It was a hot afternoon in June when Mumbai-based photographer Nayan Shah chanced upon 10-year-old Sapna Meena at her school in Jatwara village, Rajasthan. Wearing a blue jersey and red skirt and tights, she was completely focused on playing hockey, the most popular sport in the 3,500-strong village. She had to head home by 6.30pm to cook for her family—her father and two elder brothers.

“I want to play hockey and I want to become a doctor, my father is very supportive of both," she told Shah.

Shah was in Jatwara to shoot a documentary on Mumbai-based social worker Gayatree Joshi, who had volunteered with a Hamburg, Germany, based non-profit organization, Hockey Village India Foundation. The foundation teaches hockey in two schools each in south Goa and Rajasthan, and one in Mumbai.

The Career Academy Shikshan Sanstha in Jatwara is one of the schools; children there had never taken up a sport till the foundation introduced hockey. “There is a lot of discrimination between girls and boys when it comes to education and sports. My work with the foundation included painting school walls with images of hockey," says Joshi. In one of the classrooms, she even painted a young girl with a hockey stick and books—an attempt to change mindsets.

The hockey sessions at the Shikshan Sanstha started in October 2013. Since then, around 100 children in the 8-14 age group, including 30 girls, have been provided kits and are being trained. The school has two girls’ teams (under 14 and under 16), and three boys’ teams (under 14, under 16 and under 17). “This is a very conservative village where girls and boys are not allowed to interact, forget about playing together. We had a hard time convincing parents to let their children, especially girls, play and not make them work in the fields, which is a tradition and a norm," says principal Varsha Sharma. “One way to convince them was to tell them that it will be easier for the kids to get a government job if they play," she adds.

Andrea Thumshirn, founder of the Hockey Village India Foundation, started the organization in Garh Himmat Singh village, Rajasthan, in 2010. She shifted to Jatwara, which has a largely farming community, in 2013. When she is in India, she coaches the children every day for 2 hours. In her absence, two local coaches and volunteers, mostly youngsters with coaching experience from Germany, teach the children.

“Sports also help attract students to schools where the drop-out rate is high", says Sharma. Deepak Dari, 13, who will be visiting Germany later this month along with seven other boys to learn advanced hockey, says, “I want to play hockey at the national level, but my father says that studies also should continue with equal concentration."

“I remember Sapna telling me the same and her proud father smiling in agreement," says Shah.

Kripa Meena wants her daughter, who studies at the Shikshan Sanstha, to take up sports professionally. “We want that more boys and girls from our village should go for such sports. I am happy my daughter is being trained here."

The foundation has now bought land in Jatwara for a playground. Hopefully, then, children from other villages too can learn to play hockey there.

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