The verdant arcade of Calcutta Referee Club welcomed me with the vivacity of the person I love dearly. The birthday girl was in her usual jersey and shorts, looking so beautiful that I couldn’t take my eyes off her. That’s the spell she has cast on me years back when I had met her for the first time, to take her interview for my research paper. 1962-born Kuntala Ghosh Dastidar, a pioneer and an inspiration of Indian women-football. She turned 55, on the 23rd of June, this year. She had brought life to the green tent smelling of old pots and kettles, the tent which has been the home to her and her players since ages.
Sitting on the chair with her leg crossed (I just couldn’t stop admiring her figure!), Kuntala took me to the South Kolkata of the 60s and 70s, a place, which has been my home too.
“Football never came to me,” she narrated, “it existed in my life. I used to stay near Vivekananda Park. The moment I would open my eyes, I would see the field. I started playing football with boys from the beginning of my life. Gender was never a factor.”
Munching on the hot and crispy samosa, I listened to the story of her life.
“Kaka (paternal uncle) and Kakima (aunt) gave me tremendous support,” she recounts. ‘My Kaka, Sujit Ghosh Dastidar was my guide. He would take me to the field. There was no provision for women’s football then.”
Those vibrant eyes and that smile filled with warmth have been welcoming hundreds of people since 1960s. Abashed, she confessed how the maestro, Satyajit Ray had wanted her to play the role of Durga in his famous trilogy of Apur Shanshar and how her Kaka had refused, determined not to get her detached from the world of football.
It was only in 1975 when Arati Banerjee, wife of P.K. Banerjee, organised the first women’s football game on 5thof June at the field of Kalighat, Kolkata. A founder and secretary of the committee that organised this, she ignited the flame of women’s football in Kolkata. Among 150 girls who came for selection, 16 were selected from West Bengal, who went to play for the national team. Sushil Bhattacharya was their coach. This also marked the journey of Kuntala, as a professional football player.
“At that time,” she beams with pride, “maximum of 9-10 girls of the Indian team were from Bengal.”
Kuntala grew up watching the games of East Bengal and Mohun Bagan was inspired by Gautam Sarkar, who later on became her coach in the national team. An ardent lover of songs, you can easily get to hear some of her classic collections if you drop by her tent for a morning breakfast with her. She is known as ‘Godfather’ and ‘Buro’ (old man) by her peers.
“We are like a family,” Itikona Mondal – who had played alongside Kuntala Ghosh Dastidar in the national team – chipped in. “We have been together since 1975. It’s 2017 and we are still going strong.”
Things have changed. Situations have changed. India has lost her golden age when Kuntala Ghosh Dastidar captained the Indian women’s team in Women’s World Cup. She coached 2000-02 and the senior state team in 1994-95 and 1998-99.
India has had its share of glory in the international arena. Twice, in 1979 and 1983, they were runner-up in the Asian Championship. In between, in 1981, the team bagged the third position. They also participated in the World Cup in 1982. Kuntala smiles recounting the past glory, adding, “In the recent FIFA ranking, we have gone down to 60th position. This is a disaster.”
“We have been serving since 1975,” Kuntala blurted out her agony. “Unfortunately there’s none in the board with practical experience. Baichung is there. We should be there too. We should represent ourselves. Then only we can formulate proper ways to improve ourselves.”
Her smile brings hope among the players, among the football lovers like us. The sun rays sparkled on the trees affirming her struggle. She hugged me as I left. We promised to meet again. We promised to talk about football, about the development of women’s football in India. She trusts my words, she has faith in my pen. Let’s start the dialogues.
Photos sourced by the author.
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