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As in 2022

Ketaki Desai, Oct 9, 2022: The Times of India

The village of Raibidpura came alive with the sound of dhols and Vande Mataram playing on loudspeakers as residents made their way onto the streets with balloons and streamers. Two young women, Kalpana Gurjar and Vidhya Patel, rode across the main village street on a makeshift float, decked up in plastic tiaras, with the Indian flag draped over their shoulders. The duo recently won a silver medal at the World Youth Bridge Transnational Championships in Salsomaggiore, Italy in the Under-26 women’s category, with Kalpana alsobringing home a gold in the solo category, and a proud village had gathered to celebrate their feat.

Raibidpura, some 150km from Indore, has earned its title of ‘India’s bridge village’. Besides these two medal-winners, the village of some 5,000 people boasts 300-odd bridge players. So how did this village of kisans take to a game that is commonly associated with Gymkhana club uncles? And what’s more, break the shackles of patriarchy to let women play cards? For that, one needs to go back to 1965 when the game first took root here. The credit goes to Mohammad Zia Khan, a government veterinary doctor posted in Raibidpura, says Bali Thomriya, a primary school teacher and medal-winner Kalpana’s father. “Khan Saheb, as wecalled him, had no form of entertainment in the village. For timepass, he started teaching villagers bridge. ” A team was put together, and though some members were illiterate, they excelled at the complex game.

Raibidpura has been home to mostly farmers and government school teachers, but the younger generation have diversified into software and medicine. And now, professional bridge players. For the first few decades of bridge-playing, the game was limited only to middle-aged men, according to Amaresh Deshpande, who first visited the village back in 2012 after reading about the ‘bridge village’. “Bridge tends to be an elite game. It is played in clubs in Delhi and Bombay. So, how did this happen?” To find out, he spent 10 days in Raibidpura. “When I saw them play bridge, I noticed three things. The first thing is that they were like a brotherhood. There is no violence or animosity; no one is throwing their cards across the table. ” This is quite unlike other bridge clubs in the world where there is a lot of bickering. “People are always arguing and it can be an unpleasant game,” says Deshpande, pointing out that there have been divorces over the bridge table (as well as a grisly murder of a husband in Kansas in the 1940s). The second thing was that they played on the floor, something Deshpande, himself a bridge player, had never seen before.

“Lastly, only men played. I asked them about this — where are the kids and the women? They said, ‘how will they play, they have to make the food’. After some convincing — and pointing that the game would die out if not taught to future generations— the first domino fell. “There was a gentleman called Devdas Verma who taught his granddaughter and her friend. After that, more and more young people started playing,” says Deshpande. First, a variation called mini bridge and then the game proper began to betaught in schools and a bridge club was established courtesy Deshpande’s efforts. That one day, village elders would ask two young women for advice on bridge was unimaginable at the time. 
Kalpana and Vidhya were among this first cohort of young bridge players. “We were introduced to bridge in class 8 when Amaresh sir came in 2012. Initially, we saw that whoever was playing bridge got to travel for tournaments and we wanted to do that,” laughs 21-year-old Vidhya. Kalpana adds that their passion for the game developed with time. “The more we learnt, the more interested we got. As we went for bigger tournaments, we would see how many people played and get to meet new, interesting people,” says Kalpana, 23.

Tournaments have been an intrinsic part of the bridge experience in Raibidpura. Deepak Verma, a farmer and bridge player, says the first tournament a team from the village participated in was in Indore in 2003. “The villagers saw an ad for a tournament in the newspaper, wrote to them and went for it,” he says. Once there, the team attracted attention because the others couldn’t believe how good the contingent of farmers, dressed in their traditional attire, 
were at the game.

The story of bridge in Raibidpura is one of collaborative support — it takes a village, so to speak. In this case, the ‘village’ 
included many in the bridge community who contributed time, money and coaches to help the growth of the game. During the pandemic, 
players from Delhi Kalpana and Vidhya, which allowed the girls to participate in online tournaments. “During the lockdown, all we did was play,” Vidhya says.

The first time bridge player Parimal Vahaliya went to Raibidpura, he saw the passion for the game firsthand. “In 2013, players from the village came to Ahmedabad to participate in the nationals and they stayed with us,” he says. Then, in 2015, Vahaliya and his wife, also a bridge player, organised a summer coaching camp with young players from across the country participating, including a contingent of 11 from Raibidpura. “We would coach them for 6-7 hours a day,” says Vahaliya, adding that he had recognised the potential in Kalpana and Vidhya. So, he went to their parents with an offer — send the girls to college in Ahmedabad and he would coach them for free over the weekends. The families agreed, and the rest is history.

Bridge can be a tool for social change, Deshpande points out. “I looked at some metrics — crime, health, gambling, farming techniques and wealth — and compared Raibidpura to neighbouring villages. On every level, they scored higher. It may be a leap of faith to say that bridge is the reason, but why is there such a difference between them and a village 3km away?” Thomriya adds, “Raibidpura is different from the villages around us. There is a maahaul (atmosphere) here that is more progressive. ”

The girls say the game has taught them everything from social skills to analytical ones and are hoping that their success propels more interest in the game. Their bridge club is being renovated and Deshpande has been making an active effort to involve young people of all castes, since the game has largely been the domain of dominant castes.

Thomriya, Kalpana’s father, is very clear that while marriage may be on the horizon, his daughter will not marry into a family that expects her to stop playing bridge. Kalpana smiles when told about her father’s comments. “My parents are right. And anyway, it’s the kind of game that leaves you hooked. ”

See also

Bridge: India

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