GYMNAST DIPA Karmakar has made two things famous—the Produnova, a dangerous vault which only five athletes in the world have succesfuly executed, and the state of Tripura.
In pre-Dipa times, India’s connect with Tripura was limited to legendary music composer Sachin Dev Burman and tennis star Somdev Devvarman. Both hail from the royal family of Tripura. In present times, though, Dipa Karmakar is Tripura’s proletariat princess—in her shiny leotard, executing dainty and deft moves on the vault and on the gymnastic floor—who commands awe and respect. Coming from a simple, middle-class background, and with no proper support other than her parent’s determination, Dipa has single-handedly thrust Tripura on the sporting map of the nation.
The 24-year-old from Agartala made history when she came became the first Indian gymnast to qualify for the finals in the Olympics, finishing fourth in the artistic gymnastics competition at Rio in 2016. While she won hearts with her death-defying moves on the vault then, gold came her way in the vault event at the FIG Artistic Gymnastics World Challenge Cup in Turkey in July 2018.
Dipa is not the first gymnast to emerge from this northeastern state—there have been 24 national level gymnasts from Tripura, including three Arjuna awardees. Mantu Debnath became the first Indian gymnast to win an international competition in Russia in 1969. Bishweswar Nandi, Dipa’s coach is a five-time national gymnastics champion. Both hail from Tripura. But none of Dipa’s peers have reached the heights she has.
“Life has changed a lot,” says Dipa. “Earlier when I would go to the gym with papa no one would notice, now they say, ‘look, there’s Dipa.’ I cannot walk around so easily when I am at home.” Sports was a way of life at home; her father Dulal Karmakar is a Sports Authority of India coach who asked Nandi to take his six-year-old daughter under his wings and make her a gymnast.
On her return from Rio, cricket legend Sachin Tendulkar handed her the keys of a BMW, sponsored by V. Chamundeshwarnath, president of the Hyderabad District Badminton Association. She later returned the car and accepted money instead, because BMW did not have a service centre in Tripura and the roads were narrow and bumpy for the luxury car. The road leading to Karmakar’s home in Agartala was repaired and widened after this news caused much embarrassment to the then Left Front government in the state.
Hailing from a region where football is the real sporting religion, Dipa’s biggest challenge was lack of modern, state-of-the-art training facilities. A local gymnasium hall doubled as a gymnastics hall, but the lack of basic facilities such as a foam pit for safe landing affected her training. “It was very difficult. I come from a very tiny state, and no infrastructure was available. Even at the senior level, forget junior, there are not many facilities,” she says. Then, the sheer enormity of her achievement hits you harder.