Mumbai: When Versova beach turns into free kung fu class for underprivileged girls

Every weekend, the beach turns into a free kung fu class for underprivileged girls

If an opponent tries to punch you, block it. It’s easy to attack, defending is difficult,” Shifu Alexander Fernandes instructs his class of 50 girls aged 6 to 14 years. You will come across this kung fu class if you happen to take an evening stroll or run on Versova beach over the weekends.

Shifu Alexander Fernandes teaches Kung Fu to the girls on a weekend at Versova beach at 5.30 pm. PIC/NIMESH DAVE
Shifu Alexander Fernandes teaches Kung Fu to the girls on a weekend at Versova beach at 5.30 pm. PIC/NIMESH DAVE

It’s hard to miss the kids, lined in five rows. The sound of their collective breath, manages to rise above the din of revellers. They have been taking the self-defence classes, organised by Fernandes, who owns the Life Institute of Tai Chi, Martial Arts and Healing Research Centre, and entrepreneur and actor Ishita Sharma. The classes impart free martial arts training to less privileged girls. Sharma launched the class after an incident that left her thinking if women need to be equipped in self-defence techniques.

“I was driving in Shastri Nagar, Andheri, at 10.30 pm one night when I spotted a bunch of boys following me on bikes. Slowing down and speeding up, and staring didn’t help. It was finally when I rolled down the window and shouted that they scooted. I learnt that we need courage, to stand up and make some noise,” says Sharma, an Andheri resident, who owns a yoga and martial arts studio in Versova.

Having decided to start the class, Fernandes and Sharma canvassed at the local municipal schools and slums along the beach to speak to the parents. They say it was difficult convincing them. “The classes were to start on January 16, but no one turned up. We then returned to the schools and had the teachers speak to the kids asking them to try a class,” he says. Even then, the going hasn’t been easy. A student, Fernandes says, gifted with gymnastic skills was pulled out after three days.

Additionally, the students themselves are a suspicious lot, says Fernandes, who has trained in Beijing in simplified Tai-Chi chuan and traditional martial arts. “The first level is always counselling and connecting with them,” says Fernandes, who broke the ice by speaking to the girls about their lives, interests and ambitions. “We realised that many have faced some sort of physical abuse. So now, I have started training them in good touch and bad touch too,” says the 48-year-old.

Vaishali Naikre, who works as a domestic help and lives in a slum settlement along the beach is grateful for these. The single mother of two, says her children, Isha (12) and Ritesh (9) are by themselves most of the day. “And the area we live in can’t be called safe. There are drug addicts and anti-social elements. It’s difficult to trust people.” Both kids, she believes, were low on self-esteem. “They were painfully shy and could be easily bullied.”

However, in the past couple of weeks, Vaishali says the two look into your eyes when they speak, have grown bold and know how to keep strangers at bay. “My daughter is very protective about her brother. I can see she has grown stronger and more confident.” While Ritesh is not ‘officially’ a part of the girls-only class, he makes it a point to stand at the rear and pick up a lesson or two. “If somebody comes home, he attends to them confidently. It’s a big change for me,” Naikre smiles.

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