Magician with the stick

S. THYAGARAJAN

THEY hailed him as a wizard, a magician, a maestro, an idol and a gift to mankind. Contemporary lexicons are devoid of epithets that are panegyrical enough to portray the persona of Dhyan Chand. The world of sports remembers with nostalgia, synthesising sentiment with the centenary of the doyen who elevated the whole aspect of competitive hockey to a plane of aesthetic delight. Can anyone remain unaffected by the extraordinary life and times of Dhyan Chand?

Even if you choose to call it a misnomer, misplaced nationalism or unsullied hero-worship, the fact remains that Dhyan Chand was the Alpha and Omega of hockey. He symbolised the quintessence of sporting ethos. For sheer creativity, craft and classicism he was the ultimate. If India acquired an image in competitive sport and stood counted as a force it was from the aura of Dhyan Chand. His charisma is eternal and enduring.

For a troubled society striving to savour the fragrance of freedom, Dhyan Chand's magic with the stick served as the symbol of its spirit and liberation. Hockey was the vehicle for him to enchant and entertain. His free spirit also exemplified the mood of the nation, yearning for freedom from alien rulers.

Three successive Olympic gold medals between 1928 and 1936 featuring him as the trump card all came when the country was ruled by the British. Yet, the triumphs engineered by the Indians mirrored the thirst and passion of a community yearning to court success on the international arena.

On August 29, 1905, a Rajasthani family in Prayag (Allahabad) welcomed with joy the gift of a boy. Named Dhyan Chand, the child, along with the family moved to Jhansi, a small town in the Central Province. Everything was serene in a middle-class Indian township till Dhyan Chand entered the Army at the age of 16.

As a sepoy with the First Brahmin Regiment in 1922, Dhyan's life was uneventful until the coach, Bale Tiwari, persuaded the youngster to take to hockey seriously. From then the genius in him manifested in all its iridescence, triggering an incandescent phase in India's sporting history.

At 21, when Dhyan Chand became part of the Army team for the first ever tour to New Zealand in 1926, competitive hockey touched a new realm of excellence. The sequence of victories, 18 out of the 21, glorified his extraordinary calibre. At 23, he was an Olympian in 1928 at Amsterdam.

"The day of our dreams dawned... We were determined to show the world that in this game we are supreme," Dhyan Chand later wrote in his autobiography, The Goal.

India scored 23 goals without a reply in four matches. More than margins, it was the mellifluous flow of moves and methods that delighted the spectators. The silken touch of the dribble and the finesse ingrained in every action sent a Dutch journalist into raptures. He wrote, "An Indian who stops the ball turns it by magic stroke into a cube. The sphere is no longer round, and lies immovably like a block of beat-fuel, cigar box, or a child's building block."

Statistics, unlike in cricket, are mere heartless and unsentimental numbers in hockey. But Dhyan Chand was always measured in terms of goals. It is often estimated, with a touch of inaccuracy however, that he had scored more goals than any player anywhere in the world even after 100 years. In the 1932 Olympiad at Los Angeles, Dhyan's total of 10 goals was projected consciously since the competition there was limited to three teams.

In the tours preceding the long and tiring journey across the Continents, the Indians aggregated 338 goals, Dhyan accounting for 133 of them. Three years after Los Angeles, during the tour of New Zealand, Dhyan aggregated 201 in 48 matches.

Even during the mid-30s, when the figure of Adolf Hitler was looming large over the world, Dhyan Chand continued to warm the cockles of Indian hearts. The third gold in 1936, surfacing at the Berlin Stadium before the Fuehrer, against the home team with an 8-1 scoreline, was the pinnacle of skipper Dhyan's illuminating career. He was again the top-scorer with 11, sharing the honour with brother, Roop Singh. This gold was achieved on August 15. It would take 11 more years for Indians to understand the significance of that date.

Why was Dhyan different from ordinary mortals? It is a rhetorical poser. And it defies an answer. Simply put, he was a genius, a rare specimen, destined to achieve immortality. None of his contemporaries, or those who saw the best of him, or had a fleeting glance of the ageing icon, deny what Dhyan Chand could do with the stick was imaginable. It was mind boggling, beyond human comprehension; his touch transported the onlooker into a fantasy; as ecstatic as reading Byron, Keats or Wordsworth.

As the war clouds began to gather, sport suffered for over eight years. Like many stalwarts, that included the great Don Bradman and Len Hutton, Dhyan Chand too had to cool off from the field. The World had changed after the fall of Hitler, but the hiatus harmed sports as it did to many areas of human existence.

Unobtrusively, Dhyan Chand entered the twilight notwithstanding the compulsion of facing the rigours of war. Actually, he was based in Ferozepur when the country was partitioned in 1947. He returned to Jhansi — the city that was the home of the famous hockey team Jhansi Heroes — losing in the bargain a substantial amount of his savings amounting to Rs.15000 in Pakistan.

A tour of East Africa in 1942 and a stint as coach at the NIS in Patiala kept the maestro in focus. There were moments when it looked as though the nation had forgotten its worthy son when he was allowed to languish in a Delhi hospital unnoticed until media highlighted the plight of a hero, a Padma Bhushan (1956) awardee at that, for whom there is a statue in far off Vienna.

The life of Dhyan Chand was an epoch, an enduring saga of action and achievement. "I always felt that a man essentially is a man, and it was unbecoming of him to show off and to make others feel that there was snobbery in him," he wrote in The Goal. For all the adulations he enjoyed, Dhyan's cherishing moment was a picture taken with another great — The Don.

On December 3, 1979, Dhyan Chand met his Maker, ending a glorious era, which will remain as unparalleled for its range, dimension and majesty. Even the very best in modern hockey can only be an ordinary Dhyan. The best of him is unlikely to be seen for generations to come. "After creating a genius, God destroys the mould," said a poet. How true it is in the case of Dhyan Chand.