Past Masters of Indian Badminton: The Deodhar sisters – Tara, Sunder, Suman dominated sport and left lasting legacy

Tara, Sunder and Dr Suman dominated the national badminton scene in all three departments – singles, doubles and mixed – individually and with one another, literally sweeping all before them, and crowding their cupboard with 23 national trophies.

Shirish Nadkarni April 11, 2020 09:44:12 IST
Past Masters of Indian Badminton: The Deodhar sisters – Tara, Sunder, Suman dominated sport and left lasting legacy

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.

Cricket-lovers would be more than familiar with the name of Professor DB (Dinkar Balwant) Deodhar, the Grand Old Man of Cricket, after whom an important tournament in the annual domestic cricketing calendar has been named.

However, not that many would be conversant with the fact that this professor of Sanskrit bequeathed to the nation a trio of daughters who excelled at badminton to such an extent that, between them, they kept most of the national titles in their custody for over a dozen years between 1942 and ’54.

Tara, Sunder and Dr Suman dominated the national badminton scene in all three departments – singles, doubles and mixed – individually and with one another, literally sweeping all before them, and crowding their cupboard with 23 national trophies.

Tara, the eldest, notched up a hat-trick of singles triumphs from 1942 to ’44; Sunder bagged a triple crown at the 1946 Nationals in Jabalpur; and Suman took home the singles and women’s doubles at the 1951 Kanpur Nationals, after being virtually unbeatable in the women’s doubles with Sunder in the period between 1946 and ’54.

It is also not widely known that Sunder was equally adept at table tennis; and has in her satchel one national mixed doubles crown in the company of a name that would be extremely familiar to table tennis lovers – Uttam Chandarana. This title was won after her marriage to Raja Patwardhan on Christmas Day 1948; and her decision to take part in the table tennis Nationals had the whole-hearted support of her husband.

Past Masters of Indian Badminton The Deodhar sisters  Tara Sunder Suman dominated sport and left lasting legacy

Hard-hitter Tara Deodhar (left) and her younger sister Sunder.

Had the sisters not been selective about their participation in places outside Bombay and Pune, the hoard of titles would have been even larger. It is eye-opening to note that Suman returned briefly to competitive badminton in 1972 at the age of 42 for a final fling; and, with Rafia Latif, whom she was playing with for the first time, won the women’s doubles crown in the Western India Championships.

Today, only two remain of the brood of five that were the progeny of Prof. Deodhar, born in a seven-year period between 1923 and ’30. Behind Tara came twins Sham and Sunder (all three are no more), followed by Sharad, and finally Suman in October 1930. All were born in Pune, where the professor had grown roots; and all completed their schooling in the city.

“My father was very keen about sports,” says Suman, who today is into her 90th year. “He himself played a lot of football, tennis and cricket; and so, my brother got into tennis. Our house was in PYC Colony in the Deccan Gymkhana area, just 100 metres from the PYC Gymkhana. We got a lot of encouragement to play there in the evening; no one expected us to just sit at home.”

So all five played one game or another – cricket, tennis, table tennis or badminton. Sharad played in the Ranji Trophy national cricket tournament for some years; then migrated to the US, and never did come back.

“Although all we girls enjoyed tennis, we got into badminton because balls were expensive and not easily available,” says Suman. “My father himself never played badminton. He was an outdoor sports person, and disliked playing in artificial light. So he never came to the badminton court.

“We used to play cricket with him in our courtyard. His major contribution was to teach us the basics of the strokes of all racket sports. He taught us the basics of stance, footwork, follow-through of the stroke, etc. I honestly feel that, once you have imbibed the basics, it does not matter whether you have a badminton or tennis racket, or a cricket bat, in your hand. Even for table tennis or squash, it is the same.”

It was Tara who took the initiative to read some books on badminton, and imparted instruction to her younger sisters. Suman, who started playing at the age of ten, made good progress in a very short time; and by the time she was 12, was already the Western India under-16 champion. Sunder had turned 15 when she participated in the Western India tournament.

“We did not venture to go for the Nationals if they were held in any part of the country except Bombay,” reminisces Suman. “For three consecutive years – 1942, ’43 and ’44 – they were held in Bombay, and Tara won the women’s singles titles on all three occasions.”

Initially, Tara and Sunder paired up, with great success. They reached the women’s doubles final in all the three years that Tara played in the Nationals, and won on the first two occasions before they were beaten in 1944 by Freny Talyarkhan and Mumtaz Chinoy.

In 1945, Tara left for the US to study biochemistry, and eventually secured a Ph.D. in the subject. She married a Dane, Rathalev, who was a colleague in the Biochemistry department, and the couple settled down in Denmark. She was never to return to India for another tilt at a National badminton title.

After Tara left, Sunder and Suman paired up and played together for 10 years between 1945 and ’54. During that period, they reached the women’s doubles final in most of the Nationals in which they participated.

Past Masters of Indian Badminton The Deodhar sisters  Tara Sunder Suman dominated sport and left lasting legacy

Suman and Sunder Deodhar are seen on the extreme right in this picture.

The two did miss some of the Nationals, e.g. the 1953 event in Gwalior, because of the pressure of Suman’s medical studies. Sunder, who was by then a housewife, and settled in Bombay, also disliked going out of the city for a tournament, particularly without her younger sister.

“Mumtaz Lotwalla and Ravibala Chitale was a strong pair in those days, as were Sushila Kapadia and Prem Prashar,” says Suman. “But we have always beaten them both. Actually, I feel I was a better doubles than singles player – even though I won the 1951 National singles title in Kanpur, and narrowly missed a triple crown when TN Seth and DH David – I think, from Scotland – took the mixed doubles. In those days, foreigners were allowed to play in the Indian Nationals.”

Earlier, Sunder won the mixed doubles National title with GD (Raja) Patwardhan in 1942. It was an on-court partnership that was to result in their becoming off-court partners as well – six years later, in 1948.

“It would appear that my parents were keenly interested in each other all those years, but did not have the guts to approach their respective parents to get married,” smiles Sunder’s daughter Ranjana, who played inter-collegiate badminton for Elphinstone College. “Finally, my grandfather came to know about their romance in 1947, and gave his consent to their marriage.”

In the years after they first played mixed doubles in the Nationals and won, the two did not play together. Sunder paired up with Prakash Nath to bag the national crown in 1944 and ’45; and forged a partnership with Devinder Mohan to lift the title in 1946. That was the year in which she bagged the coveted triple crown, winning the women’s doubles with Suman, and beating her younger sister in the singles final.

“I was never quite as active or ambitious about winning as Sunder was,” Suman admits. “I relied more on placement of the shuttle, while Sunder was the stronger, more aggressive, partner with an all-round game. But the best smash amongst all of us was with Tara, who was tall and made good use of her height.”

Says Nandu Natekar, who often encountered Suman and TN Seth in the mixed event, “Suman was an excellent mixed doubles player with outstanding placements.

Whenever I played with Shashi Bhat against her and TN, I used to tell my partner that we needed to play more on TN than on Suman, because she was likely to hoodwink us! And that is how we would beat them.”

Just before the 1953 Uber Cup trials held in Jaipur, Sunder suffered a knee injury while playing, and was shunted out of the team. Suman – who was already the mother of a boy at the time – took part in both singles and doubles.

To everyone’s amazement, she laid low Sushila Rege, who was the defending champion, having won the National singles on the two previous occasions. Suman also combined with Mumtaz Lotwalla to beat the reigning national doubles champions, Sushila and Shashi Bhatt.

Try as the mandarins in the Badminton Association of India (BAI) might, Suman simply could not be dropped from the side, and paired up with Mumtaz Lotwalla as one of the two Indian doubles combinations. The Indian side won its first tie against Malaysia, but lost to Denmark.
The 1954 Pune Nationals were the last in which the redoubtable Deodhar sisters played together, as Sunder got increasingly involved with the responsibilities of motherhood; and Suman refused to play with anyone but her sister, and was also up to her neck with her post-graduate studies in gynaecology.

Sunder’s valiant attempt at the National triple crown in 1954 failed narrowly. She won the singles and the women’s doubles with Suman, but her plans for the mixed title were thwarted by Natekar and Shashi Bhatt, who slipped past them in the semi-final and accounted for TN Seth and Suman in the title encounter.

Sunder had an equally brilliant outing in the Invitation International played at the Bombay Gymkhana in December that year. In the quarter-final, she outclassed the England No 1, Iris Cooley, for a comprehensive 11-6, 11-1 victory. Cooley had been runner-up at that year’s All-England Championships to the great Judy Devlin-Hashman; and had been widely expected to cross swords with the latter in the semi-final of that invitational tournament.

Nor was Sunder shamed by the ten-time All-England champion in the semi-final. She put up a sterling fight against Devlin, and was narrowly ousted at 8-11, 10-12, eliciting paeans of praise from the great champion. The scoreline was particularly impressive in light of the fact that Devlin comfortably accounted for another fine player, Margaret Varner (also subsequently an All-England champion), in the final.

Past Masters of Indian Badminton The Deodhar sisters  Tara Sunder Suman dominated sport and left lasting legacy

A rare autographed picture of the 1959 Uber Cup team; Suman Athavale is seen in the back row, extreme right.

Following Sunder’s retirement, Suman lost the old intensity to compete. Yet, in 1960, at the age of 30, she was once again named in the Indian Uber Cup team that took on a strong Denmark.

That was the time when India were counting on three singles victories against the Danes, who were far too powerful in the doubles. Sadly, captain Meena Shah tore knee ligaments while leading in the second game against Danish player Toni Holtz-Christensen after an easy win in the first, and had to concede the tie. She was substituted by Mumtaz Lotwalla, but the move failed to click, and the Danes cantered to an easy victory.

Thereafter, for a dozen years, the demands of a flourishing medical practice made Suman forget all about competitive badminton. But when the Western India Championships were held in her home town of Pune in 1972, the lure of the game proved too much, and the racket was pulled out of mothballs for one last hurrah.

Suman, at 42, joined forces with Rafia Latif to win the women’s doubles title at the expense of two talented 16 year old Bombay girls, Ami Ghia and Sujata Jain, who had already begun making waves on the senior national scene.

“It had always been my desire to play at least one tournament with my niece Ranjana (Sunder’s daughter), and I had given my entry with her, and started practising in Jalgaon, where I was then domiciled,” says Suman in the slow, deliberate style of speaking that has always been her trademark.

“But Ranjana was called away at the last minute for an Inter-Varsity tournament; and Dajisaheb Natu told me that Rafia Latif had no partner and was willing to play with me. So we played, and we went on to win the title.”

What has the game of badminton given her?

“The respect that I got in college, even medical college, when people learnt that I was a national champion, was extremely heady,” says Suman. “There was a time when I played a tournament during my years in Medicine, and I was absent from college for some time.

“The Dean of the college, Dr Joshi, asked me why I was absenting myself from classes. I told him I had been to play a representative badminton tournament. When he asked how the tournament had ended, I told him I had won the singles title.

“He then roundly fired me for having joined Medicine; and told me that, had I been his daughter, he would never have allowed me to take up Medicine, but would have insisted on my playing! He was sorry to note that Medicine would come actively in the way of my continuing my badminton career; and felt that Medicine’s gain would end up being Badminton’s loss!”

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. 

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