T. SARITA DEVI, 33, lives in Khongjom, a village near Imphal. The mother of two sons—who are 14 and eight—is petite, demure and quiet. Till she takes off her sports jacket and her muscles do the talking. They bulge and ripple, tighten and glisten, in the afternoon light as Sarita smiles her shy smile. That smile could have won her a subsidiary prize at a Miss India contest, but Sarita instead chose to flex muscles at the Mr India championships. She won the gold twice—at Mr India (women’s category) contests in 2016 and 2017, and silvers and bronzes at various Asian bodybuilding contests.
Even in a state that produces sports champions in every village, Sarita’s is an amazing feat. Not only because she began her career after having children, but also because she chose a field where few women go. “Girls in Manipur do boxing and weighlifting, not bodybuilding,” she says. But this is what she wanted, so that is what her husband, a martial arts expert himself, helped her become.
Having a desire is one thing, finding the means to achieve it is another. Sarita is from a modest home. Like most Manipuris with sporting dreams, she began in improvised home gyms, using household implements for weights, and surviving on home food, because supplements were unaffordable. “The good thing about Manipur is that much of our food is organic and healthy. Our agriculture has not progressed to the stage where farmers can afford fertilisers and pesticides,” says N. Kishan Singh, joint secretary of the All Manipur Gymnasium Welfare Association.
“We manage, somehow. There is always support,” says Sarita. Singh adds, “The Manipur public is good. When they see someone aspiring for a goal, they help with what they can—cash, eggs, a hen, or just blessings.” He himself offers his gym free to those heading for big contests.
Sarita is not the only bodybuilder in Manipur. There is Rebta Devi, who has won silver and bronze in the world championships, and W. Jamuna Devi, 28, who was a kickboxer (gold, Asia Championship, 2011), later moved to bodybuilding. These are just some of the women who are ensuring that Manipur gets its identity as the land of sportstars, both in India and abroad.