Shantanu Inamdar is composed as he dodges his chaser.
At the Pune Mayor All India Kho-kho Tournament at the SP College ground, Inamdar’s team, the Nav Maharashtra Sangh (NMS), is playing a vital match.
His light, spirited feet move in all directions to confuse his opponent. He effortlessly pulls time for his team, a skill that makes him the most valuable player on the side.
Off the field, however, he seems slightly uncomfortable—shy and polite. All of which make his lean frame (Shantanu is 5ft 5 inches) look smaller than it actually is. He opens up slowly: first a slight smile, then a grin and finally, happy banter.
Local flavour: Kho-kho, while a popular audience sport in India, is not played much outside the subcontinent. Sandash Bhandare
Shantanu is the son of well-known kho-kho player Shrirang Inamdar, who received the Arjuna and Shivchhatrapati awards in 1975 for his contribution to the sport. Shrirang retired four years before his son’s birth in 1984. Shantanu has never seen his father play. He hasn’t seen a photograph that shows him in action. Yet, he grew up hearing about his father’s prowess.
After Shrirang stopped playing, he directed his efforts towards promoting the game. Apart from setting up organizations and clubs, he started coaching children. When Shantanu was old enough to play, Shrirang would take him to the ground. “While coaching us, my father never paid special attention to me. He trained each one of us according to our unique skills. He felt I was good at defending and so he taught me to do that the best,” says Shantanu.
Little Shantanu followed his father’s advice dutifully but was intimidated by the thought of having to live up to his reputation. “There’s always that pressure. Nobody says it aloud, but I feel it all the time. Not while playing, of course. At that time, I focus on the game.”
Shantanu bagged five gold medals on the six occasions he represented Maharashtra at the national level. He is one of the country’s leading players but says he isn’t sure whether he is as good as his father was. Most times, he concludes that he can never be as good. He isn’t defeatist; simply practical.
Game on: Shantanu Inamdar (centre) in action with his team, the Nav Maharashtra Sangh. Sandesh Bhandare
He was adjudged the best player in the country in 2006. Around the same time, the Kho-Kho Federation of India was dissolved for three years—it had “underperformed”. In 2009, the federation and the national tournament were reinstated, but the final match had to be abandoned due to rain, leaving Shantanu with a now four-year-old title. His five golds have never translated into monetary benefits.
“Only games that have international exposure will survive and prosper,” he says. So would aggressive promotion help? “We invited a German delegation for the national tournament in Kolkata in 2000. They showed interest in the game but wouldn’t play barefoot.” He says that’s one reason why more countries do not take to the sport.
“Kho-kho relies heavily on the nimble use of your big toe. You dig into the soil with your big toe to spin or break efficiently while running.”
They tried again in 2004 at a tournament in Dhaka, Bangladesh. This time, they invited a Japanese delegation. They didn’t mind playing barefoot but wouldn’t play on soil. They wanted to play either on wooden or at least carpeted flooring. Kho-kho enthusiasts decided to try their suggestion. “It didn’t work. You can’t dig into wood or a carpet. We kept slipping while playing,” says Shantanu.
He feels the “chase” in kho-kho is closer to life than in most other games. “In football, for instance, the ball, which is the object, doesn’t have a mind of its own. In kho-kho, the subject and the object both are people with complex minds and their own share of good or bad luck.” He pauses to think this through. “It complicates things,” he says.
Though he wants to be a full-time kho-kho coach, there aren’t enough students for any school to employ him. So he informally coaches children from eight schools with friends from NMS. He also has enough time to study to be a chartered financial analyst.
Father and son often discuss kho-kho at dinner. Earlier, the chats used to be about Shantanu’s performance in a match, other players and strategies.
Now, the discussions revolve around getting children to play the game. A sign that the onus has shifted from Shantanu having to prove himself to just keeping the game alive.
Shantanu recalls that while growing up, it was not easy to impress his father. “He felt that if a player believed he was good, he wouldn’t strive to be better. So he gave more negative feedback than positive.”
The only time Shrirang showered his son with unconditional praise was when Shantanu won the Eklavya Award. In 2004, Shrirang was the chief guest at the final match of the second Senior Nationals. “His presence made me nervous. I needed to win.” Shantanu did, despite being the youngest player of both teams.
Shrirang was suitably impressed—the Eklavya Award was one he had desired greatly but never won. “That was the happiest day of my life. I can’t be as great as father but I won something that he hadn’t,” says Shantanu.