At the Health League playground in Hyderabad’s Koti, around 50 students, mostly girls, are warming up for their weekly karate lesson. While some are wearing the white karate robes, others are dressed in normal clothes. There is a lot of noise, and amid all the excitement, a young girl can be seen flaunting a gold medal that she recently won at a state-level karate competition.
Soon, a man in his early 40s sporting a horseshoe moustache arrives. He assembles the kids and distributes snacks and tea before starting the class. Damodar Nayak, the karate master, makes sure none of his students are on an empty stomach during classes.
A black belt in karate, Damodar has been taking lessons in martial arts for kids in Hyderabad for the past 10 years. By day, Damodar runs a kirana shop and in his free time doubles as a karate master. Originally a native of Karnataka, Damodar doesn’t charge a single penny for his services. He teaches at three government schools and holds private classes too, all without charging a dime.
Today, Damodar has 200 students undergoing training under him, of which he says 90% are girls. While he initially used to charge a nominal fee from schools for taking classes, he eventually realised schools were hesitant to send kids due to paucity of funds.
“The schools where I teach are one of the most underprivileged in the city. They used to pay some money in the beginning but later I realised they were cooking up excuses so as not to divert funds that were kept for other purposes,” Damodar says, adding, “Our government hardly provides any money for self-defence training in schools. After a point, I stopped charging any fee. Today, the schools are more than enthusiastic to push their kids to learn self-defence,” Damodar says.
Damodar himself learnt karate after he was diagnosed with asthma as a kid. “I wasn’t allowed to play any other sport and someone told my parents that karate was a good option for asthma patients. At the age of 14, after three years of training, I got a black belt in karate,” the master recalls.
Today Damodar trains students between the age group of 6-25. He holds classes at the Health League every alternate day and visits each school twice a week with bags full of snacks from his kirana shop.
“Any child above the age of six is free to join as the classes are held after school hours. Most of the kids here attend school more for the food provided as part of the midday meals than to attend classes. By 4 in the evening, the kids are again famished. So I make sure that I get them packets of biscuits, chocolates or sometimes even milk every day before starting the class,” Damodar says.
Damodar says as he understands his students’ background, he doesn’t insist that they practice their lessons wearing the traditional karate robes.
“Some parents occasionally give me money for the classes, which I use to buy robes for children who cannot afford it. Robes aren’t necessary. You can practice karate in any dress you are comfortable in. But they become mandatory when I take the children for state and national-level competitions,” says the teacher.
Damodar takes his students children regularly for competitions, shelling out money from his own pocket. Recently, his students took part in a state-level karate competition held at Shadnagar and 6 out of the 12 students returned home with a trophy.
“One of my students, Shilpa, who belongs to a very underprivileged family, was not allowed to participate because she didn’t have a robe. I was almost in tears because I didn’t want to send her back just because she didn’t have the right clothes. Finally, another girl of her age agreed to lend her robe for the competition. Despite all the humiliation, Shilpa was the only student who returned home with a gold medal,” Damodar says.
The karate master says that while initially schools and parents were sceptical about girl students learning karate, now they realise that it is a necessary tool for self-defence considering the increasing incidents of violence against women.
“However, one thing I always clarify to parents is that karate, or for that matter any form of martial arts, doesn’t guarantee the ability to fight a bunch of goons. But it gives a woman the confidence to raise her voice and fight against her perpetrators. Martial arts is a way to make our girls realise that it isn’t wrong to fight a man and there is no offence in raising their voice when necessary,” Damodar opines.
Damodar says he doesn’t prescribe any specific diet for his students as many of them find it difficult to manage two square meals a day.
“However, I do ask them to drink at least 4 litres of water a day and get a good night’s sleep. All that you need for karate is concentration and a healthy mind,” he adds.
Although Damodar has approached a few NGOs in the past to sponsor the kids or at least provide them with robes, he says nothing fruitful has ever materialised.
“While I think it’ll be a long time before the government makes self-defence mandatory in schools, there are things that you and I can do. I am looking for sponsors, not to donate money to the academy, but those who can sponsor the kids,” Damodar says, adding, “A single trip to another state for a competition can cost around Rs 10,000 per child. They are children with bright futures and I hope someone would soon come to their aid. No child should face humiliation and have to return home simply for the lack of robes.”