Wushu beats lockdown as Maharashtra state championship goes online, nationals to follow

Around 80 athletes, dressed up in their finest bright, baggy martial arts finery, pulled their hair back tight from the face and took their steady solemn stance for webcams at Maharashtra’s first-ever online Wushu state championship that happened this week.

The 30-second routines in Wushu’s Taolu event comprises barehand and short weapon defense and offense manoeuvres.

The Covid-19 crisis has halted every sporting activity in any sensible nation looking to stem the rise in infections. But shooting had a stab at competing from home and chess is thriving in this unprecedented environment of social isolation. Wushu joins the small group of restless sports itching to find ways — as compact as they are — for some semblance of normalcy under lockdown.

Jammu & Kashmir will also see 18 districts conduct their online Wushu state meet from May 3-5, while the online Wushu Nationals will take place from May 25-29.

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Taolu Wushu which emphasizes on slow movements — literally at a slow-mo taut crawl — had most participants opt for Nanquan, a routine which mimics the fighting poise and movements of a tiger on a prowl. Participants at the Maharashtra meet were judged on body structure, shape of the stance, balance, speed and landing efficiency of the jumps, though degree of difficulty was capped given constraints of space inside a home. “There was no entry fee — a first for state competition,” Sopan Katke, chief organiser, said.

Gajanan Pawar of Pune who picked up a medal reckons it was his power-packed 30 second gig that helped him pip opponents. “It was a first time experiment and I had to consider the space constraints. But my performance had more power than the opponents which is why I medaled,” he said.

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Participants would finish their routine and then squint into screens to watch their opponents on Zoom. Pawar’s younger brother helped shoot and in checking the lights.

On Thursday, many more competed in the more popular Tai Chi event — which has served to alleviate edginess of its practitioners even beyond this competition. Katke, the brains behind the event, says he’s been busy these last two months training many in Tai Chi online. “Besides being a sport at the Youth Olympics and Asian Games, Tai Chi has become relevant as something that helps improve immunity,” he claims.

Though all such pronouncements come with large-fonted disclaimers, Tai Chi has its famous followers. Former first lady Michelle Obama is said to have hopped into Tai Chi classes during a state visit to China while movie star Jet Li is also a Tai Chi buff. “It’s to do with breathing techniques and it can be customized for knee problems, BP, hypertension, asthma, arthritis relief. Usually it’s 3 and half minutes in international competition (Taolu is 1 min 20 seconds) We’ve cut it to 30 seconds,” says the secretary of the state Wushu association.

Tai Chi — more fidgety and fighting than yoga and Pranayam and acquiring a mystical fetish owing to its old association with Shaolin temples, is increasingly gaining popularity even in India owing to its expansive limb movements and general jumps and flips — 360 and 540 degrees in the air and the dramatic accurate landings. In competition, the fringe benefits like mental peace, decision making and inner-mind control cannot be calibrated. What does, says world silver medalist Shravani Katke, Sopan’s 18-year-old daughter, is clean lines in the movement.

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“But movements are in slow motion. So inner mind distractions actually reflect in the movement. Judges can see it. But mostly, participants rely on body posture, jumps, landings for points,” she claims. That and crucially, a good internet connection.

Shravani realised also that while the usual pressures of performing in front of crowds are not a factor in online competitions, something else gave athletes sleepless nights.

“We’ve been practicing for this 30 second show for many days at home. It’s literally home territory. But even if there’s no public pressure, imagine failing at home. Or not being able to perform while competing in the area where we practiced 1000 times,” she says of a patch created by pushing all furniture against one wall. “I didn’t want judges to get distracted,” she says of not bothering with the peripherals like cushion covers.

Organizers had to scale down ambitions in how complex the routines could be — so, no long weapons like swords or ninja jumps that could be a problem on slippery house floors and none of the Neo, Morpheus Matrix-artistry.
“Not even the terrace, and following all social distancing rules,” says Sopan.

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India’s Wushu practitioners — spread from Kashmir to the north east to inner Maharashtra districts like Jalgaon and Amravati — were quick to leave the couches when the national federation got active about aggressively pushing for its athletes to inculcate Wushu training in their daily regimen. “They are using Tai Chi to help patients in Wuhan,” said the federation’s Suhel Ahmed.

Videos of nurses and doctors taking Tai Chi and Qigong classes (with a China flag strategically placed in widely circulated videos) for patients with mild symptoms of the coronavirus in Wuhan were all on the internet. These were obviously after the worst storm had passed and the PPE-draped Tai Chi performing nurses were gently coaxing patients to resume some exercise. But it found resonance in Maharashtra’s Jalgaon district.

Bhushan Marathe, a Wushu athlete and judge from Jalgaon wrote to the district’s government hospital and police authorities suggesting he could take basic classes on Tai Chi to help them deal with the stress. “The response was positive. And we took 2-3 sessions for the frontline doctors and nurses, wearing PPE of course. And later for police personnel. We couldn’t help monetarily. But we thought this could be our small help,” he says. “It was possible only because the cases were not too many and they could take some time out,” he adds.


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