When a duo punched above their weight

The match between Sita Bai of Tanjore and Kamala Bai of Malabar saw enthusiastic crowds but also led to controversy.  

Sunday was a fine day for Indian women’s boxing at the 17th Asian Games in Incheon. Olympic bronze-medallist M. C. Mary Kom, L. Sarita Devi and Pooja Rani entered the semi-finals, assuring medals for the nation. However, it was right here, in Madras city, that the first punches in women’s boxing in the country were thrown. 

It was Saturday, the 15th of March, 1931, when two Indian women stepped into the ring for a bout of professional boxing at the famous White City Carnival held in the city. Looking fierce in knee-length shorts, sleeveless jerseys and gloved fists, the women appeared every bit combat-ready. Kamala Bai of Malabar and Sita Bai of Tanjore were trained boxers, touted to be in good form. Singapore’s English daily The Straits Times reported that this was arguably a first for India.

Visibly excited, The Hindu published an article five days prior to the event urging its readers to brace themselves to witness for the first time two ‘Indian ladies' meeting in the boxing arena — until now the most exclusive preserve of men.    

Large crowds, including a number of Europeans, assembled to watch history in the making. While the first two rounds saw the boxers on the defensive, the third round saw them packing a punch, exchanging double jabs, hard rights, hooks, and uppercuts. Disappointingly, by round three, the session drew to a close with referee V.E.J Brackstone of Messrs. Parry and Company declaring it a draw. 

Despite their underwhelming performance, both Kamala Bai and Sita Bai stayed in the news — even making international headlines for days to come.

‘Shocked and pained’

The fact that two Hindu women dared to ‘invade' the boxing ring also left many Indian men and women ‘shocked and pained’. Florida’s The Evening Independent published a report on March 16, 1931 titled ‘Women Boxers arouse India’. The story stated that ‘feminine India was up in arms’ with the female boxers facing ‘social ostracism and disgrace,' having engaged in a boxing match in Madras. 

For a country that had for centuries relegated their women to rigid domesticity, ‘ladies boxing' became particularly hard to digest.

Mahatma Gandhi for instance found this to be especially problematic. He was quoted in Pennsylvania’s Reading Eagle as saying women boxing was ‘degrading, disreputable and totally unbecoming of the finer instincts of Indian womanhood.’  

Today, as the country celebrates the laurels of our women boxers, it seems only appropriate to pause and acknowledge the spirit of Kamala Bai and Sita Bai.  For if not for them, we as a nation may have not dared to imagine the likes Mary Kom, L Sarita Devi and Pooja Rani fighting the good fight.

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Printable version | Aug 3, 2021 6:39:19 AM |

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