It’s another one of those sultry days in Kolkata, more so due to the depressingly overcast sky. It’s only a matter of time before heavy rains lash out at the city. On one of the roads adjacent to Rabindra Bharati University, a boisterous group of kids are making the most of their time, fine-tuning archery skills. Some are barely into their teens, but don’t let that fool you, as their presently unknown names might just feature in a newspaper or online story sometime in the future. For this is the Calcutta Archery Club, perhaps the oldest in India, and these kids are some of the brightest upcoming archers.
Unfortunately, the inevitable rains arrive, and the kids take cover beneath a building nearby. That’s when one of them finds a fruit. Even as the rain gods refuse to relent, the kids have found a temporary pass-time. Trainees give their views on what the fruit could be, and one of them is especially vocal in thoughts. Fun learning in an atmosphere conducive to such activities, says club secretary Sanjeev Kumar Dey, and this is what makes the club special.
They have been operating for more than 40 years, and have produced some of the best archers from the country. But the recognition has barely been there, “Nor do we want any,” says Sanjeev, a former archer who has been involved with the club since 1996.
The alumni of the club include Krishna Das Ghatak (the first archer to win the Arjuna Award, and the only woman to do so until Dola Banerjee came along in 2005), Pradeep Kumar Kundu (a former national champion and current head coach at the club) and Atanu Das.
The last name is what merits special attention. Atanu was already an accomplished archer at the national and international level, before finally cracking the Olympics code in June and becoming the only male archer to represent India at the upcoming Rio Olympics. And it all began for the 24-year-old at this very club. “Until now, our club had produced national and international medallists, Arjuna awardees, Asian medallists and some superb coaches. But an Olympian was missing from that list, and Atanu has made that dream come true. Atanu joined us when he was 12-years-old, and it hasn’t been an easy journey for him.”
The club itself isn’t your regular glitzy, hyper-social community. Located inside the premises of Gopeswar Dutt Free School, a government aided day-time residential school on Barrackpore Trunk Road, the club might as well go unnoticed by most. The building itself is at least a few decades old, left to the wares of its caretakers and the school authorities who handle the many noisy children.
The almost ramshackle building feels like it hasn’t been cleaned, let alone renovated, for ages! Dingy is the best word to describe the classrooms. Such a setting might shoo away any person unaware that the school houses perhaps the most impactful archery club in the country. But once you get to the backside of the building, a garden leads you to a small gate, behind which is a scene perhaps not seen anywhere else. A large field, filled with grass to knee length, siding a pond, with young archers practicing. The field is big enough to help youngsters practice both long and short distance shooting, but the utter wilderness of it all might make one uncomfortable to begin with.
But once you settle down, the beauty of the setting can really take you aback. There is really nothing like practicing sports like archery in open air, and that is the case here. Coach Pradeep Kumar, who has been associated with the club since its inception in 1972, doesn’t mind a change, though. “I was a club member when it first started, and was coached by Mr Shishir Das, one of the founders of the club. He was also the coach for Krishna, and under his tutelage, I won many national titles. In 2010, after former coach Shantanu Dey left, I took over.”
“This isn’t your normal club or academy, and it’s far removed from all the modern facilities that are being provided to at so many upcoming sports academies in the country. As you can see, we train on a field that sometimes has grass up to knee height! Things could change, as we can get sponsors to help us make this a better venue. But the land isn’t ours, and the ones who have given it to us don’t feel the same. At the same time, we are grateful to them, for they have provided us this land since we started the club all those years back, and still continue to do so,” said Pradeep.
Rainy days are most challenging, according to Sanjeev, but the setting during that time cannot be better. “During heavy rains, the pond overflows and water comes onto the field. And that’s when we use gumboots to practice. But the excess water does not hamper preparations. In fact, it’s a good challenge for the kids.”
Atanu, too, had to go through such days to reach where he is today. Here, there are three levels of archery. Indian archery, which is what every kid starts off with, and then recurve and compound. Once the child has mastered the art of Indian archery, he/she moves onto either recurve or compound. “Atanu, too started off with Indian archery. And he was very good at it, winning so many national medals in that event. After one point, we knew he was ready to move on, and decided to make him try recurve. He latched on to that also pretty quickly. The talent was there, but we never knew he would be able to make it count in such a big way,” noted Sanjeev.
Things did not come easy, however. Atanu had to walk half an hour daily from his house to reach the club. With two sessions taking place per day, one in morning and one in the evening, Atanu used to come prepared. While others would take leave after the morning session, he would stay back and practice more. “Since he used to come from afar, Atanu brought food along so that he didn’t have to make the journey back home and then back here. Which meant he could practice as much as he wanted,” said Sanjeev.
And practise he did. Even at the expense of attending school, according to his school teacher Sourangshu Gupta, who taught Atanu from 8th to 10th standards. “Atanu used to take permission from school whenever he had an event. We knew he had practice, so he had special permission to leave by 2 in the afternoon so as to make it to the club on time. If he needed extra time off before an event, that also would be granted. But what really shocked us was how good he was. For all us teachers and his fellow students knew he used to love archery. But his talent was seen first-hand by us only during his Class X externals.
“As part of the physical education practicals for his final examination in 2008, a teacher from outside had come to invigilate. And that was when Atanu blew our minds with his shooting. Unfortunately, by that time, he had been signed up by the Tata Academy, and we could not see more of his talent. In fact, he had taken special permission from Tata Academy to come and give this test,” Sourangshu, who himself comes over to watch the children practice at the club, revealed.
The assistant head master of Baranagar Narendranath Vidya Mandir added that Atanu still keeps in touch with the school, and visits them whenever he is in the city.
Having gone through so much to reach a point where he has a chance of making history at the Olympics, Atanu surely appreciates where he comes from, and the difficulties that gnaw at an upcoming sportsperson in the country. Even to make the Rio squad, he had to undergo trials held by the Archery Association of India, but the future looks bright. Archery in India has grown leaps and bounds over the past decade. And Rio could just be the watershed moment for the sport, and young Atanu could be the hero at the end of it all.