Originally published in India Today
It’s the first shot that’s unnerving; that deafening crack, and perhaps the anticipation of the next to follow. With time, the feeling subsides. Pretty soon, you are able to discern individual patterns, rhythms and a semblance of order in the apparent cacophony of shots fired. It is just another day at the Rifle Club where some of the city’s shooters are busy perfecting their aim.
Established in 1952, the Rifle Club was originally a part of the Madras Presidency. Spread across two levels, the club has a 50m and a 25m range for rifle and pistol shooting respectively, with a 10m air pistol range on the first level. “The club was founded to train people in the safe use of firearms, who could—if the need arose—serve as the second line of defence. Situated within the premises of the commissioner of police headquarters, it is also a safe deposit for the club’s weapons and is associated with the Tamil Nadu Shooting Association (TNSA),” says D.V. Seetharama Rao, joint secretary of the Chennai Rifle Club and joint secretary general of the National Rifle Association of India (NRAI).
Today, the Rifle Club, one of its kind in the city, defines shooting as a sport for several enthusiasts, paving the way for existing champions and future aspirants.
Consider, for instance, Gita Shankar, who continues to live up to her sobriquet of the ‘Shooting Queen of Tamil Nadu’. She was the first shooter and the first woman from the south to have won the National Rifle Championship in 1975, and several national and international wins followed. “I started shooting as part of the NCC during my college years, and realised that I had an aptitude for it. My interest grew and thanks to the encouragement from my family and the club, I had the opportunity to participate in several events. I began with the rifle, and in 1981, shifted to the pistol,” says Gita.
A familiar face at the club, Gita often guides upcoming shooters, and till a couple of months back, also doubled up as a coach. Since August, last year, the club has appointed a full-time coach, V. Dharmalingam.
“Earlier, I was working in Hyderabad as the state coach for Andhra Pradesh,” says Dharmalingam, who has had 35 years of experience in the Indian Navy, both as a shooter and a coach. “Ever since Jaspal Rana won the Junior World Championship, youngsters are interested. I am hoping to encourage new talent,” he says and hopes to succeed in convincing schools and colleges to have a shooting range in their premises, to create interest among students.
A thought echoed by Sumeet Sanghavi, proprietor, New Star Engineering Company, the main stockists for Siemens. Shooting since the age of 12, Sanghavi took to the sport thanks to his father, who was also a shooter. “School or college is probably the best period when one can devote quality time to this sport,” he says. One of the ace shooters in India today, Sanghavi has won medals in every national championship he has attended for the last 20 years, and hopes to make a mark at the international level soon. “My biggest obstacle is time, since I look after the family business. But in the next five years, I should be able to give more time to this. Recently, a 65-year-old American won an Olympic medal; that’s a huge inspiration,” he says.
Mahalakshmi Winfred, a doctor, couldn’t agree more. For someone who began at the age of seven and according to her own words, “retired at the age of 12,” Winfred has returned to the sport after a hiatus of 25 years. “Academics took precedence then. My clinic has been converted into a charitable trust, and I have time on my hands,” says Winfred.
A state-level champion then, Winfred hopes to make a mark at the prone 50m rifle shooting at the national championships this year. Also participating this year is 21-year-old D. Mathangi. With just a couple of years of experience, Mathangi was ranked 13 during the national championships held last year.
“My aim was to study for IPS, and that’s how I decided to learn shooting,” she says. For first-time participant 14-year-old Valli, daughter of Tamil Selvan, inspector general of police, the reason for her interest is straightforward. “Since my father likes it, I like it too,” she says with a smile. Considering the fact that Valli took up the sport only a few months back, her gold medal at the sub-junior state level tournament is impressive.
If you thought that shooting is just for those pursuing championships, then Karthi Sekar, a gym owner will come as a surprise. An active enthusiast for the last nine years, Sekar says, “Shooting gives me a high because I am able to control power with my fingertips. To be able to tame such terrible power and make it do your bidding makes you feel in control of life. It is the only sport in which you can aim for perfection. You hit the bull or you don’t. So, I compete only with perfection and that’s a worthy opponent.”
An expensive sport, considering the cost of arms and ammunition (though the Chennai Rifle Club is one of the few clubs in the country that gives ammunition at a subsidised rate), and one that is not even very spectator friendly, there is something about shooting that once taken up is very difficult to let go off. “Today everything is so much better, from the weapons, to the ammunition.
When I began, I would shoot in a sari!” says Gita. “Shooting is almost like meditation,” says Sanghavi, and adds, “It’s about mind control, steadiness and physical fitness too.” Despite the rigmarole involved in making the dream of shooting a reality, Rao assures us that it also helps in early filtration. “Only people who are really interested and passionate about the sport end up going through it. The applications are first verified by the police department for past records, after which an interview is conducted. It requires discipline, stamina, good reflexes, and a lot of travelling,” says Rao.
And as Gita adds, “The key to being a good shooter is concentration; the moment you decide to fire, stop thinking about everything else. Then it’s just you and the target, and nothing else.” Targets, shots, guns and more—the possibilities suddenly abound, ‘faster than a speeding bullet’.