Past Masters of Indian Badminton: Madhumita Bisht – tigress of the badminton courts
In an illustrious career spanning 22 years at the Nationals, from 1980 to 2002, this focused, aggressive player, Madhumita Bisht, bagged an astonishing 27 national titles that included eight singles triumphs and five consecutive triple crowns between 1986 and 1990.
Editor's Note: Owing to the coronavirus outbreak, all sporting action across the globe stand suspended or cancelled. The crisis, however, presents us with an opportunity to step back, rethink, and write on sports differently. In line with this thought, we are running a series of profiles on India's illustrious badminton stars. The articles, penned by Shirish Nadkarni, promise to take you on a nostalgia trip while touching upon the lesser-known facets from the lives of the past masters.
A couple of years back, a worldwide television audience could easily observe a tense figure in the coach’s chair at courtside during badminton matches played by India’s elite shuttlers, in particular PV Sindhu.
Eyes tightly closed, lips moving frantically in prayer, Madhumita Bisht would risk a quick peek at the state of the rally, before shutting her eyes again and moving on to the next verse of the ‘Hanuman Chalisa’. During the few seconds allowed at the mid-point and at the end of each game, the coach could be observed in heavily animated discussion with her player, gesticulating wildly as she strove to impress upon her ward the need to conduct the rallies in a particular manner.
When looked at dispassionately, it can be concluded that few coaches would possess the pedigree that Madhumita brought to the job. If she was not a winner, nobody else could be! Her career can be encapsulated in one sentence: No Indian shuttler, male or female, can lay claim to the kind of record she possesses in the Indian Nationals.
In an illustrious career spanning 22 years at the Nationals, from 1980 to 2002, this focused, aggressive player bagged an astonishing 27 national titles that included eight singles triumphs and five consecutive triple crowns (a sweep of the singles, doubles and mixed events at the same tournament) between 1986 and 1990. Such was her hegemony on badminton courts in India!
In addition to the eight singles crowns, there were seven women’s doubles and the round dozen mixed doubles – four each with Sanat Mishra and U Vinod Kumar(younger brother of current chief coach of the Prakash Padukone Badminton Academy, Vimal Kumar); two with Harjeet Singh, and one each with Vincent Lobo and Markose Bristow – that bore mute testimony to her longevity.
It appears extremely unlikely that any player in the present or future will be able to emulate this saga of sustained brilliance in all three branches of the game, especially when the trend these days is towards specialisation in a single event. Madhumita’s record eclipsed that of her slightly older contemporary, Ami Ghia Shah, of winning 23 titles from 36 appearances in National finals.
“With the retirement of Madhumita, a long and illustrious chapter in the history of Indian badminton has come to a close,” journalist Rakesh Rao wrote in The Hindu on 11 May, 2002, when Madhumita finally spelt 'finis' to her competitive playing career, shortly after winning the mixed doubles title for the 12th time in tandem with Markose Bristow at the 2001-02 Nationals in Lucknow.
“In a career spanning nearly three decades, Madhumita Goswami (Bisht's erstwhile surname) grew from a small-town girl to a big-hearted champion. By stringing together will, courage and determination to succeed, Madhumita set an example for all those who followed.”
The credo of the girl from the interiors of Assam, who became the National sub-junior champion in 1977, was simple: “If you believe you can do it, you will do it. After all, we human beings are blessed with amazing abilities. It is for us to make the most of these abilities.” These words of introspection from the 56-year-old Madhumita reflect the tremendous self-belief she developed over the years.
It was an education to watch her sink her teeth into a match. A tigerish frown of concentration would distort her visage to some extent. The sleeve of her T-shirt on the right arm would be pulled fully back to allow free movement to the shoulder joint, in a gesture that became her trademark. And she would be ready to unveil her speed, power, anticipation and deception.
Madhumita, first broke Meena Shah's record of seven successive National singles titles. Her tally of eight titles, included a consecutive seven between 1984-85 and 1990-91. A record that stood until 2005-06, when Aparna Popat went past her with nine victories.
“I never lost a singles final I happened to reach,” she says, with justifiable pride. In fact, it was Madhumita who proved the major heart-breaker in the great Ami Ghia-Shah’s career, beating her opponent in five of the 15 National singles finals that the she featured in.
A fitness fanatic, fiercely competitive and a firm disciplinarian, Madhumita was greatly inspired by Ami, whom she was to befriend and partner in both national and international events. She readily acknowledges the contribution made by Ami in her career, and says, “Till date, we are best friends, and remain in regular touch.”
Even before Madhumita arrived on the National scene, Ami was already a six-time National singles champion. “I remember watching her play for the first time. I thought she was just too good,” recalls Madhumita.
“I first saw her playing at Panaji in 1978, and went on to lose to her. I used to be very scared of senior players like Ami and Kanwal Thakur Singh. Then I joined the Railways, and Ami was in the same team. I remember we were roommates at a camp held in Delhi's Karnail Singh Stadium. Dipu Ghosh was our coach, and he was of the opinion that I stood to gain a lot from Ami. He couldn't have been more right!”
The mental block against Ami needed to be removed, but it was far from easy to work out a way of beating her idol. Madhumita recalls a tournament at Bangalore in 1978, just before she joined the Railways, when she was to clash with Ami in the final.
“When I watched her warm up, I forgot all about the fact that even I had to warm up,” she says. “Believe me, I did not warm up at all. Needless to say, I lost the match. But after watching her before the match, I realised the importance of warming up before every match. Perhaps, her meticulous ways rubbed off on me.”
It was not until 1980 that Madhumita began to believe that she could actually beat Ami. “I had beaten Kanwal Thakur Singh (who won two National titles by beating Ami in the finals) in the Lucknow International, so my confidence was growing,” she remembers.
One Saturday afternoon, in the Uber Cup camp at Patiala, Madhumita lost 11-12 to Ami in the deciding game. “After the match I kept telling myself that, if I could run her so close, it was definitely possible to beat her,” she says.
After Sunday's rest day, on Monday, the trials to select the team were to start. When the lots where drawn, Madhumita faced Ami in the first match of the round-robin trials – and won 11-7, 11-8.
“I beat her in August 1980, and again in January 1981,” recalls Madhumita with a glint of pride in her eyes. “But around a fortnight later, in the Vijayawada Nationals, I lost to her in the semi-finals.
“From that point onwards, I never lost to Ami. I beat her five times in the National finals. But I always enjoyed playing against and with Ami. I played with her and many more opponents since then, but I can tell you, in my opinion, Ami was the most difficult player to beat.”
Hailing from the tiny Assamese hill town of Jalpaiguri and getting her early lessons in badminton from her father at Siliguri, young Madhumita worked hard to overcome the constraints. From playing on an outdoor mud-court to a make-shift indoor hall with the roof only 15-feet high, Madhumita made steady progress.
“One could neither serve deep, nor go back since there was a danger of banging your racquet against the back-wall. But this helped my speed as I had to get adjusted to the shuttle travelling at such a quick pace,” says Madhumita, about those challenging days.
An appearance in the National junior final and a sub-junior title kept her on course for greatness. “In 1978, my dad, an artist with the Information and Cultural Affairs Department, shifted to Calcutta, purely to help my badminton career” she says. “It made a huge difference.
“My entire family sacrificed so much for me! My dad was my biggest support. I used to play all games at one time; I was a good athlete and table tennis player, and an even better volleyball player. But my Dad asked me to take up an individual sport at which I could excel, rather than a team sport.
“When I was 10, he accompanied me everywhere. He forgot everything else as he helped me pursue my dreams. He would give me an oil massage, tie my shoe-laces and even hand over the racket to me before my match. Would you believe that?
“He would never scold me even when I lost. He would say, 'Unless you lose, you will not know what it takes to win'. He remained concerned about my badminton career until he passed away in 2005,” says Madhumita about her 'Baba', who would personally repair the cracks and holes in the cement floor of the badminton court at Siliguri to ensure that there was no break in his daughter's practice session.
Employed with the South Eastern Railways at the tender age of 13 years and seven months, and married at 18 to Delhi-based shuttler Vikram Singh Bisht. Madhumita benefited a great deal from the environment which encouraged her to go on.
She went on to bag a bronze medal at the Delhi Asian Games in 1982, and received the Arjuna award in the same year; and much later, the Padma Shri. But it remained a huge source of regret to her that her father missed seeing her get both awards.
“I had played for the country for a long time, but recognition in the form of a Padma Shri had not come,” she says. “In 2004, when I had gone to Kolkata for the Dussehra puja holidays, as I used to do every year, one particular reporter rang me up and asked, 'Madhumita, don’t you think you deserve the Padma Shri?'
“I asked him, 'Do I? I don’t really know! I don’t even know the procedure for applying for such an award.' After I returned to Delhi, I got a call from my father, who asked me to rush copies of my certificates to him, as the West Bengal state government wanted to build a case for nominating me.
“So I sent him whatever certificates and newspaper clippings I had, particularly the stories that had come out in the newspapers at the time of my retirement.
“When the names of the awardees came out in January 2005, I was sorely disappointed, since I did not find a mention amongst them. I told my Dad that we had no godfather, so we should forget about it. Subsequently, we came to know that the last date for nominations had been some time in July-August, and that we had missed the date for the 2005 Awards.
“After my father died in late 2005, I had gone to Jalpaiguri for the 11-day funeral-related ceremonies, and was depressed. A reporter friend of ours saw my name in the 2006 Awards list and called up Uday Pawar to get my Jalpaiguri number. He conveyed the news to me.
“I felt terrible that my father, to whom I owe everything, was no longer there to share my joy at the honour. Sadly, he had missed the ceremony when I had received the Arjuna Award in 1984.”
In 1992, Madhumita became the first Indian female badminton player to represent the country at the Olympic Games in Barcelona. In fact, right through the 1980s and the 1990s, Madhumita was a regular fixture in Indian teams for the World Cup and Uber Cup competitions. Again in the 1998 Asian Games in Kuala Lumpur, Madhumita was part of the bronze-winning team.
Looking back on Madhumita's career, despite her achievements, success in major international championships is missing. She won a triple crown in the French Open at Toulouse and finished runner-up in the USSR International in Moscow.
To view matters in perspective, it must be remembered that during her best years as a singles player, lack of international exposure was the biggest hindrance facing Indian players. The government simply refused to sponsor trips abroad. Shuttles of international quality were not available for practice. Barring Prakash Padukone, no other player in the country could break these home-grown shackles.
Yet, among Madhumita’s big victories, the one against World no. 2 Kusumawardhani Sarwendah in 1992 stands out. The Indonesian had won the Malaysian Open; and the following week, Madhumita beat her in the second round in the lion’s den in Jakarta.
Soon after the 1991 Nationals, Madhumita wanted to take a break from the game. However, she continued.
“Vikram and my in-laws asked me to concentrate on making it to the Olympic Games the following year,” she says. “They said, 'Since you are playing well, you should give it your best shot.'”
Madhumita was ranked 29th in the world in 1992. For three months, she hunted for a sponsor to play abroad, but in vain. Non-participation in global tournaments had brought her ranking down into the 60s.
“Since only the top-40 players got direct entry to the Olympic Games at the time, I had no option but to play and do well enough to raise my ranking,” she recalls. “I reached the quarter-finals of the Korean Open and the ABC Championships before making the pre-quarterfinals of the All-England Championships that year. Finally, I managed to make the cut for the 1992 Olympics.”
On her return from Barcelona, Madhumita chose to stay away from the game to start a family. She returned to the courts when her son was three months old, but was firm on playing only within the country.
“I ended up putting on a lot of weight due to thyroid problems,” she says. “But I told myself that I had to become completely fit, and started training very hard.”
A string of consistent showings, up to the Pune Nationals in 1997, saw Madhumita make the National team for the SAARC Cup at Colombo.
“I was not very keen, but (coach) Dipu Ghosh and Ami Ghia persuaded me to travel with the team,” she says. She made all three finals and won the doubles in the company of PVV Lakshmi.
Thereafter, in a major tournament in Chennai, where Aparna Popat and Manjusha Kanwar did not play, Madhumita beat Neelima Choudhary in the semi-finals and Lakshmi in the final. This was also her last singles title.
Being involved in competitive badminton for 27 years, Madhumita was threatened by serious injury only once. A leg injury suffered during a national camp in Bangalore in 1999 threatened to put an end to her career and necessitated an operation. For once, Madhumita thought that it was not possible for her to resume playing.
But expert help was at hand. “Dr. Ashok Rajagopal told me that he would see to it that I would get back,” she remembers. “He cited my example to encourage others to fight their injuries and return to their respective disciplines. It took me eight months to get back. I again trained and found a place in the Uber Cup team in 2000.”
Madhumita readily acknowledges her debt to the game that brought her so many laurels, and is determined to give something back to the game. "Whatever I am today – my job, name and fame – it is all due to badminton.
"There are several successful people in various professions and vocations, but how many of them are well-known? So I'll remain eternally grateful to the game and all those people who believed in me."
Madhumita is happy that the government attitude towards overseas exposure for players has changed for the better. “It is a good thing to happen, but not everyone is making the most of it,” she laments. “Since they are getting it far more easily than before, they do not value it as much.
“I feel there is not much accountability. The players should be made to feel that, if they are being given the opportunity to represent the country, they should give their very best. I am not saying you win every time you go out and play; but you try your best. I see that they lack dedication and discipline. This is where the role of parents comes in. Certain values need to be inculcated at home."
Citing examples of her idol Prakash Padukone for his discipline, and Pullela Gopichand for his commitment, Madhumita says, “I have watched Prakash work very hard. His discipline was simply amazing. Or take a look at Gopi – he is so dedicated. Even after three knee operations, he remained so committed on the court. And see the miracles he has achieved as a coach! If you don't have that level of commitment, you simply cannot succeed.”
The writer is a former veterans' world champion (50+ age group men's doubles, Kuala Lumpur 2004), an eight-time National champion, and a 13-time Maharashtra state veterans' doubles title holder.
Prakash Padukone is likely to be discharged later this week.
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