Kolkata: For Indian gymnast Dipa Karmakar, it was a DIY spring board made from parts of a discarded scooter that she had used for practice at a remote village in Tripura. Not far away from Karmakar’s land, Ali and Lovely use a tyre — purchased from a rag picker at Rs 300 by their teacher Shekhar Rao — to hone their gymnastics moves inside a small club in Kolkata’s Garden Reach area.
Ali, 11, and Lovely, 12, took the internet by storm last week when a video of the duo performing cartwheels and back flips in their school uniforms was shared on Twitter. Olympic gold medalist Nadia Elena Comaneci had retweeted the video, calling it “awesome”.
The clip was shot by Rao who runs a small dance school for underprivileged kids at the club inside a railway colony in Garden Reach.
Social media to rescue
For Ali aka Mohammad Izazuddin and Lovely aka Jashikha Khan, performing those moves during their 2km walk to school was a regular affair.
Rao shot some of their moves and had first posted a clip on Facebook on 21 August, hoping “some philanthropist” would take notice of it.
He, however, had no idea that Ali and Lovely’s video would trigger such an internet frenzy. A friend of his broke the news about the video going viral and being tweeted by celebrities as well as politicians. Union Sports Minister Kiren Rijiju had shared it with a promise to get them to a gymnastics academy. MP Maneka Gandhi too took to Twitter to share the clip.
Rao, initially, had no idea how Twitter worked and set-up a handle with the help of a friend.
“I heard that many people wanted to get in touch with the kids after the clip went viral. There was speculation on social media. Some thought that the children were from the Northeast while a few others believed they belonged to northern India. I wanted to reach out to media houses and kept calling a few local channels. But no one responded,” he told The Print.
“I had requested local MLA Anwar Khan to take the kids to some media houses too but he refused,” added Rao.
He then posted another video on Facebook and this time tagged a few local channels to his post. This worked.
“The local media finally contacted me, followed by some national channels. My phone has been ringing ever since,” he said.
A choreographer in Tollywood, Rao trains around 80 underprivileged kids in batches of eight and 10. Their classes start at 5 am inside the club that is usually preserved for Durga Puja celebrations.
Rags to viral story
For Ali, Lovely and the other kids under Rao, the recent media glare has been overwhelming.
Akash Rajbanshi, another gymnast kid, told Ali “Tum to hero ban gaye. Hum logon ko bhul mat jana (Don’t forget us, now that you all are famous)”.
Ali and Lovely hugged him back, saying “Hum log yahan se jayenge kahan? Tumhare saath hain, kahin bhi jaayen tum logo ke paas hi lautenge (Where will we go leaving you behind? It does not matter where we go, we will return her and stay together)”.
Hearing their conversation, Rao laughed and said, “There is no enmity, animosity or jealousy among the children. Only innocence, love and healthy competition. This is what make me work on them.”
While Ali’s parents work as labourers at a local tea manufacturing unit, Lovely’s father is a driver and mother a tailor. She is one among three daughters in her family.
Her father, Taj Khan, said, “I have not raised my daughters to do domestic work and get married. All three of them learn dancing at Rao’s class. In the last four years, Rao has never asked us for money.”
Khan, however, admitted that there was pressure from his community to “keep the kids indoors” and “make them wear proper Indian clothes”.
He hails from Jharkhand’s Koderma area and had come to Kidderpore in Kolkata looking for work. The family lives in a small one-room quarter in a slum colony.
Lovely’s mother Reshma also had to face flak from relatives and neighbours for letting her daughters “jump” around.
“My neighbours had raised concerns about raising three daughters and how we needed to marry them off soon,” she said.
“We buy a packet of milk for Rs 5, mix it with water and serve our daughters once or twice a week. They never ask for good food. Lovely wakes up at 4 am, washes utensils and does other household chores before going for dance classes at 5 am. She does it to make sure I don’t stop her,” Reshma added.
Both Ali and Lovely now want to be gymnasts. Even though they haven’t heard of the names of the state and central ministers calling them now, they do swear by the names of Karmakar and Hima Das.