Assam’s silent revolution to revive volleyball
It’s Sunday, but Anjan Saikia doesn’t have much free time to talk. He is busy making final arrangements for the first game of the volleyball team that trains in Majuli, the world’s largest river island located in Assam.
Upper Majuli, Saikia’s under-16s team, which is part of the Brahmaputra Volleyball League (BVL), will face a team from the Monomoy tea farm in Jorhat and everyone in the region is excited.
“The game was supposed to start at 11 am, but since the ferry that took the team to Majuli was late, we are having a late start. We hope to start with a victory. Next month we will visit them for an away game, ”Saikia said.
“The league has rekindled the passion for volleyball in our area. Many new players are coming out and their parents are cheering them on. Other villagers are also involved in preparing the grounds, ensuring adequate hospitality from the visiting team, etc. ”, He added.
Although only four of his pupils participate in the league, Saikia is currently training 62 players. Upper Majuli is sponsored by Krishna Hazarika Rao and Asawari Parmar, both international badminton players who represented the country in various competitions.
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Saikia and Upper Majuli are not alone. Currently, 50 teams, 33 of them boys and 17 girls, representing rural areas of Assam are participating in the BVL, a brainchild of Abhijeet Bhattacharya, a former national volleyball captain.
After representing India at various levels for many years and leading the team, Bhattacharya joined the Oil and Natural Gas Commission (ONGC) and was looking for ways to give back to the game in some way when he visited a village in Thelamara near his hometown, Tezpur. 12 years ago.
“In the village, we saw about 15 girls playing volleyball while the boys were sitting and watching. When asked, they said their volleyball had been damaged and they had to wait a few months to get a new one. So I decided to do something positive and lasting for volleyball, ”he said.
Bhattacharya gave the boys a new ball and a net and began to organize matches between the teams in the area. It also involved the players’ parents and the village elders. Soon, the games became an anticipated activity in which the villagers came to watch and cheer on the teams and cook meals for everyone gathered.
With partial funding from the ONGC and the support of friends, between 2014 and 2018 a sports hostel was built in Beseria near Tezpur where players could come and train. Bhattacharya also formed an organization called the Rengoni Youth Sports Foundation.
An argument with some former players led to the start of Assam Volleyball Mission 100 in September last year with the goal of providing 100 volleyballs to needy teams in Assam. This initiative connected Bhattacharya with 50 small teams across the state.
Soon, a three-week training program was organized under the direction of a coach of an Indian team in Tezpur to improve the skills of the coaches who participated in these teams. For the first time, these coaches learned the proper techniques to improve the fitness and volleyball skills of the players.
The next step was to create 100 players who can represent the state and the country and play the game professionally. But all the plans took a back seat with the Covid-19 pandemic sweeping the country.
“To keep players motivated, I developed a module to give them online training. It started with young players from three tea gardens. It soon became the Brahmaputra Volleyball League with the aim of making Assam one of the best volleyball teams in the country, ”said Bhattacharya.
While normal teams have six players per side, it was decided to keep the team size at four players with players going from town to town to play matches, a home and away format. The host village was asked to develop the playing area and organize food and accommodation for visiting teams.
In order to cover the equipment, uniform and travel expenses of the teams, word spread to seek sponsors who would spend at least 15,000 rupees per team. This attracted people like former Indian national badminton champion Aparna Popat, who adopted teams.
“I heard about it from a couple of friends who sponsored teams. I was very excited because this is something that is being done in a planned way at the grassroots. My team has lost its first two games, but the joy of the children playing is worth it, ”said Popat, who sponsors Pub Nalbari.
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“The idea of the league made us come together immediately. I, along with friends from school and university, am involved in five teams. We are very confident that this initiative will change the volleyball scene in Assam, ”said Devabrata Chakravarty, Deputy Secretary of the Assam Association, Mumbai.
Soon, a logo was made and someone even wrote and composed a song for the league. The logo was unveiled by eminent athlete Hima Das earlier this month and the league kicked off on December 12 with games on the weekends so players can return home the same day. The league will end in February of next year.
“You can start a volleyball team with as little as Rs 2,000, the cost of a good ball and the net. The small step we have taken has been well received by the players and the villagers and even without the involvement of the state government, it has become a movement. This is a very good sign for the game, ”said Bhattacharya.
Sunday ended on a good note for Saikia and Upper Majuli, as they were able to defeat the Monomoy tea farm team in two straight sets.
“The format is a bit challenging as four players have to cover the court instead of six, but we are enjoying the league. I have been playing volleyball for two years and I want to dedicate myself to the game professionally, ”said Lakhiram Das, 15-year-old captain of Upper Majuli, a class 10 student.