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The Great Indian Badminton Story

The Great Indian Badminton Story
Highlights

For those who think that badminton is a brand new phenomenon in India, thanks to the growing popularity of Premier Badminton League, let me put the...

For those who think that badminton is a brand new phenomenon in India, thanks to the growing popularity of Premier Badminton League, let me put the record straight. Apparently, the version of badminton we know today was inspired by a game played by the Greeks called Battledore and Shuttlecock centuries ago. This ancient game was then refined by leisurely British Army Officers settled in Poona in the 1800s and took the form of the game we currently play.

The British officers creatively called their creation ‘Poona’. The game Poona then travelled back to England in 1984 where the Duke of Beaufort hosted a lawn party (one presumes that Poona was played) in a place called Badminton. He presumably liked Poona (the game) so much that he changed its name to the more British ‘Badminton’. So there you are, badminton is not new to India at all (if Wikipedia is to be believed). And since we are asking the British to return several things, we could ask them to change the name back to Poona from Badminton as well.

Ever since badminton has been a household game in India and at a random guess, is the second most played game in India. It requires little investment, needs no special facilities, is gender friendly and asks as much effort as one wants to put into it. Naturally, Indians took to the game freely and all of us have played the game in some form or the other. In fact, I believe it remains the most popular morning sport for ageing gentlemen who do not wish to accept the fact that they are ageing.

For such a popular and accessible game, badminton however produced surprisingly poor results for many years (as did most sports in India). The hard facts on the table are like this. Pretty much nothing happened until 1980 when Prakash Padukone won the All England Championship. Then there was a long hiatus until Pullela Gopichand pulled off the second All England title for India in 2001.

Sometime after that (something to do with Gopichand one suspects), we started producing champions like Saina Nehwal, who won a bronze medal at the Olympics in 2012 and Sindhu who went a step further and won the silver medal in 2016. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg; there is a whole army of badminton players swarming the top tournaments of the world grabbing at medals and titles as we speak. To show that it is not far behind its closest rival cricket, badminton also boasts of a Premier Badminton League, one of the top leagues in the world with many world stars playing in it. Baddy, one could say, has finally arrived in India.

But if one wants to go down memory lane, one finds a very short lane. There are very few memories associated with the game over the last couple of centuries. One early and lasting memory belongs to the 1970 Hindi movie ‘Humjoli’, which had an iconic song called “Dhal gaya din’’. This one song perhaps did more for badminton in those early years than any amount of controversial advertising and banning of films would do for it today.

So much so that one could even adopt the song as the anthem song for the game in India. In the song Jeetendra and Leena Chandavarkar play shuttle badminton, matching shots to the music, dressed in skin-tight clothes. The game is choreographed very entertainingly with a twist, a sway, a hop and a skip–between every shot. After a while, the two young shuttle players get bored and fling their racquets into the air and take off to engage in vigorous post-badminton exercises.

The song ends, thankfully before Leena suffers a broken nose or leg from the enthusiastic affections of Jeetendra, but then it would have been a small sacrifice to promote baddy, which finally won us several medals later on.

What I am getting at is that in those days the actual game was used to warm up, and the post-match exercise was the main item. Which perhaps explains why we never won many medals those days - our players used the game to warm up and then went off to exercise, and not the other way around.

Endorsed by the silver screen, badminton became the perfect family game. It addressed the need for women to play posh games without straying too far from their homes. Two rackets and a shuttle, were all that were needed and a small space, preferably the road outside the house so parents could keep a hawkish watch over the proceedings. For the net, players used the gate.

These outdoor games came with their own challenges of course. The capricious shuttlecock was easily swayed by the slightest influence from the wind and swung this way and that making it difficult to play two shots in a row. Another problem was that the shuttlecock would land in the premises of the one person who would not return the shuttlecock ever and one had to bid early farewells to the game.

Shuttlecocks were expensive, especially the feathered ones, and patrons were forever finding innovative ways to keep the bird flying – tape, plastic shuttles, etc. The conditions were not conducive to produce champions.

In its favour, shuttle badminton drew equal participation from both sexes for various reasons. Apart from offering healthy exercise and opportunities to play, badminton also served as the ground where both sexes could meet and further relationships. Boys discovered that among the few places to meet girls, such as temples, typing classes, schools and colleges, badminton courts were probably the best place to further their interests.

Not surprisingly all boys bought badminton racquets, hoping to net a lady or two. But a few made progress as they stood far away, played shuttle in an aloof manner and hoped that the girls would come asking for shuttle lessons (like Hema Malini approaches Dharmendra in ‘Sholay’ for some shooting lessons). This remains the standard dream of all shuttle playing boys till date. Most dreams, however, were shattered and that ended their badminton dreams as well. Clearly, those who succeeded in badminton succeeded in life and love. The rest faded into the audience.

If ‘Humjoli’ gave us a lasting memory of badminton those years (something from which we have not yet recovered) Prakash Padukone gave us the next unforgettable image. A few can forget the heroic welcome he received on his return after winning the All England. Prakash was better looking than any paid model in the world then and there was a big surge in the population that took up the game instantly.

The third and most decisive moment was that of Gopichand winning the All England and in doing so he cracked the secret formula to a potion, which he brews like the Druid in Asterix at his academy that churns out champs by the dozens. The success stories of Saina and Sindhu and the advent of television in every home probably fuelled the rest. In my opinion, these landmark events were responsible for the rapid growth of badminton in India. (The only thing we didn’t understand is how Prakash played to win – until then we Indians were quite content to participate and let others win. Maybe he had some access to the magic potion too.)

Things have changed drastically since Gopichand won. There is a huge spurt in professional badminton coaching camps–shiny courts, shoes, clothes, coaches, and stuff. (Surely there are coaching classes to get into badminton coaching classes!) Parents hang around watching the kids and the coaches very closely. Kids wander around fitted with professional looking gear and accessories. The court is surrounded by pictures of Sindhu (at least one huge picture of Sindhu and smaller pictures of others).

The focus has shifted. Players play to succeed. Today’s badminton stars are deservedly wealthy, endorse products, show up on KBC, have biopics made on them, books written, etc. The kids want to emulate their role models.

The one grouse is that amateur spirit from the days of J and L seems to have totally disappeared from the landscape. It is true that the neighbourhood community courts still exist, inhabited by overweight and raucous middle-aged men, who congregate every morning, clad in tight t-shirts and shorts, which they swear by. Evenings belong to overweight women and young children. It is amateur stuff but nothing like the heady stuff one remembers.

What I am saying is that there is no space left between overweight uncles and aunties and the hardcore pros. There is little room for the romance of amateur badminton these days. At times like these, I wonder if someone would remake the anthem song of badminton from ‘Humjoli’. Perhaps with Ranveer Singh and Deepika Padukone. But then I wake up. It would not be a patch on the original.

By: Harimohan Paruvu

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