The little hamlet of Kalleda in Warangal, Andhra Pradesh, is humming with excitement. Just by counting the number of times you hear the word 'Beijing', you can tell that much of the buzz is centred on Kalleda's new-found passion—archery—and more importantly, its Olympic debutante, the eagle-eyed, 18-year-old Vardhineni Pranitha.
Since June this year, Kalleda's 3,000-odd residents have been puffed up with pride, following the surprise inclusion of Pranitha, a rookie in the Indian women's archery recurve team, alongside the experienced Dola Banerjee and Bombayla Devi. The gruelling, four-day Olympic trial held in Calcutta saw the teenager hold her nerve against seven other pros, ultimately pipping them to the post to seal a spot in the three-woman team.
Seated under a coconut palm in the frontyard of her three-room house, it is staggering to learn how much life has changed since she stumbled upon archery as a pigtailed 13-year-old in 2003. Pranitha confesses that back then she was more content to play girly make-believe games, help her mother, Vijaya, with mundane household chores like mucking out the cowshed, or wander about in the familiar emerald and jade patchwork of paddy fields where her father, Keshava Rao, toiled.
In fact, no one in this nondescript village, embedded deep in the core of Warangal district, had even heard of archery until the Rural Development Foundation (RDF)—a not-for-profit organisation that runs the RDF Kalleda Rural School where Pranitha was enrolled—embarked on an ambitious experimental programme in 2003 to introduce archery as a compulsory course for the village kids.
A practice session under way at Kalleda
Why archery? "There are some sports where certain countries or races hold a natural, genetic edge over others," explains former RDF secretary Ram Mohan Rao. "Take distance running for instance, where a particular tribe from the Ethiopian highlands has dominated the world stage. We wanted to choose a discipline where there are no such entry barriers. Also, archery has a lot of multicultural heroes surrounding it—Robin Hood, William Tell, and closer home, Arjuna. So with proper motivation and rigorous practice, it's easier to get the kids excited about it," he says.
The experiment was a shot in the dark and began humbly, with a target pitched on a grassy patch of land inside the school grounds. With an average annual budget of Rs 5 lakh set aside for the project, several sets of gleaming carbon-fibre bows and aluminium arrows were imported. Every morning at 6 am, the kids would stream in—on bicycle, by foot, and even by bus from neighbouring villages in the Parvathagiri mandal—to begin pecking away at their target.
With initial backing from Anil Kamineni, secretary general, Archery Association of India (AAI), the school also managed to hire a dedicated coach in Prabir Das, a three-time former national champion from Calcutta who is also credited with having mentored Dola Banerjee in her formative years. "Imagine, two of my kids at the Olympics!" he exclaims in a proud papa sort of way.
Pranitha belonged to the first batch of subjects that was tested at this rudimentary sports lab. "Initially, it was quite dull to have to keep plucking away at a bowstring to try and hit a target that looked no bigger than a thumbtack over and over again. It was inconvenient to get up at 5 am every morning to get to the practice sessions on time. And difficult to communicate in sign language with a coach who spoke only Hindi and Bengali," she admits.
"We didn't understand the sport either, and occasionally Pranitha would protest against going," Vijaya says. "But the headmaster insisted that the school's future depended on the success of this programme, so who were we to complain?"
Gradually, months of practice and hefting dumbells paid off, and she began to develop the most fundamental attributes required in potential medal-winners—strong, ropy muscles, broad shoulders, steely nerves and steady vision. "She's got a golden arm," says Das of his prize pupil. "Where she gets her excellent physique from, I don't know, it doesn't seem to be from them," he says, pointing to her wiry father and shy mother.
So quickly did her form peak that in 2004, when she stood second in her maiden national sub-junior championship in New Delhi with barely any competitive experience, almost everyone put it down to a fluke. "Pranitha has an iron will to succeed, and a strong self-improvement streak," says Fauzia, her closest confidante in school, now a call-centre employee with GE Money in Hyderabad. "That's what set her apart from the rest of us."
In 2006, just three years after she had first picked up a bow and arrow and by now the best in the national sub-junior and junior categories, the ninth-grader was handpicked by talent scouts from the Tata Archery Academy (TAA) for a four-year intensive training stint in Jamshedpur. With barely any time spent at the academy, she went on to rewrite the record books by becoming the first Indian girl to bag a silver medal at the World Cup Archery Championships in Mexico. "Enrolling at TAA was my big turning point," says Pranitha. "They've given me better equipment and there's uninterrupted training time. I'm also living with other athletes, so we're constantly exchanging tips."
At the Beijing Olympics, Pranitha and her teammates represent one of India's brightest medal-winning hopes. (The whisper in sporting circles is that with just 10 teams having qualified, the probability of winning a team medal stands at an extremely favourable one in three.)
But the most heartening outcome of her Olympic call-up is that it has been a powerful catalyst for Kalleda's adolescents, sparking a surge of renewed interest in the archery programme. Says Mallesh, the former village sarpanch, "So familiar is the sound of a bow twang, and the sight of kids lined up before their target in their crisply starched navy and white uniforms, that if they're not there, it's as if something is missing."
If you ask yourself what a rural school in India needs, the answer certainly isn't archery. But what RDF's programme did was that it opened a door that didn't exist. If more such opportunities can be created (gymnastics is next on the anvil), it could unearth similar treasure buried in the depths of rural India.