Panda sisters 2.0: How Rutaparna and Swetaparna are fulfilling their father's 'Dangal' dreams
A team of sisters will be playing for India in badminton women's doubles at the Polish Open and Orleans Masters. For the players' father, this is a long-awaited gift after a lot of family drama and personal sacrifice.
For any parent, it is undeniably a matter of pride when their child is successful in the academic sector. But Ramachandra Panda of Cuttack town in Odisha was far from happy when his elder daughter Rutaparna secured a seat in a reputed private school in Bhubaneswar.
Getting into the school, known to have produced state topper year after year, is still an unspoken dream for many parents in the city. Naturally, admission there was an indication of a bright academic career.
But her father opposed vehemently, even at the cost of not speaking to his wife Dharitri for over a month. His wife Dharitri finally gave in and Rutaparna, then 8 or 9 years old, was admitted to a local government Odia-medium school.
"Had Rutaparna got admission in that private school, all the money would have been spent on her academics. She would have only concentrated on her studies and couldn't have participated in any other activities. So, I wanted her to take admission to a local school, where she could study as well as concentrate on sports. Academics is important, but I wanted Rutaparna to become a sports person," Ramachandra speaks to The Bridge, standing in the large badminton indoor hall in Cuttack, which he had constructed for his two daughters – Rutaparna and Swetaparna.
Doubling up for family and country
His 'gamble' if it can be called so, has finally paid off. While Rutaparna is already a celebrated sportsperson in the badminton arena having represented India at the Asian Games 2018, his younger daughter Swetaparna is also being hailed as a promising prospect.
Now the sister duo is all set to play doubles together in the upcoming Polish and Orleans Masters scheduled later this month. Though there is some uncertainty among the players regarding participating in the Polish Open due to the ongoing Russia-Ukraine military conflict, the duo have already applied for visas and will play in the tournament unless the situation deteriorates further.
"It is a matter of great pride for our family. Both of us first made it into sports and now we will be representing India at an international level. There isn't a greater joy than this moment," says Rutaparna, now 22 years old. The sisters have played as a pair earlier too, but only at the zonal level in 2016, in which they won in the women's doubles U-19 category.
The European tour will be a different ball game though.
For the upcoming tournaments, both the sisters are sweating it out at the indoor hall constructed five years ago by their father near their house in Cuttack. They were supposed to join the Prakash Padukone Badminton Academy (PPBA) this month but had to postpone it as their visa formalities are still going on. Initially trained at the Gopichand Academy, they are now expected to join sessions in Bengaluru after these tournaments.
For the sisters, who started playing after watching their father, the leap from playing as a recreational activity to representing India, is more than a dream come true. Rutaparna, who first picked up the racquet when she was around 10 years old, had seen her father participate in local badminton tournaments and was inspired by him. Swetaparna, six years younger than her, had both her father and sister to look up to when she started playing.
"My father and sister are my inspiration and they helped me pick up the sport. I have learnt the nuances of badminton from them only. We have always been supportive of each other and that will hopefully reflect when we play together. In the zonal tournament too, when we played together, my sister was very sick, but I kept encouraging her on-court and we ultimately won the tournament," says Swetaparna, who will also be appearing for her 12th board examinations this year.
Dangal - but for badminton
The Panda sisters' story isn't every bit similar to that of the Aamir Khan-starrer biographical sports drama Dangal, based on a father's (Mahavir Phogat) quest to train his daughters Geeta and Babita to become India's best wrestlers; but there are uncanny resemblances.
Ramachandra, just like Mahavir Phogat, was passionate about encouraging his daughters – Rutaparna and Swetaparna – into sports, more precisely into the badminton circuit. Fortunately, unlike Phogat, he didn't have to face any gender bias in his journey. But the hardships both fathers endured are similar.
During the initial days of training, he would take Rutaparna on his two-wheeler to Bhubaneswar, approximately 25 kilometres away from his home, each morning for training. It often meant starting before the sun was up, and reaching the training facility before 6 am. Financially too, he wasn't very well-off, as his earnings came from the spare auto-parts shop he owned. But that didn't discourage him from going out of the way for his daughters – even if it meant taking a loan of several lakhs to construct an indoor hall of their own.
His daughters are now paying it off with their results and achievements. In January this year, Swetaparna became the first player from Odisha to reach the quarterfinals of the BWF World Tour Super 300 in the Syed Modi India International 2022. Rutaparna, on the other hand, was part of the Indian contingent which reached the quarterfinals in the Uber Cup World Championships held last year. She and her (now former) doubles partner Tanisha Crasto had defeated higher-ranked players Ashwini Ponnappa and Siki Reddy in the selection trials.
While the sisters' duo are calculating their career graph based on both short-term and long-term goals, their father's attention is not result-centric. With the Olympics being an ultimate dream for every athlete, their family and the country, Ramachandra Panda has a different outlook. "I just don't want them to play at the Olympics, but I want them to become players worthy of representing India at the Olympics."