In all the post-Rio talk about India’s (lack of) sports culture, our favourite line was probably Dutee Chand telling the media, “In school, the only physical activity we did was when we assembled for march-past.” The sudden desire for sporting excellence from an overly patriotic nation comes across a little like a variation on Jane Russell in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes singing, “I like big muscles / And red corpuscles. I like a beautiful hunk o’ man. But I’m no physical culture fan. Ain’t there anyone here for love, sweet love.”
But Chand’s remark reminded us of PT class and Sports Day. Standup comic Aditi Mittal says, “I hated PT class. PT class was fuck-all.” And Sports Day was the ur-PT class. That is, where PT class existed. Or was it just us who didn’t have a ground and had to practice running on the street behind the school? Because some other people claim that they had lavani dance as part of ‘mass PT’.
We asked a bunch of ladies about their memories of Sports Day and this is what we got.
Pawan Jain, 59, art historian
I went to Banasthali, an all-girl, school and university in Rajasthan for all of my schooling. Sports wasn’t compulsory but every evening everyone in the hostel would turn out for sports from 4 to 6. And we could play anything from hockey to athletics to badminton. Back in Banasthali, I played badminton and represented Rajasthan at the national level when I was 16. I also played hockey and was an extra at the nationals. And there was the horse-riding. I started riding soon after I joined school. First there were the ponies and by the time I was in class 5, I was riding the big horses. Some of us were trained to do even equestrian stunts. My father used to introduce me to guests back home in Bombay as my daughter, the one who rides two horses at the same time. That was the stunt I used to do for Sports Day, Annual Day and when dignitaries came by, when the university wanted to show all the things their students were capable of doing. Our PT teachers (all male) were pretty laidback, not as focussed as trainers are today. But there was a general atmosphere that you could try anything, you could become good at anything. There was no ‘tum ladkiyan’ type attitude. And I think it really helped me through life. It made me quite unafraid of trying things and I have stayed physically active. I learnt swimming four years ago and I am now quite addicted. I had knee-cap replacement surgery a few months ago and I am back to swimming laps and walking and everything.
Priya Joseph, 35, hair & make-up artist
The two or three PT instructors I had over the course of my schooling at Bishop Cotton’s (standard 2 to 6) were good fun. Sports day was a carnival-like affair and I used to look forward to it.
At another convent school in Bangalore I went to, we had a pervert for a PT instructor, who used to feel us up under the pretext of measuring our height. The well-endowed girls had it worse. This happened every year. The old man is dead now, thank god!
In the 9th standard, the students decided to choreograph a pom-pom routine (cheerleader style) for Sports Day. We had to get a go-ahead from the teachers to be able to perform it on the actual day. Needless to say they were mortified when they saw the routine. We were dancing to ‘Yahi Re Yahi Re’ from the film Rangeela. They thought it was way too tantalising for a bunch of 14-year-olds to be dancing to this song. The teachers pushed the younger, cooler Arts teacher to choreograph a new routine for us, which was done to a track from Grease. More fun, less sex appeal.
We did fairly sporty things during our classes. I remember playing throwball, basketball and tennikoit during PT classes, and also had a go at the high jump and long jump during Sports Day selections.
Anannya Baruah, 30, academic
Mostly male teachers, even in all-girls’ convents. Monotonous drills, lots of body shaming, especially of the “lazy” ones. i.e., the kids who were either too fat or too thin or bad at sports. I remember one PT teacher, who was actually quite a sweet person, tell 9 year old me, “You have legs like sticks. Your legs need to be like tree trunks.” Also a nod to changing notions of ideal body types, I suppose.
Most of those PT teachers used corporal punishments quite often. So no, I didn’t like sports or PT classes, mostly because I hated being bad at anything. It wasn’t until yoga and gym much later when I discovered that fit people could be nice and actually encourage those who weren’t naturally athletic, without body shaming.
Sinduja, 21, post-graduate student
My school seems to have a jinx of rainy Sports Days despite our reputation as a dry city. We had a rather unusual mix of aerobics and Yoga that we performed for the mass drill. While our sports day uniforms were similar to the everyday ones (girls wore salwar kameez and boys wore shorts), girls were encouraged to wear makeup on the field! Our school also believed in separate PT periods for middle school, where we would switch between swimming and games with boys and girls never in the same place at the same time. Though of course, games for us meant badminton/basketball and occasionally even rope skipping/hula hooping!
Rina D’souza, 34, NGO employee
I have mixed memories of PT classes. In retrospect, a majority of the time was wasted in them. That is one of my biggest regrets of my school life. We girls were encouraged to not participate much in what was happening (and I say “encouraged to not” rather than “discouraged from”, as it was done so smoothly and in a way that was so positive and encouraging that we felt special about not participating!)
Of course, occasionally when we were introduced to sports of any kind, it was usually track and field stuff, not sports. Girls don’t play football, cricket or basketball! We were “allowed” badminton, which I did play at school level. I was pretty decent at it and I also was the only girl in the entire school who cycled to school everyday, rather than taking the school bus, but again no one made the connection to maybe some athletic potential.
In middle school, we had a PT teacher who rubbished that difference and I was surprised at myself and what he tapped in me. That I could run, was good at the javelin and the shot put and so on.) But that was brief because he got transferred out.
PT period turned into “gossip class” as we grew older. In the senior classes we were encouraged to go off and do whatever we pleased, while the boys played games. Of course we were thrilled about that. There was no comprehensive approach to PT as physical training. It was a sports period for the boys and a free period for the girls by the time we got to 14 or 15. Of course the irony was that everyone was expected to participate on Sports Day (track and field for the girls, with slow cycling being the only different event…) regardless of what they did for the rest of the year.
As an adult when I started teaching, I played football and ultimate frisbee (both for the first time ever) with the senior students in the school that I taught in and it was liberating! Later on, I taught the Physical Education class for my middle schoolers at another school and I wished my teachers from back then could have seen me!
Sreelakshmi, 21, post-graduate student
My school encouraged sports as an extra-curricular activity for all students and I was the sporting kind myself. We had same events for both girls and boys, but girls’ participation was typically poorer. The higher the grade, the lower the number of girls around. However, none of us ever trained towards sports day, it was always the boys who would practise after classes at least for a month. Obviously there was no girls’ football or cricket teams – but if a girl was interested in playing she could just join the boys’ team. Throw-ball was only for the girls. It was a team event and substituted for football. Boomerang (throwing rubber rings back and forth) was a girls-only thing too. But it was just play, never part of Sports Day. And once a week the games period would be divided between sports and yoga. So one week girls would do yoga and boys would play, mostly football. However the boys overwhelmingly took over the games and the girls had to do yoga most of the time, so the boys would start trying to appease some girls like me, to not protest that they were always going for games.
Aparajitha¸ 23, LAMP Fellow
When I was in class 5 or so, 3 girls were picked to hold the house card for the march past. The criteria was that these 3 girls should be chubby, plump and cute and I was one of them. Unlike others who were in their sports uniform, we had to wear a pattu paavaadai (traditional Tamil silk skirt), jewellery and makeup and have our hair hair properly done. It was very unusual because I don’t remember this being done in the next years’ sports day.
Kannaki Deka, 34, former teacher
There were no PT classes in my school in Assam, where I studied until the 6th standard. But in Mayo, sports was a very important part of our daily routine. Two hours everyday were set aside for it – an hour in the morning and one in the evening. Sports hours were taken very seriously by teachers and the students.
There were dedicated coaches for each sport — basketball, cricket, hockey, tennis, swimming, squash, horse-riding etc. Our inter-house athletic event was the biggest event of the year, with only the best athletes making it to the final events.
It was compulsory for the entire school to participate in cross-country running. There was no way we could bunk sports hours. Even during exams we were not excused.
We had to wake up at 5:30 in the morning for sports and most of our punishments required us to do “rounds” of the playground. I was part of the basketball team in school and ran long distance. Everyone would try very hard to be part of a team, because the girls who played sports were more popular than the ones who were good at academics.
We would play matches with the boys’ school to train for district level and state level meets. Many girls from our school even participated at the national level.
Sports was a very serious affair in Mayo. The only time we were shooed off from our courts was when it rained and our female teachers did not want us to play in wet t-shirts, because our basketball coach was male.
I missed sports when I went to college but continued to run. Even at 34 it is easier for me to work out and run, even after a long break, because of my earlier experience of having trained in some form of sport seriously.
I don’t think I would have had this kind exposure to sports if I hadn’t been to boarding school. My cousin who studies in a school here in Assam does not even have a playground in her school and is made to sit in the classrooms all day. She does zero physical activity. While the boys go out to play in the streets, the girls hardly ever step out of their homes without parental supervision.
Deepika, 28, journalist
At the school I went to in the late ’90s and early 2000s, Sports Day involved some kind of mass drill. The first time, it was with wooden dumbbells. Another time, it was umbrellas. One, two, open, shut. Yet another time it was with saris. One, two, flap, flap. One year it was karate. Ichi, ni, san, shi…The most fun, though, was when they decided in 8th standard that the mass drill would be a “power dance”. We had no idea what that was, but were thrilled to learn that they’d hired an ‘outside’ choreographer, a dancer named Prithvi, to teach us. We were doing a funny mixture of hip-hop and made-up stuff to a medley including Kylie Minogue’s “Can’t Get You Out of My Head” and Eminem’s “Without Me” and had to stuff ourselves into blouses that we had to pay Rs 150 for, pulled over our regular sports uniforms. That was the most fun Sports Day ever.
Apurva, 24, content-writer
From junior to middle school, we had “strict” rules for PE. We had to wear shoes and not paint our nails, that sort of thing. I always wore flip flops and the teacher would always make me step out of line and ask me why I wasn’t wearing shoes and every time I’d tell him that they were in the wash. We had PE three times a week! So I’d be made to sit out and not participate (which was exactly what I wanted). Eventually the teachers figured out my game plan and stopped letting me sit out. I had to run around in flimsy flip flops until one day I just stopped attending PE classes completely. I also used to get hit in the face a lot during football.
Yashasvini, 23, English teacher
I remember my grandmother telling me to not tan and be careful. I remember people suddenly started dropping out of swimming around 6-7-8th standard because they suddenly “couldn’t”. I remember having to give measurements separately for the tailor because my right arm was more muscular when I was playing tennis. I remember feeling like one day there was a switch between just being sporty and being a “girl in sports”. Suddenly you needed to be careful of how many push-ups you do. “Don’t lift too much weight because then you’d become too muscular,” they used to say, “Sports and extra fitness shrinks your breasts and who wants a girl who looks like a washboard?”
Thankfully I went to schools where the dynamic was never girls who skip and boys who run. I ran just as much. But now I teach at a school where girls skip and boys run the sports day. Instead of teaching girls how to do push-ups correctly, they chose instead to scrap the intensity because, you know, why would girls do that?
Hasna, 23, post-graduate student
We had novelty races till the 4th standard. The races were based on random themes: I remember this one time when our class played Cinderella! A guy would be standing on one side with a shoe. Girls from each team had to run to the guys from the team and try the shoe on and come back running (the shoe was not supposed to fit us, but would fit the last girl from each team). Cinderella and the prince would then complete the race together running off to the finish line. I have no clue why we had a race like that!
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