Gymnast Pranati Nayak has booked a place in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics after winning the Asian quota. She is the second Indian gymnast to qualify for an edition of the Games. But controversy arose from the fact that, at the Olympics, she would be accompanied by coach Lakhan Manohar Sharma rather than Minara Begum- her childhood coach who turned Pranati from a young rookie to an Olympian.
Minara Begum came across Pranati Nayak when she was a small girl. Pranati belonged to such a family where Gymnastics was a kind of lavishness; but Minara Begum never let her dream die. She took young Pranati under her wings, arranged for her accommodation and even took the responsibility for her education while training her nitty-gritty of Gymnastics.
“I treated her like my own daughter and made sure that I focus on her all-round development as a person.”
Minara Begum always wanted her students to get the maximum opportunities that could shape them into successful athletes. Perhaps it is remembrance of her growing up days when lack of opportunities could not bring the best out of her own athleticism.
Minara Begum- A small-town girl
Hailing from a humble background in Chandannangar, near Kolkata, Minara Begum got hooked on Gymnastics from the tender age of 7-8, when there was a Gymnastics demonstration in her locality. The demonstration really left a deep mark on the mind of young Begum and so when a Gymnastics Club opened near her home, soon after, she ran to her parents and begged them to let her join the club.
Minara’s mother had several reservations about her daughter joining Gymnastics since there was a misconception prevalent at the time, that Gymnastics only meant “broken bones” and a lifetime of injuries. Fortunately, her father backed her decision and convinced her mother to allow the young Minara to join the club and soon enough she was standing in a line at the club with around a century of other hopefuls with huge dreams in their eyes.
However, as the true and tough nature of Gymnastics came to the fore and everyone realized the immense discipline, hard work, and sacrifices that are required to be successful in the sport, most of the kids slowly started leaving the club. It was only Minara and a few other trainees, who were really serious about Gymnastics, who stayed back.
“I would return from school and sit impatiently thinking of when I would be able to reach training. I never thought of what Gymnastics would give me back; whatever I did, was completely out of pure love and passion for the sport.”
At the tender age of 10, Minara Begum participated in the Nationals. This achievement got her featured in “Anandabazar Patrika”, one of the leading Bengali dailies. This completely changed her mother’s outlook. From then on even if she thought of skipping practice, her mother would not allow her to do so. Gymnastics at the time had no fame attached to it and barely had any funding. Minara and other trainees would have to perform their floor exercises on hard ground, or grass, etc.
Minara Begum- Journey from Vivekananda Smriti Samiti to NIS
With the passing of time, Minara Begum graduated from one National to the other, from one club to the other and finally from her home town Chandannagar to Kolkata. She joined Khudiram Anushilan Kendra (KAK) which was quite a distance away from her home, but she did not care about that, as long as she got to train well and learn more about Gymnastics.
Minara Begum went on to participate in several University Championships and Women’s Championships. It was in 1980 that a National Camp was arranged to prepare the athletes for the first Asiad in 1982 that was to be hosted by India. Bubbling with excitement Minara was preparing to leave for the camp, but to her utter shock, she never received any information regarding the travel and/or lodging reservations, made by the Association.
“It was heartbreak for me, as I saw the days passing by, knowing fully well that my hands were tied and there was nothing I could do about it.”
But her indomitable spirit was far from broken and she returned to training. That was where the Sports Council of the West Bengal Government, offered her a Sports Scholarship for a coaching course from National Institute of Sports (NIS). Minara Begum jumped at the opportunity and went to Patiala to complete the course at NIS, and after completing that she also underwent an International Judging Course. On the basis of these, she became an international judge and as luck would have it, became a judge for the same 1982 Asian Games, which she had been robbed of a chance of participating in.
After the Asian Games concluded, Minara Begum got a job offer from NIS to join the organisation’s Chandigarh arena as a Gymnastics coach. So life turned and from a trained gymnast she became a Gymnastics coach, a profession that she mulled over quite for some time.
Minara Begum- Life as a coach
“The ambience and environment at the Chandigarh facility was really good. At the time, the Joint Sporting Director was Nirmal Kaur (wife of the legendary Milkha Singh). She was extremely supportive and helped in equipping the inconsequential Gymnastics department with all the necessary facilities. It helped me in training my students to the highest order.”
Under her mentorship, the gymnasts from the Chandigarh academy started winning medals from the Nationals, the School Nationals, etc. They also started getting call-ups to national camps. It was during her time at Chandigarh that Minara Begum also went on to win the extremely prestigious “State Award”. Finally, the fearless and tireless coach got a transfer to Kolkata and went on a journey again, to teach new students.
The accords and discords
It was after her transfer to Kolkata that Minara Begum first came across a very young Pranati Nayak. Nayak’s first participation in a major event was the International Children’s Asiad in 2008. She had already won an award at the Sub-junior Nationals. Later, in 2010, she participated in the Junior Asiad, after being deemed too young to compete in the Commonwealth Games that year. Later, in 2014, Pranati got selected for the Commonwealth Games along with Dipa Karmakar. Logically the two coaches (1 male and 1 female), who should have been sent with the players as a part of the Indian contingent, were Bisheshwar Nandi (Karmakar’s Coach) and Minara Begum, on account of being Nayak’s coach. However, to Begum’s dismay, she was suddenly ousted from the National Camp for the 2014 Commonwealth Games, and a different female coach was selected to go.
Minara Begum had to wait till the 2014 Asian Games, where it was finally Nandi and her, as the two coaches who travelled with the Gymnastics team. This coaching duo also traveled with the team for the World Championships. But Minara found herself left out again when the 2018 Asian Games came around despite the two of the four gymnasts selected for that event, were her students.
Finally, she got the chance to accompany Nayak again for the Senior Asian at Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia, where she won a bronze medal. As Nayak’s name came up as the lone gymnast from India to participate in the Tokyo Olympics, Minara Begum was overjoyed. But, that joy soon turned to shock when she learned that 27-year old Lakhan Sharma had been selected to accompany Nayak, instead of her.
“It is his lack of experience that is most surprising to me. It takes a huge number of years to gain the knowledge and experience necessary to coach and nurture talents. Lakhan Sharma is 27 and Pranati is 26, so I am not sure how they would tune together as coach and student. And after training Pranati for so many years, I heard that she is not comfortable with me.”
As life moves on…..
Pranati Nayak might not have insisted on her childhood coach travelling with her to Tokyo. Despite all of that Minara Begum is ready to move forward to the next challenge.
“Given a chance, I will prove myself once again. I am never tired of coaching and training new gymnasts. And coming to the point of overlooking and robbing off my chances, I just want to say, I Love My India.”