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The torchbearer of India's rifle shooting revolution

Second-left to right: Suma Shirur, Gagan Narang, Sanjay Chakravarthy, Deepali Deshpande and Anjali Bhagwat (file photo). Suma Shirur

Among India's 15-member shooting contingent heading to the Tokyo Olympics, much is expected of the rifle team. With rifle shooters ranked World No. 1 and those with multiple World Cup medals in the squad, they are medal contenders, not just participants. Such is the competition for places that even the inclusion of the reigning World No. 1 Elavenil Valarivan wasn't assured until the last minute.

This wasn't always the case. There was a time when rifle shooting was a 'non sport'. When not just scores but representation itself was low, and one rifle was shared between five shooters. If there was one man who guided Indian rifle shooting through those early dark days and put it on the path to success, it was Sanjay Chakravarthy, who died on Saturday aged 79 after suffering complications from COVID-19.

"He laid the foundation stone for what Indian rifle shooting is today. I'm sure Indian shooting would have come up eventually at some point but we would probably be 10 years behind where we are today if it wasn't for Sanjay sir," says former world record holder and current national coach Suma Shirur. "If today we are considered the pioneers of rifle shooting, then he was our pioneer," she says.

It was almost accidental that Chakravarthy was the one who put Indian shooting on the path to success. "I can only call it destiny," says Anjali Bhagwat. In 2000, Bhagwat became the first Indian to reach the Olympic final in the 10m air rifle event, but her start in the sport was less promising.

In November 1988, Bhagwat and five other girls in the National Cadet Corps (NCC) had been assigned, through a bit of bureaucratic oversight, to represent Maharashtra in the shooting nationals a week away. "The only reason we were picked is because we were in the NCC, so everyone assumed we knew something about shooting, although we actually didn't know anything. We were so raw, we went to the wrong range at first. We had no idea how to even load a rifle at that point," Bhagwat recalls.

"We kept struggling for a bit and no one came around to tell us what to do. That's when Sanjay sir, on his own, came to us and helped us. He showed us how to shoot. I'd say that was the turning point in life," says Bhagwat.

It was either a mark of Chakravarthy's skill or the complete absence of talent in the country at that point, but with just a week of training, Bhagwat won a silver at the national championships and ended up deciding to take the sport seriously.

"Sanjay Chakravarthy laid the foundation stone for what Indian rifle shooting is today. We would probably be 10 years behind where we are today if it wasn't for Sanjay sir." Suma Shirur

Chakravarthy coached Bhagwat and the other girls who had accompanied her to the shooting range - including future Olympian and current national rifle coach Deepali Deshpande. He had competed for the Navy team and, although retired, had continued to shoot, which is when he met Bhagwat and the others at the Mumbai shooting range. Over the next few years, a trickle of shooters - including Shirur in 1992 - also began training under Chakravarthy.

The early days were hard, though, with few resources to go around. "Nowadays, even a beginner gets their own rifle. For the first few years, Five other girls and I shared a common rifle. I didn't get my first personal rifle until eight years after I started shooting," says Bhagwat. There was little support, either. "I lived very far from the range. I had to travel four hours by bus every day when I had to practise. It was very tiring," says Shirur.

Knowledge was scarce as well, but Chakravarthy did as much as he could. "There was no internet so there was no way to know what the best practices were. But Sanjay sir tried to read all the books he could. He wrote to the ISSF and got the handbooks. He tried to gather the information from everywhere he could," says Bhagwat. When Chakravarthy wasn't satisfied with the results, he would experiment. "We were the guinea pigs for sir. In the 50 m three positions event, we weren't able to understand how we should balance for the kneeling position. So sir would have each of us try different things and he figured out what worked best," says Bhagwat.

While Bhagwat looks back fondly now, she doesn't deny that those early days were filled with toil and little reward. "Those days were hard. We were starting almost from zero. We couldn't even dream of winning internationally then," she says. If she and the rest of that early group persisted, it was because of Chakravarthy. "It was as if we were all on this journey together and the thread that bound us all together was Sanjay sir," says Shirur."There wasn't any immediate reward. But we persisted because we believed in Sanjay sir and he believed in us," says Shirur.

Shirur recalls a time when, after completing a minor competition in India, she looked to find Chakravarthy in the spectator gallery. He wasn't in the shooting hall and Shirur eventually found him in the outside the venue puffing a cigarette. "I was full of self-doubt at this point and he simply said, 'Tu international khelegi (you will compete internationally).' That was enough motivation to continue," she says.

This was true for Bhagwat as well. In 1995, frustrated with the lack of support and success, she had planned to give up shooting professionally and only shoot as a hobby. "I went and told Sanjay sir about my decision. But he finally convinced me to change my mind. He told me how he visualised me becoming the best in the world, carrying an Indian flag in the biggest stage of all," says Bhagwat.

Progress did come, though. "The sport grew with us. We were the first set of shooters in India to shoot 360 out of 400. Then we moved up to 370, 385, 387 and finally 400 out of 400," says Shirur, who eventually set the world record herself.

Those Chakravarthy coached admit that despite his limited skills, he prepared them for a bigger stage. "Maybe technically Sanjay sir didn't have the most knowledge. But he made our foundation so strong that it helped the foreign coaches like Laszlo (Szucsak) and Stanislav (Lapidus) when they first came to India. He didn't just impart technical education. He actually moulded us into what an athlete was supposed to be. He inculcated in us a discipline of sporting culture that we lacked," says Bhagwat.

Even as Indian shooting improved, Chakravarthy never attempted to latch on to his trainees' success. "He never even charged a fee for his coaching. He never wanted a position or anything. He didn't even want medals. There are coaches who become very possessive about their athletes but Sanjay sir was happy when we started training under foreign coaches. He and I would have have long conversations about what techniques had they introduced.

"For most, the natural progression would be to go to the Olympics, but his priorities were different. He was someone who was passionate about shooting and saw his mission simply as sharing as much knowledge as he could," says Bhagwat.

Chakravarthy's complete lack of personal ambition meant that it was only in 2017 that he was awarded the Dronacharya Award. "He didn't even apply for a state award. It was only after his 75th birthday that all of his trainees - me, Suma, Deepali and Gagan - decided he had to get the Dronacharya award. We applied on his behalf because he wouldn't even have done that himself," says Bhagwat. There was no shortage of applications made on his behalf. "He was a tree with so many branches. Today his presence is felt by shooters across the country. It was the least we could do. He was the real Dronacharya behind all of us," says Shirur.

Over the last few years of his life, as he suffered from cancer, Chakravarthy grew increasingly weaker but his passion for the sport never waned. "When I met him a while ago, he had become physically frail but his eyes lit up when he discussed shooting. His mind was as sharp as ever when he was talking about technique and training. He told me that once he recovered, there were so many places across the country where he had been asked to hold shooting camps. That was what really motivated him," says Shirur.

While Chakravarthy was motivated by growing the sport, he was also worried about whether what he had built up would persist. "He was worried that everything would stop with him. He was so happy that I was part of the coaching scene. He'd always tell me, 'Aap ko aur shooters banana hai (You have to develop more shooters).' That is the legacy he wanted to leave behind," says Shirur.