There have been several women who have helped promote gender equality. One of them is long-distance swimmer, Arati Saha, who is credited for being the first Asian woman to swim across the English channel in 1959, at the young age of 19. In that era, a woman making a career in swimming—or for that matter any sport—was not common.
The Olympian went on to win several accolades for her athletic achievements throughout her life, the most prestigious being Padma Shri.
To mark her 80th birthday, Google put out a special doodle in September this year that was illustrated by Kolkata-based artist Lavanya Naidu, along with a blog post that read, “A record-setting prodigy by just 11 years old, Saha became the youngest member (and one of only four women) on the first team to represent the newly independent India in the 1952 Summer Olympics in Helsinki, Finland."
MAKERS India looks back at her illustrious career.
Arati was born in West Bengal on September 24, 1940, and started swimming when she was only four. She lost her mother when she was only two, and was taken care of by her father Panchugopal Saha, who was an Army officer. At the age of four, she would often go with her uncle to the Champatala Ghat to swim. She was passionate even at a young age, and this caught the eye of her father.
He got her admitted to the Hatkhola Swimming Club, where she received training under India’s first Asian Games gold medalist, Sachin Nag. In 1946, she clinched her first gold in the 110 yards freestyle at the Shailendra Memorial Swimming Competition.
Glorious swimming career
From 1946-56, she participated in several competitions, both at the national and state level. What’s more, she won 22 state-level championships in West Bengal. Her record-breaking feat was achieved in Mumbai in 1948 at the National Championship, where she won silver in 100m freestyle and 200m breaststroke, and won bronze in 200m freestyle.
In 1951, she broke her contemporary Dolly Nazir’s all-India record in 100m breaststroke.
She made a mark not just on home turf, but also on international shores. Arati represented India in the 1952 Summer Olympics at Helsinki. Although she didn’t win, she made her mark at the global level by participating in the Olympics – the most prestigious sporting event in the world.
Scripting history at The English Channel
Famously called the ‘Mount Everest of Swimming’, the English Channel runs between southern England from northern France, and links the southern part of the North Sea to the Atlantic Ocean. Arati was inspired by Brojen Das, the first among men to cross the English Channel at the 1958 Butlin International Cross Channel Swimming Race. He then recommended her name for next year’s event.
Since participating in this event required rigorous training and money, several people came forward to help Arati. Dr Arun Gupta, the Assistant Executive Secretary of Hatkhola Swimming Club, provided support, and so did the then Chief Minister of West Bengal, Dr Bidhan Chandra Roy, and Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru.
She trained for up to 16 hours every single day, and in July 1949, she left for England to participate in the competition. There were a total of 58 participants, including only five women from 23 countries. Her first attempt to cross the channel failed, but she didn’t give up. Next time, she created history by crossing the channel in 16 hours and 20 minutes and hoisted the Indian flag on her completion.
An inspiration for young women
Her achievements helped other swimmers dream big, and opened up several avenues for them. In 1960, she became the first sportswoman to be awarded the Padma Shri. She went on to complete her studies and did an intermediate from City College. Later, she worked with Bengal Nagpur Railway.
Arati passed away acute jaundice and encephalitis, just a month before turning 54.
She was honoured with a postage stamp by The Department of Posts in 1999.
(Edited by Kanishk)