Profiling 6 Upcoming Female Martial Artists From India - Homegrown

Profiling 6 Upcoming Female Martial Artists From India

I was all of eight when my mother dropped me and my four year old brother off to a Taekwondo class. “It’ll be a good after school hobby to keep you fit,” I was told. I wasn’t particularly into combat sports nor did I enjoy watching action films, but I agreed because I thought it would be a ‘cool’ thing to learn. What started out as a mere hobby turned into passion as I went on to understand the nuances of martial arts, its base in yoga and spirituality and the overall purpose of each of its forms to nurture the body and mind in a way that it not only makes one calm, but also fearless.

As I saw myself change for the better and competed in state and national level tournaments, I could not help but notice the poor state of martial arts in the country. No proper infrastructure, no sponsors, no government funding and absolutely no recognition or acknowledgement of the players. I met senior martial artists who were fighters by day and food stall owners by night, only so that they could fund their dreams. Martial arts does not discriminate against gender — the bitter reality is that all martial artists in this country are struggling; the female quota slightly more affected due to societal pressures.

When I got my period, I was told not to continue the sport anymore. They feared that I may break my hymen which would eventually tarnish my reputation as a girl. Sometimes, I couldn’t even go to certain parts of the country to participate in national level tournaments because there were no other girls on the team! Several female team members would stop pursuing the sport due to their families — they were forbidden from having any physical contact with males, which the sport demanded. There were instances of harassment, cases of fraud and corruption in the federation boards too that I heard of. Pursuing a martial art was supposed to empower us but these struggles often made me feel helpless and wondering if it was all worth it. The antidote to this was however, the feeling of being on the mat, of putting on that dobak, tying the hard earned belt around your waist and putting forth your best fight to represent your state and country, giving back to the sport that taught me so many life lessons and made me who I am today.

When I went for my first ever nationals held in Imphal, Manipur I met and interacted with many players from across the country who shared the same struggles and inhibitions. Their journey like mine was a roller coaster ride but none of them wanted to give up. “You have to be inside the system to be able to fight it,” someone said repeating the famous dialogue from the film Page 3. That dialogue stayed with me and I realised how this was a unanimous movement of sorts. These girls were not only fighting to become world champions but also for the betterment of their respective form of martial art.

The country has hundreds of female martial artists competing on an international level, relentlessly working to teach and master the art of self defense while trying to keep intact the spirit of the art. Though each one has a different story to share, the struggles that they face are quite similar. We reached out to 6 such upcoming female martial artists who took us through their journey:

I. Richa Gaur, 23
3rd Dan Black Belt, Taekwondo
Titled Muay Thai Queen Of India,
Jaipur, Rajasthan

“The sky is the limit”

When Richa Gaur was born as a premature baby weighing just 1.6 kgs, doctors didn’t think she would survive. Nobody knew that just 18 years later she would have a long list of credentials to her name. From being one of the top 100 women achievers to being a 7 time national champion to have qualified for the Asian Olympics and having trained 400+ women in the police force, Richa Gaur, the Muay Thai Queen of India has had an interesting journey in the world of martial arts. Born in a middle class family in Rajasthan, Richa Gaur started training in Taekwondo at the age of 6. What started out as a hobby soon turned into her passion and she went on to achieve the 3rd Dan black belt in Korea, become an international coach, pursue Muay Thai, MMA and Judo and represent the country the world over.

The Unforgettable Fight

Her unforgettable fight was her first one, where she bagged a gold medal. “That was stimulation to keep playing and better myself as a martial artist,” she says.

On Challenges and Support

Richa’s journey hasn’t been an easy one. Right from tackling family pressures to federation disputes, she has overcome many challenges to achieve her dream. “I was very sensitive and was bullied multiple times by my classmates. I decided to convert my hobby into my identity and completely diverted my energy towards it. Being born as a girl in a conservative family, initially it was difficult for me to step out of my house, for safety reasons. To fulfill my dreams, I started dressing up as a boy in my childhood days so that I could get permission from my parents to leave home for practice and the general public would not recognize me as a girl.

Soon, my father who initially wanted me to become an engineer saw the fire in my eyes and the passion I had for the sport and started supporting me. Often, due to lack of female coaches, he was hesitant to send me out for tournaments but then he started taking leaves from work and accompanied me to all my state and national championships. He became my biggest fan and my biggest source of inspiration. As martial artists we require good diet, a physiotherapist , equipment along with technical training which cost a lot. Since we were short of funds, my father even helped me through his provident fund.

When I was qualified for world Championships I had to leave my 2nd year exams and the university was not cooperative at all despite knowing that one of their students was going to represent the country. The government too wasn’t very supportive for I still have not received my scholarship money as my file went ‘missing’. But these are challenges that are common to sports persons in our country. You just fight them and move on.”

On Gender Discrimination and More Women in Combat Sports

Richa says that there an many incidences of eve teasing and molestation in sports federations that women do not report in the fear of being kicked off the team. There are lots of fraudsters in the game who misguide students by asking them for money to sell black belts. Richa also feels that many girls and women drop out of training and let go of opportunities only because they feel hesitant and unsafe travelling with male coaches. “Many a times it is an acquired, cultivated fear by society. That is why I feel we should push for more female coaches to at least introduce girls to the sports so they can feel empowered and confident. This way, we can have more women representing the country in martial arts.”

Looking Ahead

An international player, the Rajasthan Team coach, a celebrity trainer and a world champion; Richa Gaur is not only representing India in tournaments across the world but is also empowering Indian women by holding defence workshops an giving motivational speeches to encourage them to come forth. She has bagged more than a 100 women empowerment awards and has trained to 60,000 students, 400 police forces, 300 government physical teachers, corporate employees, NCC Cadets , university & school students, house wives , senior citizens , celebrities. Founder of the Global Institute of Self Defence and Martial Arts, she undergoes rigorous training in strength, stamina and theory, everyday.

Richa Gaur in one of her training sessions
Richa Gaur in one of her training sessions

II. Bhavisha Singh, 20
2nd Dan Black Belt, Karate
Mumbai

“Never give up; even in the weakest of your moments.”

20 year old Bhavisha Singh knows no life without Karate. She started training in the martial art at the tender age of 5 with an initial motivation of being fit. She was open to playing any sport and Karate seemed the most viable and convenient option back then. She recalls being petrified the first time she was on the Tatami (Karate Mat) and lost her first ever competitive fight, but gained the realization that she needed to work harder. Bhavisha started devoting much more time to her training regimes and focused all her energy to Karate, bagging one medal after the other.From district to state to her first national fight in October 2009 at Kolkata where she won a gold medal despite having high fever, Bhavisha has even gone on to represent the country in Asian Championships, the Commonwealth Karate Games and various international tournaments held in China, Japan, Germany, Malaysia and has a medal tally of 142 gold medals, 11 silver medals, 13 bronze medals

The Unforgettable Fight

Bhavisha’s most memorable fight was the one that taught her a lot. “It was back in 2015 in the Indian Commonwealth Karate Championships. I was up against a Sri Lankan player and had badly injured myself in my previous fight. I was in a lot of pain and was very close to losing. A tiny part of me wanted to give up, but the most important thing that Karate has developed within me is will power. The tables turned and I won. I learned to never give up... even in the weakest of the moments.”

On Challenges and Support

During a practise session, Bhavisha severly injured her knee thereafter which doctors advised her not to continue the sport. “I was on bed rest and very unhappy. I decided that not pursuing Karate wasn’t an option and I will fight even if my leg breaks. However, after a few physio sessions it almost completely healed.” The biggest challenges for Bhavisha in her Karate career have been finances. “Coming from a middle class family, my parents cannot afford to send me for international tournaments which cost a lot,” she says. “ Karate is not as popular as cricket so finding sponsors is difficult and time consuming which messes with our training routine,” she adds. The Government too has not been of much help, neither does she expect it to be. To raise funds Bhavisha has developed her own website to crowdfund her dream to be a World Champion. She feels lucky to have undying support from her friends and family. “They all are extremely proud of me and are my motivation to train harder.” Her biggest source of inspiration however are her two coaches. Shihan Ratan Gharu and Shihan Sharmila Gharu to whom she owes all her achievements.

On Gender Discrimination and More Women in Combat Sports

Bhavisha represents the Karate Association of India and has not experienced any sort of gender discrimination despite of Karate being a male dominated sport. “They pay attention to anyone who is talented and willing to work hard. It has nothing to do with gender.” says Bhavisha. However she does feel that the female to male ratio in combat sports is pretty skewed. She feels education has a big role to play in this. “Safety of women in this country is a matter of grave concern and more females should learn the art of self defense. To encourage more women in combat sports, schools should include martial art training in their curriculum.”

Looking Ahead

Bhavisha received her black belt in 2008 and now conducts workshops on self defense. She continues to train hard for 5-7 hours a day and juggles between her education and tournaments. She looks forward to pursuing Karate professionally in the near future.

Bhavisha Singh in all her glory
Bhavisha Singh in all her glory

III. Paishwini Sharma, 17
Blue Belt, Taekwondo
Saharanpur

All of us have so much power and potential within ourselves. Nothing can stop us, if we channelize it in the right direction.”

For 17 year old Paishwini Sharma, martial arts was something that she inherited from her father, a Tae Kwon Do teacher. Her training began when she was just 3 years old and now martial arts has become a way of life for her and her entire family. She played her first official national tournament at the age of 10 where she won a gold medal and was the national champion for the next 4 consecutive years where she represented Uttar Pradesh in National Tournaments held in Lukhnow , Chennai, Amritsar and Manipur respectively. She believes that the base of any martial art is spirituality, meditation and yoga. Also an ammatuer gymnast, a dancer and a yogini; Paishwini has participated in many yoga tournaments at state and national level. She feels that pursuing martial arts has channeled her energy in the right direction and has helped her become not just a better fighter but also a better human being.

The Unforgettable Fight

For Paishwini, the most unforgettable fight was during her Manipur Nationals in 2013. She recalls, “I was particularly nervous about this tournament for I had a lot of Manipuri fighters in my weight category who are ruthless and perhaps the best fighters in the country. I worked extra hard during practice camps, saw their fights on YouTube but just couldn’t feel confident. From Saharanpur to Manipur, it was a long 52 hour journey in unreserved 2nd class train coaches and by the time we reached Imphal, I was exhausted, sleep deprived and did not feel that I had the energy to fight. To make things scarier my first qualifying bout was with a Manipuri. I went in feeling nervous but my teammates were very encouraging. Once I started fighting, I realised I was actually leading. Suddenly I was overcome with so much confidence that I did not give her a chance to kick. Before I knew it, I had won the fight. I went on to win a gold in that tournament and realized that we often underestimate ourselves, but we all have so much power and energy. Nothing can stop us if we put it to good use.”

On Challenges and Support

Fortunately, Paishwini has never had to have face family pressures for she trains in her father’s academy and her entire family is dedicated to the upliftment of the art. But her biggest challenges have been those pertaining to dirty politics in the federation boards. They have commercialized and capitalized the art so much that it has lost its basic essence. All federations care about are medals. The basic purpose of martial arts is lost. That is why, my father’s academy broke away from the federation and started developing his own martial art known as Ozyma. We still participate in Tae Kwon Do tournaments independently, but that is to check my own capability and technique on the field. My aim has never been to win medals.

When it comes to financial pressures, Paishwini has faced quite a few in the initial years of her career given that they had no funding from state governments neither were they able to rope in any sponsors. However now she and her academy have developed the ‘ Ozyma Raahat Kosh,’ a relief fund of sorts where 10 rupees from every student’s fee is directed towards funding a player who cannot afford to train or go for national and international tournaments.

On Gender Discrimination and More Women in Combat Sports

For Paishwini, gender discrimination came in the form of personal safety when she a 4-time national champion was not able to go for international tournaments only because there were hardly any or no other girls on the team. “My parents did not feel very comfortable with me going so far in an all boys team and to be honest, I was not too comfortable myself. That is why I personally encourage the other girls to join combat sports by giving demonstrations and holding workshops. Girls are as much capable of combat as guys are. I myself, have fought so many bigger boys during practice sessions. I really feel that we are no less”

Looking Ahead

Apart from developing herself as a martial artist, Paishwini plans to study Yogic sciences. She also conducts classes and is all geared for her next national tournament and says that is she wins a gold, nobody can stop her from playing at international level as well. She literally lives in her training gym so she is always in the training mode.

Only girl on the team. Paishwini Sharma (Extreme right, below)
Only girl on the team. Paishwini Sharma (Extreme right, below)

IV. Sharmila Madhu, 33
Wudang Kung-Fu,
Mysore

“Age is no bar, if you believe in the power of your dreams.”

Sharmila’s entry into the world of martial arts happened quite late. She was 33. “Better late than never”, she says adding that it is perhaps the best thing that has happened to her. It was her interest to learn and excel in the particular art form that motivated her to take up the art and learn something new. Martial Arts has taught her the art of self-defense but has also inculcated immense confidence within her. She conducts self defense sessions for other girls so that the world can be a safer place for them. Today, she trains in Kung-Fu, gymnastics, yoga and weaponry.

The Unforgettable Fight

Sharmila’s academy does not send students out for external tournaments as the aim of the academy is to spread the Art of Kung Fu in a proper disciplined way. However, Sharmila feels she is ready for a fight given she were to be in that kind of a situation. “Thanks to my training, I have developed a kind of body language and confidence in appearance and personality that no one would even dare to think of harassing. Even if it were to happen, I am confident that I will come out safe.”

On Challenges and Support

Sharmila believes that the society tends to pressurize only those who don’t have family support. “Fortunately my family has been very supportive so no societal pressures have ever bothered me. My family, friends, my grand Master, seniors and our academy itself is very supportive. I never had to seek support elsewhere”

On Gender Discrimination and More Women in Combat Sports

“The first thing thought in the class is discipline. Whether it’s the older students or kids, male or female, our master believes that everyone is equal. Gender is only the state of mind, hence all the students get same amount of respect and support and have to undergo same kind of strict training regime. In fact our master keeps conducting training sessions to encourage women and children to learn the art form.”

Looking Ahead

For Sharmila, practise begins early morning, an integral part of which is climbing the Chamundi hills through steps and running miles on the road. She gives demonstrations in various events like Women’s Dasra, Suraksha Swaraksha and holds workshops to train women in self defence. At present she is preparing for the same for the upcoming Women’s Dasara 2017 in the late September.

Sharmila Madhu at her practice session
Sharmila Madhu at her practice session

V. Pragya Chhabra,17
Green Belt (4th degree), Karate
Saharanpur

“Don’t be so tolerant about everything that is wrong with this world.”

Pragya was just a little girl when she was bullied by a male classmate for the first time. “He would hit me. Even the teachers did not take any action. I felt powerless but I did not want to depend on anyone for my own safety. Outside my 6th grade classroom window, I would often see kids training in Karate classes. One day I just went in and joined,” she says. From the school playground to a Martial Arts Academy to Tatamis across states and borders, Pragya has come far from being the meek little 6th grader that she was. “It has made me such a confident person. Nobody messes with me now,” she says. Pragya competes internationally today and represents the country in various tournaments. Her latest moment of glory is the silver medal she won at the South Asian Karate Championships held in Nepal, last year.

The Unforgettable Fight

Pragya remembers her most unforgettable fight being ‘off’ the mat. “I was just walking out of my tuition class when this lanky fellow standing on the sidewalk started passing lewd comments. I was really enraged, but I decided to ignore. He continued with the eve teasing and I just could not tolerate anymore. I walked up to him, yelled and punched him on the nose. It took a few minutes for me to comprehend what I had really done. I felt strong, independent and empowered. My many years of training had been put to a practical use. That moment felt like a personal accomplishment. It taught me to not be so tolerant of everything that is wrong with this world. Pursuing the sport has made me fearless.”

On Challenges and Support

When Pragya first started training in Karate, her parents were not very supportive of her indulging in a combat sport. “It is not a sport girl typically play they would say but as I started playing tournaments and winning, they realised how much Karate meant to me and how passionate I was about it. Since then they have extended their unconditional support. My coaches and the academy I train in have too worked hard on me and I owe all my credentials to them,” she says. However Pragya’s biggest challenges have been the lack of government support and financial burdens. “The UP Government has failed its sports persons. Other State Governments support their players so much, financially as well as in spirit. However we have to fend for ourselves when it comes to funding or travelling overseas or even outside the state. So many of us just cannot afford it. The financial issues have held so many players back. It is saddening.”

On Gender Discrimination and More Women in Combat Sports

Though Pragya herself has not experienced any rampant instances of gender discrimination, she does feel its subtlety, ingrained in patriarchy and encourages more women to be in the field of combat sports. She says, “Martial Arts is for everyone. It does not discriminate. It is just the image that has been created and it can easily be broken if more women join the field.”

Looking Ahead

Along with practicing 6-8 hours every single day, she also conducts self defense workshops for girls in various schools and colleges. Her dream is to represent India in the 2020 Olympics and she continues to work relentlessly for it.

Pragya showcasing some self defence techniques at a demonstration
Pragya showcasing some self defence techniques at a demonstration

VI. Kambung Wangsa, 20
Black Belt, Karate
Longding District, Arunachal Pradesh

Just take a deep breath and put your best game forward

When 10 year old Kambung was asked to choose a sport to play as mandate in the school curriculum, she unhesitatingly chose Karate. “I wanted to feel strong and independent and it is the best choice I have ever made.” Ruthless on the mat and very sweet otherwise, Kambung has represented her state and the country in various tournaments. She is the 1st female Karate player from her district.

The Unforgettable Fight

Kambung’s most unforgettable fight was in the 59th National School Games help in Madhya Pradesh. “ I was extremely nervous because I was seeing so many talented players from across the country. I was shaking when my fight was announced and was not performing well initially. But I hear my team members and coaches encouraging me from the stands. I took a deep breath, put my best game forward and won the fight.”

On Challenges and Support

Kambung faced initial restrictions from her mother and grandmother on pursuing Karate. “This is not a sport for girls. You will hurt yourself and no one will marry you” they said, but her father was very supportive. “He convinced my mother to let me practice Karate. They were supportive and encouraging, especially once I started winning, but they still are a little hesitant to send me to farther parts of the country and abroad to compete. But I am trying to win them over.” Fortunately, for Kambung the local and the state government have been supportive. The North East Indian states have a thriving sports culture. She says “Government has been giving a lot of incentive to sports players which is encouraging more people to enter the field and do better. Even schools here encourage martial arts in the curriculum at a young age and wholly cooperate.” Kambung says that her biggest challenges are to do with dirty politics in the sports federation boards, however she refused to comment about it.

On Gender Discrimination and More Women in Combat Sports

Though she herself has not faced any such incident, she does feel its presence in little things. “But I really feel we are making progress. I feel glad that so many girls from my state and the neighboring ones are taking up martial arts.” She feels it is imperative that the sport be introduced to them at a young age, before they become conscious of their gender and bodies.

Looking Ahead

Kambung has to make a long journey from her hostel to her training academy to practice, but she never misses a day. She wants to continue pursuing the sport for as long as she can for it has taught her the power of patience and discipline in life. Right now, she is fully focused at qualifying for nationals in the Mini Olympics being held later this year in Itanagar

Kambung Wangsa
Kambung Wangsa

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