It is not a strange coincidence anymore that in Dipa Karmakar’s home town of Agartala, gymnastics is more popular than ever before. Since Dipa’s leap of faith at the Rio Olympics, almost all the eight major coaching centers of the city are buzzing with excitement.
That speaks volumes, considering how Agartala has been the fulcrum of gymnastics’ emergence+ in the country from the 1960s. Fifty years since, courtesy Dipa, it continues to be on the rise.
Even if you’re slightly aware of the gymnastics scene of the country, chances are you’d be familiar with the Vivekananda
Byamagar, the academy that has honed the best the country has offered. Sixty-nine years since its inception, Byamagar –
despite not wearing the greatest of outfits – hasn’t lost its charm. Every day at 3pm, young students aged 6-18 flock the
gate with ambitions of becoming the next Dipa. A similar vision develops at all other centers, one of which happens to be the
Dasaratha Dev Sports Complex, looked after Bisheswar Nandi, Dipa’s coach+ and a Dronacharya awardee.
Since it is rest period for Dipa, she and her coach are found here every evening, carefully examining the many future
gymnasts in the making. The center has appointed eight different coaches, their duties categorized between age group,
gender and types of vaults. Set up in 2007, it is second only to Byamagar in terms of churning out the best talents. But
unlike Byamagar, which still comprises tattered mats and rusted vaults, equipment here is up-to date. The property is worth
over Rs 50 lakh and has been taken care of by the Sports Authority of India.
However, all that money invested towards the sport has nothing to do with the financially-challenged background of these
young gymnasts. Nandi says that in Agartala, one would find two things simultaneously – talent and poverty. Of the many
who’ve had to defy all odds to train here, 15-year-Ashmita Pal and 17-year-old Abhishek Singha have the most inspiring
tales. They are seen as Tripura’s most promising gymnasts after Dipa.
Ashmita is yet to participate in junior national competitions, but her performances at the sub-junior level has been one of the
best witnessed in her age category. On the back of such performances, she received a berth in the Indian team for the
World School Championship in Turkey. She couldn’t manage a podium finish but the string of accolades she received
proves her credentials.
“I believe Ashmita is a notch above Dipa. The kind of things she does on the vault at 15 is incredible. Dipa used to do them
too, but Ashmita has a level of perfection which is extremely rare. She will go a long way,” Nandi tells TOI Sports .
At home, Ashmita’s parents did not have it easy managing the basic diet required to train. Her father Arun Pal is a daily-paid
labourer and mother Shilpi provides domestic help, but all they tell Ashmita is to focus and work hard towards achieving her
“Often it’s difficult to provide for her training – mostly diet and her gymnastics gear – but we manage. We’ve had a tough life
and don’t want our daughter to go through the same,” says Shilpi. “We don’t know much about sports but since
Gymnastics is so well-received here, we thought Ashmita could pursue it. Her coaches are her gurus, and under them I’m
sure she will prosper.”
Ashmita responds to it well. “The whole time [parents] they tell me to listen to Dipa di. I started gymnastics at 7 wanting to
emulate Dipa di. I went up to sir and asked whether I’ll be able to be as good as her. Sir just asked me to follow Dipa di and
assured me that with hardwork I’ll be there,” she says.
“Dipa di is so nice and inspiring. Even now when she trains, she teaches us too. I don’t know as to when I’ll represent India
in some big-scale tournament, but I will definitely try to. I train from three to three-and-a-half hours.”
Unlike Ashmita, Abhishek never had an idol to look up to. It was merely an unnatural body movement that got him into
gymnastics. Neither does he get to go home frequently. He mostly resides in the BSS sports school right next to the center.
Since home is a good 20-odd kms from the academy, it is only during the weekends that Abhishek visits his parents.
Unfortunately, on occasions when there is an auto strike, his wait has to extend further.
“My father drives a school bus. My parents always remind me that we are poor and encourage me to excel in whatever I am
doing. It always motivates me every time I approach training,” he says.
In a short span of time, Abhishek has been to Kolkata, Chennai, Pune, Jalandhar and Allahabad. The first time he went out
for a competition, he won bronze in the Under-15 school championship in Pune. On the ring apparatus, Abhishek is a sight
to behold. Rubbing a puff of chalk powder, he performed the Johnson and Yahahoki vaults, both of which require multiple
rotations of the body and landing with a swivel in the air.
“Abhishek performs the back body 360 vault with precision, the 720 version of which Dipa did in Rio Olympics. Apart from
her, he is the only gymnast performing this and many such vaults in Tripura. I am sure he will be in top-three if he gets to
compete at the top level,” his coach Gourango Chandra Pal says. “He has done exceptionally well in school games even
though he hasn’t been in junior events yet. Had there been a competition at the Indian Under-15 level, then people would
have known how special Abhishek is. He has feet movement like no other.”
Abhishek and Ashmita are just two of the many examples of how young gymnasts are battling odds to join Dipa in the elite
list of performers Tripura has produced. The trend has changed. For these kids, there is no second option. Dipa’s heroics
have now all the more put Agartala on the map and paved the way for more such glorious moments to knock Tripura’s door.