October 10, 2008

Discovering India, a country I had never visited before.


Together with Emanuele Bozzolani in the land of Mahatma Gandhi for a series of training sessions that were extraordinarily successful.

By Ennio Falsoni

I had wanted to visit India for years, but I could never find the time with my numerous engagements during WAKO’s intense international calendar. But after seeing the poor performances of the Indian squad at the most recent WAKO World Championships in Belgrade and Coimbra in 2007, I told myself it was necessary to do something for this country which is so far behind the other continents in terms of technical skills. Watching their performances, it was very obvious to any observer with a trained eye that the Indian combatants, though courageous and determined in their matches, lacked even the most basic techniques of our disciplines. Without these skills you can’t go far in any sport, much less kickboxing, and seeing athletes taking a real beating has always saddened me. Thus, it was time to intervene and try to change the direction of an organization, the IAKO, on the Indian sub-continent with its over one billion inhabitants, a potentially huge market for our disciplines.

Therefore, WAKO, in agreement with the president of the Indian Association of Kickboxing Organizations, Mr. S.S. Harichandan, decided to organize a huge technical and refereeing training session, bringing to India in early August, myself, for courses in refereeing and federation management, plus two famous fighters: Nasser Nassiri, an Iranian who now lives in Paris, ex-world champion in light contact and runner-up to the world champion in full contact, and Emanuele Bozzolani from Livorno, Italy, a three-time world champion in semi contact. The two champions would cover the three principal disciplines under the wing of the Indian organization. The training session would be held in Calcutta, a city largely founded by the English in the 18 th Century and India’s second largest city with 13 million inhabitants (after Mumbay, ex-Bombay, with 18 million) which was the capital of India for almost 200 years under the English domination until the capital was moved to New Delhi.

Since I had never before been to India, I left one week before the training event in order to learn as much as I could about this rapidly emerging country, so often compared to China (although in my opinion it is still far behind China). Therefore, I visited New Delhi and then Agra, Jaipur and Udaipur, the three largest cities of what was the land of the most important Maharajas, legendary Rajasthan. The impact with India’s monsoon weather in August is as strong as a punch to the abdomen. The humidity is horrendous and when the sun is shining it feels like it is burning holes in your skin. Delhi is a big, beautiful city with plenty of spacious parks, inevitably compared to London’s. After arriving at night, while driving to our hotel, we noticed the main road connecting the airport to Delhi was often disrupted due to construction of the underground to be completed by 2010. That is the year in which India will host the Commonwealth Games, a very important event that keeps Great Britain linked in sports to its numerous ex-colonies. We could also see that many people sleep on the sidewalks, fully dressed, resting their heads directly on the pavement, not on some straw or a rag, but right on the asphalt. With the light of day, you discover that Delhi is literally divided in two. On one side is the old city with its overcrowded Muslim neighbourhoods made up of shops the size of a small closet, dilapidated houses, filth everywhere, undernourished cows pushed aside by traffic and modern day rickshaws — motorized three-wheelers that normally carry two people, but sometimes you see them with 4 or 5. On the other side is Modern Delhi, made up of glass and concrete buildings like you see all over the world, wide and clean streets, in other words advancing modernization, the symbol of India with its annual 10% GDP growth. The two souls of India, the old and the new, live together admirably, even if the Western world feels a bit uneasy when faced with so much degradation and squalor. However, when talking with the various guides I had and with Indian friends, Indian philosophy comes out, and it is a philosophy that has had considerable influence on famous Western scholars and writers. Basically, everything is written &rdash we might say &rdash meaning that if you are what you are, it is because of you previous “ Karma ” , your past actions. Like it or not, it’s based on your behaviour, your choices. The misfortunes in our present life are the result of actions we committed in the past. If, in this life, you are Brahmino (religious) or Ksatriya (warrior) or a member of one of the 4 basic castes, or even a pariah (casteless) completely depends on your previous lives. Their ancient religion leads Indians to accept the reality that unravels before our eyes, though sometimes we are a bit incredulous. India is the land of Yoga, of Buddhism and of reincarnation. It is the land of religious tolerance, of refusal to use force, as taught by Mahatma Gandhi. India is a highly spiritual country as evidenced by the 330,000 gods that make up the Hindu cosmos, a religion that is as interesting as it is complicated. After visiting the major monuments of Delhi, including the main mosque and the Red Fort (headquarters of the Moghul &rdash Mongols &rdash who invaded India and introduced Islam towards the end of the 1500s, subjugating part of the country for 200 years before the arrival of the English), the parliament building and the Delhi Gate (arch), we moved on to Agra and then to Jaipur, two of the most important cities in Rajasthan. Travelling by car one is able to see the country, its people and the villages, and imagine how they live. We were surprised by the lack of an efficient network of roads. Typically, the roads are very narrow, with one lane in each direction, yet full of traffic and highly dangerous. It takes 5 or 6 hours to cover 200 kilometres. You are continually forced to slow down amidst crazy traffic jams, to which you must always add the danger of an animal in the middle of the road. The villages we passed are rural and very poor. Along the roadside are countless malnourished men who are dirty and dressed in rags. The villages are full of fruit stands, and even modern things, all sold under truly worrisome hygienic conditions. However, one thing catches your eye &rdash the multitude of colours worn by Indian women. The women, always wrapped in colourful sarhis, are very impressive for their poise and elegance. Only once did I see an Indian woman in jeans. After hours and hours of this spectacle of humanity in difficulty, everything becomes natural and is part of a unique reality. In counterbalance to this misery, we see the large roadside billboards which are generally dominated by the Tata brand name. The Tata family, like the Agnellis in Italy, dominates the automobile, insurance and hotel sectors and has such widely dispersed interests that one might wonder if they own almost everything. But they tell me they don’t &rdash that there are other families that are even richer and more famous like the Mittals (London-based world leading steel producer) and Mukesh Ambami (the world’s 5 th richest man) whose Reliance Industries has enormous interests in petroleum and mobile phones. Just a few families control a colossal economic empire. The situation is typical of many Third World countries where very few own almost everything, and the rest scrape to get by. The situation is similar in Russia, China, Mexico and Brazil. Agra, the former capital of the Moghul realm, and Jaipur don’t vary from this picture. The surprising thing about India is that you travel for hours amid squalor and filth and then turn a corner, pass through a gate and it seems like you’ve entered a fairy tale, a new world consisting of fantastic buildings like the Red Fort in Agra, the Taj Mahal (a mausoleum built over 20 years during the 1600s), also in Agra, or the Rambagh Palace in Jaipur. They are authentic wonders with perfectly manicured gardens, very polite and dignified men who receive you dressed like Bengal lancers, and elegant young women wrapped in their incredibly colourful clothes. However, it was in Udaipur, which we reached by air, where we came into contact with the true Hindu soul. Up to that time we were beginning to think that there weren’t many typically Indian things to see. After all, everything we had admired until then had been Muslim art. In fact, while the Maharaja of Jaipur had acquired foreign Moghul relatives through marriage, typical also in European history, the Udaipur Maharaja had always proudly fought the Moghul invaders and he never even recognized English sovereignty. In the area around Udaipur there are magnificent Hindu temples that date back to the 8 th Century. During that same century, Italy was engulfed in the Dark Ages, overrun by barbarians from central Europe. The Hindu temples give you a precise idea of the level of civilization they had reached and it was a pleasant surprise after we had doubted their ability. After this cultural excursion, we left Rajasthan and returned to our primary reason for coming to India &rdash the international training session.

We flew from Udaipur back to Delhi on then on to Calcutta where we were met at the airport by Harichandan with about 20 associates who literally buried me in rose petals and wreaths of colourful flowers. However, just before leaving for Calcutta, word reached me that Nasser Nassiri, with his Iranian passport, had not succeeded in obtaining his visa in time and therefore could not participate. What a shame, I thought. Now Emanuele Bozzolani will have to do his best to cover for Nassiri as the full contact expert. Bozzolani was beaming when he saw me at the airport. He had arrived from Italy one hour earlier and the idea of this Indian experience excited him. For years he had been following the teachings of a Yoga Guru, so he badly wanted to come to India for a spiritual pilgrimage. Needless to say, he was bursting with joy. The appointment for everybody was the following day when I would lecture about one hundred participants coming from Nepal, Bangladesh, Butan and India on refereeing rules. Some of them came from such remote corners of India that they had taken 5 days to get to Calcutta. I had brought some DVDs and kept the trainees occupied for three hours. The following day they would be involved in the 22 nd Indian Kickboxing Championships, which were being held in a nearby sports complex. After the ritual of posing for group photos, they took us to dinner where we sampled the local cuisine. Actually, I was already accustomed to it, thanks to my previous 8 days in India, but Emanuele’s mouth was aflame. I smiled within myself, unaware of what the consequences would be. Emanuele was now slated as the main instructor for the next day’s technical training, starting at 7 a.m. due to the hot and humid climate. When I fetched him at his hotel I saw before me a bewildered, devastated man in tatters and in pain. “ I spent the night in the toilet and I’ve got a fever, ” the poor guy uttered. The previous night’s dinner was clearly the culprit and his body had literally rejected it. What could we do at this point? No problem I told him. “ Go rest and I’ll manage this thing myself ” . Well, dear friends, I had to retrace my steps and return to teaching, which I had wilfully abandoned 20 years before. We were supposed to hold our course in the same venue with the Indian Championships, but unfortunately a Badminton event had snatched away the structure from under our nose. We were therefore forced to take shelter under the nearby soccer stadium grandstands. A real disaster. I walked up to meet the motley bunch of Indian kickboxers. Not only were they badly dressed but also deprived of the basic safety equipment, including boxing gloves, which you cannot do without in any advanced training. I tried to do my best to pass on the fundamentals of our disciplines of which they were sorely lacking. Thirty years of teaching in my various gyms cannot be forgotten and although I had not donned kickboxing attire with gloves for 20 years, I believe I came across as legit. At least that’s what everybody said. I must admit I still like teaching and its core idea that you are passing on the know-how and spirit needed for our sport to progress. The next day Bozzolani felt much better and along with him we completed our updating course that, as the Indians declared, will become part of their history. We only hope that what we taught will be received by as many as possible and that it becomes a turning point for kickboxing in this vast land with enormous potential. If you don’t lay sturdy foundations you will only get flimsy houses and this law surely applies to any sport. Only through good teachers, capable of transmitting their knowledge, will we ensure good athletes for our future. That’s our firm hope. Obviously this first and historic international kickboxing course cannot be an isolated event. There’s still a lot of work to do in India and we will return there to finish it. The hundreds and hundreds of people who approached, photographed and almost idolized us are asking for it. Incredible but true, they have elected us as their “ gurus ” (those who transmit their knowledge to others). This time we proved to be the Gurus.

Go to the Album to see the principal photos of this course in Calcutta.

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