Irom Deban Singh, an award-winning coach, says studies shouldn't be an excuse to quit the sport
At 42, Irom Deban Singh has been relatively early in winning a lifetime achievement award. Few, though, will argue that the recognition was premature for Karnataka's long-serving fencing coach. The State government conferred the award on Singh last August, sending the resident Manipuri community into raptures. “There are nearly 1,000 families in Bangalore,” he says. “All of them were so happy that day; happy that one of them had achieved something here.”
Singh arrived in Bangalore in 1995, appointed by the Sports Authority of India (SAI) in response to the Department of Youth Services and Sports' request to set up and train a fencing team from the State for the fourth National Games, then two years away. At the National fencing championships later that year, Karnataka finished with a bronze, its first medal in the sport. At the National Games, Singh's wards recorded a tally of four golds, four silvers and two bronzes: not bad for a group that had only just taken its first steps. The State's fencers grew to take a firm grip on the National title, finishing overall champion every time, for the subsequent six years.
Singh was appointed National coach for the Asian championships of 2000, an occasion when the Indian team had seven representatives from Karnataka. Although it may be harsh to say that the sport is in decline, things have definitely slowed down since those heady days. “Those were good times,” he muses. “Even five years ago, there were about 70 fencers here. Interest was good. Today, the number is around 35 or 40, and even these are not regular. They say they have ‘tuitions' or ‘special classes'. If you turn up for practice only once a week, you don't win anything.”
The perennial struggle to balance academics and a career in sport should not apply to fencing, Singh feels. “I guarantee you this: a good fencer is also good at his studies. It's a sport that needs concentration. Good fencers invariably have beautiful handwriting.”
The sport was introduced in India, Singh says, by Rajiv Gandhi in 1989, and first taken to Thalassery (Kerala) and Imphal (Manipur) districts under the Sports Authority of India's Special Area Games scheme. “This is because these two States had a tradition of weapon-based martial arts – Kalaripayattu and Thang Ta,” he explains. Singh himself was a practitioner of the latter, and took up the opportunity to train at the SAI, spending five years there. It was on his return from Tashkent after the Asian championships of 1994 that he was posted to Bangalore.
In his 16 years in the city, he has trained over 500 students, with 16 of them representing the country, and 250, the state. “Yashoda, M. Pratibha, Sudha Rani, C. Rukmini,” he rattles names off, “They were all good. Then there was Dilip Kumar, and Shashidhar Singh. Today we have N. Bindu, P. Lakshmikanth, Sumeeth Naidu (all Ekalavya-awardees), T.R. Rohit Gangadhar, Charles, and N. Lakshmi.”
What will happen when this generation of fencers moves on, is a thought that worries him. “Yes, things are looking down. There has to be some reward if you want to attract a fresh bunch to the sport, and there isn't.”
In previous years, Karnataka State Police (KSP) has been kind enough to recruit the State's fencers, taking in 13 of them. “Now, there is nothing much,” sighs Singh. “I had many dreams for fencing,” he says, “but all I want now are students.”