Three decades after his death, the memory of soldier-turned-legendary gymnastics coach Duleep Singh has again come alive with Dipa Karmakar’s performance at the Rio Olympics, focusing global attention on little-known Tripura.
“Duleep Singh is the father figure of the Tripura gymnastics and Dipa Karmakar is the finest-ever creation of this tiny state,” said Mantu Debnath, India’s second Arjuna Award winner in gymnastics after Olympian Shyam Lal Khullar and Tripura’s most famous gymnast before Dipa.
“Due to the hard and devoted work of Duleep Singh, Tripura so far has claimed 18 national team titles and seven individual national titles and produced three Arjuna award winners,” Debnath, who was cited in 1975, said.
Two of the Arjuna awardees, Mantu Debnath and Kalpana Debnath, trained under Singh. Dipa, the third, credits her success to coach Bisheshwar Nandi, who, in turn, is a Singh product.
The 23-year-old Dipa, who had become the first Indian woman gymnast to qualify for the Olympics, scored 15.066 points, a mere 0.15 less than eventual bronze winner Giulia Steingruber (15.216) of Switzerland in the final on August 14.
Debnath said that Singh created an ambiance that attracts many youngsters to take to gymnastics in Tripura.
Singh, a lance naik and sports instructor in the Indian Army from what is now Haryana, was asked by the National Institute of Sports (NIS) in Patiala in 1964 to examine how to promote gymnastics in Tripura.
“Within a year of Duleep Singh’s arrival, Tripura won its first national gold medal — any sport, any level — through Bharat Kishore Debbarman in the floor exercises routine at the National School Games,” Tripura Gymnastic Association founder-secretary Rupen Bhowmik, who now heads the All India Yoga Federation, said.
“Within the first 10 years, Singh conducted two gymnastics nationals in Agartala and invited gymnasts from Russia, Germany and China to stage displays at the famous Umakanta Academy ground,” said Bhowmik, a member of the University Grants Commission panel to prepare yoga courses for universities and colleges.
In 1969, Singh married Sushila Devi, a Manipuri woman. He breathed his last on October 16, 1987, aged only 55.
“My husband’s untimely death was a big blow to Tripura gymnastics when it was in full swing. He discovered much talent despite the huge infrastructural problems at that time,” Sushila said.
Sushila Devi, 75, lives in Radhanagar (less than half a kilometre from Dipa’s house at Abhoynagar) along with her only son, and runs three pathology clinics in Agartala.
“My husband’s influence on gymnastics transferred from generation to generation. His hard work for gymnastics, dedication, love for the students and producing new coaches has now yielded results in Tripura,” she added.
“He used to go from door-to-door to introduce boys and girls to the sport. Then he came looking for local sports organisers to encourage them to set up the state gymnastics body,” its secretary, Dilip Bhattacharjee, said.
“Duleep Singh initiated gymnastics from scratch in our state — without any apparatus or infrastructure. His toil has not gone in vain. We all should do work together to make many more Dipas and Duleep Singhs for the development of gymnastics in India,” he added.
Thus, it’s little wonder that of the seven gymnasts who have won the Arjuna Award, three are from Tripura.