introvert. But owing to his Wushu training at Ali’s Sports Academy under Dar, he has undergone a 360-degree transformation. Arjuna awardee Pooja Kadian from Jhajjar, Haryana, who lost her parents at a very young age, was initiated into martial arts when she was seven. Starting with Taekwondo, she moved to Wushu in 2008 and bagged an Asian Games medal. “Winning a gold medal at the World Championship was a dream come true,” says Pooja. She is currently training hard for the next World Championship to be held in October next year.
The symbiotic connection between coaches and performers have made champions. Wushu coach Triveni calls Jadhav her second daughter. “Her journey started in 2009. She was an established Judo player, but she trusted me to take care of her training for Kurash and it’s her grit and determination that have helped us reach where we are today,” she says proudly.
An international-level Judo player, Triveni got into Kurash in 2012 and has since been training children. Saloni Sen, a 14-year-old Kurash student from Shivpuri, Madhya Pradesh, has been training under Sishu Pal Raghuvanshi since 2017. In just a year, she has done him proud by winning a gold medal at the junior-level state championship 2018 and scoring medals at other platforms wherever she goes. “I used to see my school seniors practise Kurash and found it quite enthralling. It inspired me to learn martial arts,” says Sen.
Surya Bhanu Partap Singh’s coach Handoo inspired him to study Wushu. “I am glad he took me under his wing,” says the Jammu resident whose only aim is to see the Tricolour soaring high at global championships. “I am leaving no stone unturned to realise the dream,” he states. Handoo, a favourite among Wushu players, believes the leadership of Bhupender Singh Bajwa, president, Wushu Association of India, has worked wonders for the martial art form.
Like in any other endeavour, the training process is back-breaking, especially for those who have set their sights on a medal. Dattah says, “Being a fighter is demanding. One has to learn how to hit and also take a hit.” Pincky, who started training in Judo in 2011 when she was 13, says she struggled for three years before earning her first medal. She trains for around 8-10 hours, starting at 6 am and packing up at 11.30 pm with breaks in between. “Sundays are for catching up on sleep,” she smiles.
But not all these forms are recognised, and some are still awaiting recognition from the Union Ministry of Sports. Pursuing a recognised game can be rewarding for a sportsperson as he or she can benefit from the newly-launched TOPS (Target Olympic Podium Scheme) launched by the Sports Authority of India for outstanding players. The players under TOPS scheme get financial support to the tune of `50,000 per month, besides access to international-standard equipment and training opportunities abroad.
Bengaluru-based Naorem Boynao, 29, originally from Manipur, got into martial arts when he was barely seven. He dabbled in different forms such as Muay Thai, Wushu, Kickboxing, Kung Fu, and Taekwondo, before settling for Pencak Silat, and has represented India at the recently concluded Asian Games. “My teacher Jugeshwor Kshetrimayum has been a constant support. I got a silver medal in Muay Thai. I am trying to make ends meet due to lack of sponsorships,” he says.
A post-graduate in physical education, Chandershekhar was interested in sports from childhood, got into martial arts at 14, and has been training for Pencak Silat since 2011. A physical education teacher and martial arts trainer, he fondly recalls his journey that saw him go through many ups and downs. Finally, his perseverance paid off and he started winning medals in Wushu, Karate and then Pencak Silat. In between, Chandrashekhar participated in the 5th Asian Beach Games in 2016 in Vietnam, and came back with a bronze.
Chakraborty seems quite upbeat about sharing her plans, one of which includes starting a sports academy in her hometown, Agartala, and a national-level Pencak Silat Championship in Tripura. She also has support of the state government. In fact, the state recently declared Chakraborty and gymnast Dipa Karmakar as brand ambassadors of Tripura. “It speaks about our intentions. Our government shall render all possible help to Nistha in successfully organising the mega event of Pencak Silat in Tripura,” Chief Minister Biplab Kumar Deb says. Deb, who is himself a sports enthusiast and fitness freak, adds, “To promote sports and games, our government has launched the campaign ‘Khele Tripura, Badhe Tripura’.”