S. Gayathri looks like any other 13-year-old, with plastic earrings, a bindi and neatly braided long hair. She gets self-conscious a few minutes into the conversation. But ask her to demonstrate boxing and she transforms into someone else. She punches the air vigorously, her eyes narrowed and chest puffed up. Suddenly, she doesn’t care about the world around her — she punches away to an imaginary beat, her persona suggesting that no one dare mess with her. She lives in the Kannagi Nagar Housing Board apartments and her parents hold regular jobs. Boxing is her ticket to a better life. Hundreds of girls like her from the city — daughters of daily-wage labourers, rickshaw pullers, and auto drivers — have embraced the sport.
Chennai girls have been holding the fort at district-level and State-level boxing tournaments for years now, and have even won medals at the Nationals. “Players from other districts think we’re menacing,” boxer J. Narmada laughs. The 23-year-old got into the sport in 2006. “I was studying in class VI at a Corporation school then. Boxing coaches came to our classes to give us a demo. Many of us signed up for it,” she recalls.
Narmada says she couldn’t make it big in the sport. “But I want to help girls like me,” she says. She, along with friends M. Bhuvaneshwari, M. Nila, E. Sevvandhi and S. Durga, is training girls interested in boxing. They go to Government and Corporation-run schools to enlist students. They have just one criterion: that the girls belong to less-privileged backgrounds. She feels such children are tough and resilient — the most important qualities for a boxer. “I’ve seen wealthy parents hesitate to enrol their children in boxing. This is perhaps due to the misconception that the sport could hurt people,” she says.
North Chennai has long been a hub for boxing. Home to a number of professional boxers, the area nurtures generations of people, mostly from low economic backgrounds, who fight hard for survival. This is perhaps why they grab the opportunities that come their way.
North Chennai’s boxing culture can be traced back to the 70s, when mud grounds in Vyasarpadi throbbed with action from impromptu boxing tournaments. Boxing coach J. Loganathan feels that the nearby Nehru Stadium has a lot to do with this. “Locals witnessed boxing greats such as Muhammad Ali in all his glory at the stadium,” he says. Gradually, the sport seeped into the nooks and crannies of North Chennai. Local grounds doubled as boxing rings and gangs were formed. Loganathan recalls that there existed two schools of boxing in the area — the ‘Idiyappam Parambarai’ and ‘Salpattrai Parambarai’. “Their styles were completely different,” he says. Even today, boxing legends such as Dilli Babu and Vadivel are spoken of with reverence. “They were heroes during those times,” says Loganathan.
It was in the late 90s that girls stepped into the sport. “In 2005, the State Government introduced games such as boxing, fencing, judo and taekwondo in schools,” he says. Loganathan was among the two boxing coaches who went from school to school training students. He witnessed first-hand how girls went from curious to mildly interested to being obsessed with boxing. It’s fascinating how boxing spread like wildfire. Soon, school grounds turned into electrified arenas in the evenings. The girls rose at dawn for practice and kept themselves abreast of tournament dates. They spoke of Mary Kom and secretly caught glimpses of themselves in the mirror in punching poses donning imaginary gloves.
“It’s a challenge every day,” says Narmada. “At National tournaments, we see how our competitors from other States are better-equipped and fitter. We try and keep up with them, but it’s difficult since most of us cannot afford the sport. A pair of gloves costs Rs. 2,000, and we take turns to practise using the one pair that we own,” she adds. Bhuvaneshwari, for instance, the toughest amongst them, was rejected at a National-level tournament because she was underweight. But she refuses to give up. “I did have a Government job in mind when I started boxing,” says Bhuvaneshwari. But now, she doesn’t mind even if nothing profitable comes from it. Boxing gives her a sense of satisfaction; most importantly, it gives her hope.
Nila says that she got interested in boxing when she saw Narmada practising at Pulianthope. “I instantly fell in love with it,” she says. The game has won her respect amidst her people. “It gave me an identity. To friends and family, I’m not just someone; I’m the girl who’s a boxer.”
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