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Empowering Dreams, Transforming Lives and Serving Hope : Ritwik Bhattacharya’s vision to develop Squash in India’s heartlands

One of India’s most successful squash players having been #1 for nearly 5 years, Ritwik Bhattacharya has transformed the Kalote- Mokashi village in Maharashtra through his START foundation, training numerous prospects from the tribal village

Empowering Dreams, Transforming Lives and Serving Hope : Ritwik Bhattacharya’s vision to develop Squash in India’s heartlands

Ritwik Bhattacharya (left) at the START Academy 


Syed Tawsif Ahmed

Updated: 18 March 2024 11:10 AM GMT

In the heart of India, where rural landscapes and tribal communities thrive, one man's journey has transformed lives and rewritten destinies. Ritwik Bhattacharya, with over 70 caps for India, is one of the most prolific names in Indian squash- having been a National Squash Champion five times. However, his contribution to the sport, even after 13 years of his retirement, continues to democratize the game, paving the way for India’s first World Champion.

Kalote-Mokashi, a tribal village by the lake Kalote, around 70 kms from Mumbai, holds a population of nearly 2000. It is here where Ritwik established the Squash Temple and Real Training (START) academy in 2017 and thus the relationship between the two began.

The Squash Temple and Real Training (START) Academy started in 2017

After retirement, his immediate thought was to work with the Indian Federation but seeing that was well looked after, there was an opportunity to work with the PSA World Tours in the Asian region. In an exclusive interview with the Bridge, Ritwik says, ”There was a sort of feeling that I was letting down a lot of players around the country.”

While there were a lot of clubs that trained squash, most of them were exclusive. He wanted to create a space where anybody could come throughout the day and train. That is when he visited the village of Kalote-Mokashi for the first time and the idea to create this space came to life. Cut to ten years later, the START academy now has two squash courts with over 50 children from the local tribe representing at the National level.

His philosophy of training remains simple. “In the beginning, we need to make it more fun. Sport comes first, to enjoy playing is the crux and that is what I try to pass on,” he says. While setting up his academy, Ritwik observed that the children in India are lacking a certain kind of in-built rhythm. In order to tackle this, he has introduced a new sport of synchronized boxing. “We’ve been bringing in all the kids who have been training at the academy and seen the improvement in their rhythm and confidence,”

Over 50 children from the local tribe have now represented at the National level

The surrounding terrains serve a challenging hike to the players while the lake offers space for their recovery. With Stephan Galifi, a former player who has reached the Top 40 in the world for Italy, joining the academy back in 2018, the fitness benchmark has continued to grow. It is hard work and fun at the same time.

Speaking about the grassroots development of squash in India, Ritwik highlights the difference between “grassroots development of squash” and “grassroots development per se”. “If we are talking about underprivileged kids, here they are playing squash to change their future,” he says. Ritwik is essentially taking the institution to their doorstep, building small community centers, and enhancing facilities in a normalized manner for better holistic growth.

For these kids, a lot of other avenues also open up training at this high level-coaching, refereeing, admin jobs, fitness, and nutrition. It is the idea to uplift the entire community and use the method of alternate education to upscale their lives, that is being implemented.

The surrounding terrains serve a challenging hike to the players while the lake offers space for their recovery

Traditionally in the Indian squash ecosystem, Ritwik emphasizes on the support from corporations such as HCL. “HCL, by far, has been a believer of squash even before it became an Olympic sport. They have invested 7-8 years in the development of the best Indian players. The Squash Podium Program has been a revelation too, he says, urging more companies to come forward and support the cause.”

As Squash hopes to wake up in a new dawn after its inclusion at the LA Olympics in 2028, the dreams from India have also started to bloom. It has been quite a journey for squash itself with the whole community coming together and joining hands. With the sport developing, the television friendliness and streams on OTT, Ritwik thinks, “Squash is the sport of the future.” More countries will now invest in the sport. Most importantly through the Olympic movement, it will help these countries build an infrastructure for the sport. These will inspire more kids to take up squash in the generations to come.

The journey to Olympic greatness commences now, and its inaugural steps are taken right here at Kalote-Mokashi. At START, it isn’t about the destination but the journey of all these children. The proximity to nature means that they have access to molding players as people, not only as players. Here, they engage with locals, train with them, and learn about their way of life. Players have taken part in various activities, such as helping out at Kalote Animal Trust and engaging in a cleaning drive around the hills.

Ritwik recognizes the two-way road and the culture that he fosters. "I am also getting the exposure to be able to do this. A lot of us have forgotten our instincts by living in the cities and the concrete jungles. Here I am seeing this village live in complete harmony with the forest for over 1000 years."

Sports has the ability to unite people from all walks of life. We’re seeing that at the START foundation where children are coming in from the armed forces, from various parts of the country including Chennai, Aurangabad, Delhi, the North-East, and even outside, from Sri Lanka. “We’re guiding kids from every background, what really matters is their willingness to learn and fortunately everyone here is,”

However, this is just one tribal village. In the same valley, there are about 10-15 more tribal villages which are even more nomadic. Ritwik plans to broaden the base of his academy with “Sports on wheels”- where he plans to take trucks with mini squash courts, punching bags, food and start reaching out to these villages.

In the annals of Indian sports history, Ritwik's journey stands as a testament to the transformative power of passion, perseverance, and purpose. Through his foundation, he not only introduced squash to new audiences but also catalyzed social change and empowered marginalized communities. When India celebrates its first World Squash Champion in the future, we will be there to remind you that true greatness lies not in personal achievements but in the impact we have on the lives of others.

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