Boxing champion Sarjubala Devi redefines the rules of glam and goes without make-up!

For someone built on such tiny lines, 5’ tall boxer Samjetsabam Sarjubala Devi certainly packs a punch. Not only when she does her job in the ring – she’s won the national boxing championship in her category four times, achieved the gold at the AIBA World Youth Boxing Championships in 2011, the silver at the Women World Boxing Championship in 2014, and has made it through the Asian Games in Jakarta up to the semi-finals – but also with her large heart and generosity of spirit. Because while she may not have come home with a medal this time, many of her teammates in the Indian contingent have, and far from feeling sorry for herself, Sarju is in the mood to celebrate. After all, when one Indian wins, all Indians are victors.

This is why we have her here with us, all glammed up for a photo shoot in a look that’s so totally outside her style zone that she’s hesitant to bare her shoulders. “I have never worn a dress in my life, leave alone something so feminine!” the 25-year-old reveals with a tomboyish grin. “I do enjoy dressing up, but I usually stick to jeans, jackets and shorts – they are easier to handle.”

Yet, here she is, being styled for the camera. And when she’s ready to stride out for the shoot, we have to admit something very, very important: like Sarju, you only need confidence and attitude to be a diva. What you don’t need, again like Sarju in this photo shoot, is even a trace of make-up.

She shall overcome

Born and brought up in Manipur, Sarju’s journey has been quite a Bollywood film, complete with action, drama and tragedy. Though her family was far from well off, she began boxing at the age of 13, when a friend asked her to join the academy near their house. With successful Manipuri boxer Mary Kom in mind, Sarju took the plunge. Her inspiration served her well: today, Sarju is known as the next Mary Kom!

She’s lost in sadness as she tells us about her life. In 2009, her brother Rakesh Singh met with an accident that left him paralysed and in a coma for a few years. To meet the medical expenses, her father had to sell a small piece of land. Despite this sadness, Sarju’s family insisted that she continue her training, and ensured that she moved to the Sports Authority of India (SAI) hostel to focus on her game.

And then Sarjubala’s younger sister Sunibala, her personal cheerleader, committed suicide. “I lost all interest in life after losing Sunibala… in fact, I was showing suicidal tendencies,” she says in a low voice. “And then my mother showed me Sunibala’s suicide note, in which she asked me to promise to become a boxing champion for our family, our situation.”

Determined to fulfil her sister’s last wish, Sarju returned to the SAI hostel with the goal to become the best boxer she could be. And clearly, she succeeded! There were disappointments too along the way. For instance, though she was perceived to be a serious medal winner at the 2016 Olympics, she lost to World No. 1 Nazim Kyzaibai, and failed to qualify. But like all dedicated sportspeople, Sarju takes failure in her stride. She looks back only to learn from her mistakes. Then she moves on.

Magic of makeover

Moving on means not only examining and changing her boxing style, but also re-emphasising her motivation to other people – and herself. “I had hoped to get a trial for the Commonwealth Games this year, but that didn’t happen and I was quite depressed,” she explains as an example. “So I decided to colour my hair gold as a constant reminder of what I was aiming for at the Asian Games.”

She loves shopping and fashion, but as she’d told us earlier, Sarju has preferred to stick to a more androgynous look than the one she has for this shoot. This explains her hesitation to bare her shoulders; now she is also negotiating with the stylist over a dress with a long slit. “But I am experimenting now,” she grins. “I do buy some dresses too once in a while, though since I spend so much time on the field, my opportunities are limited.”

The no make-up look we are aiming for today has been inspired by Sarju herself. “I don’t like cosmetics much. I do focus on skincare though. Thankfully, I have great skin!” she chuckles.

Glamorous and proud

Pre-conceptions and stereotypes bother Sarju. For one thing, she dislikes how the Indian media portrays glamorous sportswomen as unprofessional. “We have a life beyond the game, like everyone else does beyond their jobs. But people forget that. We also want to get out of these uniforms and dress up to feel good and relax,” she says. For another thing, she objects to misogynist and regional discrimination in the world of sports: “While people from the North East are very sports-oriented and women are given equal opportunities, discrimination does happen at times, and that is something we all need to rise above,” she says firmly.

That is why she has two very serious goals in life. The first? She wants to be world champion at her game. The second? She wants to start an organisation that ensures employment to all women as well as people with special needs. “Women are the real backbone of any set up and we must offer them a life of dignity,” says Sarjubala with such an earnest smile that it makes the whole crew’s eyes sparkle.

(The first star to go make-up free for an HT Brunch cover, underlining body positivity and freedom of choice, was Vidya Balan in August 2016.)

“I can’t change my body type, but I can change the way I feel about my body and skin. And most days I feel absolutely sexy…”

— Vidya Balan

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From HT Brunch, September 9, 2018

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First Published: Sep 08, 2018 19:27 IST

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