This article was first published in my column for Ekalavyas.com on July 29, 2016. Click here to read the original piece.
The purest way to experience Varanasi is to take a boat ride across the Ganga at the crack of dawn, to hear the ringing of temple bells from the ghats by your side, the splashing of morning devotees into the holy river, to smell the incense in the air, to sip on a cup of sweet chai off of the river’s banks, and to watch the entire history of mankind reflect off the water’s surface with the sun’s earliest rays.
Growing up in Varanasi, I was made aware soon enough that there was no city in the world like this. Varanasi, or Banaras, or Kashi, is one of the oldest-living cities in the world, a continuous civilization where the scenes described above would have been sensed uninterrupted from the times of the Upanishads to the age of Snapchat filters. It’s the city that Shiva adopted, where death is celebrated as a release and moksha into continuous permanence, like the city itself.
Because of this permanence, citizens – Banarasis – can be blamed for having a skewed concept of time. The past, present, and future blend together seamlessly, like the peaceful ebbs and flow of the Ganga river. The ringing of temple bells and splashes of oars into the water have been heard for thousands of years, and will continue to be the soundtrack to the city for a thousand more.
But over the last few decades, a new soundtrack has been remixed into the old voices of the eternal city. In the northwest of Varanasi, a few kilometres away from the banks of the Varuna river, the Raja of Bhinaga Udai Pratap Singh founded the Udai Pratap (UP) College over a hundred years ago. Little would the Raja have known back then that the UP College was going to birth an exciting new identity for the city and provide Varanasi with its most unlikely export: Basketball.
The first UP College basketball court was built in the 60s, and by the early 90s, a new court was built nearby in the sports field that has now achieved iconic status. Over the last few decades, this little, cemented outdoor court has provided dozens of superstars for city, state, and country. In 1993, Anup Minz broke through to become the first Varanasi superstar in international India jersey; including him, UP College has produced a total 22 international players for India, including Vishesh Bhriguvanshi, Trideep Rai, Arjun Singh, and the popular Singh Sisters (Divya, Prashanti, Akanksha, Pratima).
While the city is better known for its saris, paan, educational institutions, temples, ghats, and lassis, UP College has done its share in ensuring that ‘basketball’ also enters the city’s eternal vernacular.
Dr. Ashok Singh was a young student at UP College in the 60s when he first tried his hand at the game. Nearly fifty years later, he remains closely involved with basketball and the institution that raised him. Today, he’s the secretary of the district basketball association and a principal at UP College.
“I recall that the court first began in 1961 or 62 with Dr. Aryan Singh,” Ashok Singh says. “Back then, we didn’t know what basketball was and used to play it like kabaddi! But slowly, we learnt the game from other coaches and visiting teams and improved.” Singh eventually played at the Uttar Pradesh state level.
The older court in UP College used to host the Hukum Singh Memorial Tournament from 1974-80, which featured the top eight teams from Uttar Pradesh every year. UP College also hosted basketball at the National Student Games in 1978 and 1980.
But it was with the construction of the new – and currently standing court – that UP College’s place in the national basketball realm rocketed off. Singh mentioned that the turning points were the two ‘Family Gold Cups’ held in 1992 and 1996, a major national-level tournament that truly started the basketball craze among the locals.
A number of young kids from the neighbourhood watched this exciting new game and were motivated to join in, too. Those little kids – boys and girls – forced their way into the court with the elder players to dribble, shoot, and run, too. They were the scrubs back then, the ‘mini’ players who had to do odd jobs like sweep the court or deliver lal peda and chai to seniors.
A decade later, several of those kids became icons of Varanasi, and went on to dominate the present era of Indian Basketball.
Varanasi Basketball’s fortunes reached their zenith when the Sports Authority of India (SAI) centre at UP College brought in coach Amarjeet Singh in the early 2000s. During his time, the talent pool at the ground grew to be deeper than the Ganga. Divya, Prashanti, Akanksha, and Pratima Singh all went on to play for India’s national Women’s team. Divya and Prashanti served as captains while Divya is now a national coach. Trideep Rai, Vishesh Bhriguvanshi, and Arjun Singh wore India colours for the Men’s squad, with Trideep and Vishesh serving as captains in the past.
“Every year, Varanasi wins at least six trophies in the various levels of Uttar Pradesh basketball championships,” says Vibhor Bhriguvanshi, a local icon, coach of the UP College team and with the district basketball association, and also Indian star Vishesh’s elder brother. “UP College is the best team in the state at the junior level, but the best senior players usually leave to work at ONGC, IOB, etc. or to college.”
Surendra Kumar Prasad, the current SAI coach at UP College, adds, “This court right here is the nursery of so many great players in the country. Players go from here to the Railways, the Army, nationwide. Now, almost every major team in the county has a player from Varanasi.” Prasad, original from Ranchi, has worked on and off at UP College from 2012.
Annually, UP College hosts a major district league in the fall, where some of the best teams in the city – UP College, Atulanand, DLW, Sunbeam School, Rajashri Club, and more – take part. In 2013, the court also hosted the Uttar Pradesh State Senior Championship. Somewhere between the city’s history, spirituality, and education, hordes of fans find their way around the court at every major event.
It’s monsoon season in Varanasi this year when I revisit the UP College court. The rains have cleared up the skies but turned the city’s notoriously shoddy roads into a swamp. Rain is always threatening to disrupt basketball practice at the outdoor ground, but the players – to whom basketball is a daily ritual righter than rain – are not deterred.
Basketball practice is held from Monday to Saturday twice a day, from 5:30 to 9 AM in the mornings and from 3 to 8 PM at night. It’s a democratic, all-inclusive scene, as the ‘minis’ – the youngest players – hit the court first, in both the boys’ and girls’ divisions, followed by the junior boys and girls, followed by the seniors.
Currently, there are a total of 250 registered players at the ground, starting from six years old. While most players are from UP College itself, Vibhor Bhriguvanshi told me that there are some who bicycle as much as 18 kilometres every day to get to the court.
Whenever local legends are in town, they hit the court to assist the coaches in the practice session. When I visit, Arjun “Golu” Singh, who recently helped India win the South Asian Championship in Bengaluru, and Barkha Sonkar, a recruit and graduate of the IMG Basketball Academy, are on the court among many others to play, teach, and inspire.
Before basketball, however, I had to indulge in the local lal peda, sold fresh every day right by the side of the court for decades. “It’s the best in the world,” says Coach Surendra Prasad, and I joke that it is probably the secret behind the success of Varanasi basketball players.
But Prasad, of course, has a more logical reason. “Players have really struggled for their achievements here,” he says, “The competition is really high. You have ten players fighting for one spot on the team. When they see the legendary players from this court around, they see that hard work can land up a job with ONGC or a spot with the national team. All the young players want to be Vishesh, Golu, or Divya.”
One of these young players is 16-year-old Vivek Punia, who stands out not just because of his ability, but, at 6-foot-8, is also the tallest person on the court. Punia was recruited from Meerut earlier this year and is among the eighteen boys in the basketball division staying at the recently re-opened SAI hostel at UP College. Punia had the height when he first came to Varanasi, but was too weak and thin to be a force on the court. Over the last few months, under the tutelage of coaches like Bhriguvanshi, Prasad, and Karthick Ram, he has improved his game enough and could be a force in the upcoming junior and youth championships for the state.
I’m also introduced to a group of talented girls who have all recently played for Uttar Pradesh at the U16 Nationals, Shivani Gupta, Pratibha Singh, and Shruti Yadav. All three look up to the Singh Sisters and want to follow in their footsteps to success. Another male player, Lav Singh (16), has already played for the state at the Youth and Junior level and is considered one of the best future prospects from the city.
But, even after such as illustrious past, there are concerns about the future of the court and basketball in Varanasi. Some coaches say that the motivation of many of the younger players isn’t what it used to be anymore.
“The competition level is the same as before,” says Prasad. “But the players don’t practice as much as they used to. Now, they are looking for work more than focusing on basketball.
Additionally, a parallel problem has arisen among those who are motivated, but are stunted because of a shortage of space and resources. Bhriguvanshi says that, with such a large number of players, one court alone isn’t enough to give them all time to play.
“We definitely need one more court here to accommodate the rising number of players,” says Bhriguvanshi. “SAI has opened a hostel for boys this year – now, we need a girls’ hostel, too.”
Another experienced voice from UP College is Arjun Singh, ‘Golu’, who has witnessed first-hand every stage from mini, to senior team stardom, to international success, and back to lending a helping hand to the coaches for the next generation of players.
“For a few years in the middle, basketball progress had stalled here,” Arjun says, “But now with Coaches Bhriguvanshi and Prasad, the young players are picking up the important fundamentals again. If the young prospects here stay on the right path, they can be future stars, too.”
If a small town like this can become a basketball powerhouse, Varanasi can be an inspiration to hundreds of other similar cities in the country that could unearth their potential with a little more effort by coaches, some good fortune, and maybe some magical lal peda!
UP College has definitely contributed to basketball’s immense growth in Varanasi, but the work is not yet complete. The city has a lot more to offer, and both the SAI and the district need to ensure that players are provided with the coaching and facilities to keep the cycle of international basketball stars rolling uninterrupted.