Sunday, 28 August 2016

Around the World: India

Around the World is an occasional series celebrating the female bodybuilders of a particular country, and examining any issues peculiar to muscle women there.

Having previously reported on two Mumbai muscle women - the trials and tribulations faced by Ashwini Waskar, and the more mainstream success of Shweta Rathore - it's with no little delight that today we bring you the news that in India, to some extent at least, times seem to be very much a-changin' when it comes to female muscle.

And one sure sign that that is happening came when Elle India featured seven "muscular women" in their May issue, announcing they were "overthrowing every feminine stereotype". Being strong is sexy, it’s empowering, claimed 23-year-old yoga instructor Natasha Noel (above left) in the article, while personal trainer and gym manager Nilparna Sen (above right) confessed that when I saw my bicep pumping for the first time, I wondered why I had ever wanted to be skinny.

The other five women included a nutritionist, a former athlete who now uses social media to change the way Indian women think about exercise, a Bikini competitor, and a make-up artist who is working towards her first Bikini competition.

And, there was MTV presenter and film actress Gurbani Judge, aka Bani J.

Of the women featured in the article, Bani had not only the best abs, but was also the most famous, the most high profile woman. Unsurprisingly then, after the issue in question had come out, it was Bani's body, Bani's muscles, that was the focus of most of the negative comments. Her response was nothing short of heroic.

I have drool-worthy abs and a muscular body by choice, and that has put me at the receiving end of so much body shaming, it’s unbelievable. India puts too much emphasis on a certain kind of a body. For a woman, thin is supposed to be good, and if there’s any deviation she hears no end of it.

Her counter-attack made quite an impression on the Indian media as far as I can tell. Before long, editorials were being written about what young women can learn from Bani's attitude and lifestyle, and how Indians more generally should start celebrating their very own strong women rather than trying to make them conform.

Whether by accident or design, Bani has suddenly become a bit of a figurehead, a spokeswoman. Fortunately, she plays that particular role rather well.

I always fight for what’s right; I don’t take anything lying down. And I wanted to be a strong person, both mentally and physically. What if I’m a woman and I have muscles? My plan was to unlock my strength - physical and mental and I am sticking to it. I love to work out. I am passionate about it. It gives me happiness, makes me feel secure and has netted me a body like no woman I know.

And while all this has been going on, back before Bani became the leader of the Indian muscle women pack, before the Elle India article, and even before FMS had brought you Ashwini Waskar and Shweta Rathore last year, one remarkable Indian woman had just got on a plane and gone and competed and won NPC Figure contests in both 2014 and 2015. She'd been so successful in fact that the IFBB had awarded her a pro card, and in May this year she made her professional Figure debut in New York.

Meet Deepika Chowdhury, India's first female IFBB pro.

Just a few years ago Deepika was doing research in molecular biology, and treating her fitness as a hobby. It's been an incredible three years, she said in an interview published earlier this year. I was doing some weights back in 2012, and around that time I visited the Sheru Classic and saw some of the best bodybuilders in the world and then I heard of the Figure category, which didn't and doesn't exist in India.

She spent 2013 preparing herself, and then took a deep breath and booked her passage to the US to compete at the NPC Battle on the Beach in Florida. It was March 29th 2014. It was a major risk of course, she says. It’s the US, and the ticket and stay aren't cheap at all, but when they announced my name as the winner, it was all worth it.

She returned to the US in 2015 and won the NPC Fort Lauderdale Cup. Then she won again at the NPC Steve Stone Metropolitan and then again at the NPC Atlantic States. Victory at the NPC Eastern USA Championships - where she left the stage to a standing ovation, apparently - gave her an amateur record of 5 contests, 5 overall wins.

Coached by Figure pro Gennifer Strobo, Deepika is now working on creating her own fitness brand and planning her route to becoming India's first ever female Olympian. But she has by no means turned her back on her own country, and is busy leading her own seminars to promote the fitness lifestyle to Indian women young and old.

Indian women are the most hard-working in the world, she says. Our success on the sporting front is a natural progression. However, we must not let negative factors and self-doubt distract us from our goals. Indian bodybuilding has been doing well of late, and I hope this will be a spur to female bodybuilders. The number currently in the country is between 10 and 20, but it is increasing. We have to take the responsibility to do well, so that people can see us and get motivated.

Here's RxMuscle's 2015 training vid and interview with her.

Follow Bani J and Deepika on Instagram.

आनंद! (as they say in Mumbai!)

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