Pull No Punches: Leela Who Ruled Barabati Stadium Once Upon A Time

Prameyanews English

Published By : Prameya News Bureau | March 16, 2024 IST

Srimoy Kar

Srimoy Kar

The historic Barabati Stadium at Cuttack is not just a sporting arena but an institution and a pride of Odisha. Conceptualised in the fifties, its expansion continued well into the 2000s, thanks to the generous funding of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) at a later stage to develop it as aninternational cricket venue. However, it is not a preferred ground of the BCCI for any importantmatch; be it Test,one day, T20 or even IPL matches, because of erratic pitch preparations. Painstakingly built under the leadership of late chief minister Hare Krushna Mahatab and late former minister Bhairab Chandra Mohanty, a great sports administrator, the funds for the stadium in a cash strapped state was initially raised through a raffle, a first in the country. Today, the architects of this monumental effort have been blissfully forgotten and a set of self-styled sports honchos have converted the stadium into their personal fiefdom in a manner which negates its rich past. This is a story for another day.

The recent state government plan to turn Barabati into a world class cricket venue at a cost of more than Rs. 400 crores has been greeted with a barrage of unwarranted criticism. The blue print for its modernisationenvisages demolition of galleries number one and two besides some other structures to improve the seating capacity to 42,000.

It is, indeed, sad to accept that the two historical structures have to be razed to the ground to make way for modern viewing arenas because people like me who grew upspending a lot of time in those galleries and in the stadium during our younger days have such wonderful memoriesto share. A lady, in particular, left her indelible stamp of authority in the two galleries in the fifties and the sixties.She, in a way,ruled the stadium and had unleashed her own brand of terror. Barabati Stadium was one of her territories where she punched and hit people for money and she was the undisputed queen.The small-time extortionist is long dead but her antics would make a significant chapterin the Stadium lore.

Leela Bayani (Leela the Lunatic), a scourge to men in particular, her arrival in the stepped sitting arenas during football and cricket matches would send shivers down the spines. Always attired in a deep blue saree and a near crew cut hairstyle, she would stomp the arena looking for victims to extract money. Bold and gritty as she was, Leela would straight away launch a physical assault until one paid her. As kids we were pretty scared of her bullying until one day my paternal uncle, whose association with the Barabati Stadium started as an ace centre forward representing Odisha football in Santosh Trophy in the forties, gave us a cue to escape her onslaught. `` Mention my name when she comes near you’’, he advised us with a chuckle.I thought he was joking.

On one occasion, my older brother picked me up after the school hours and took me to watch a football match in Barabati which was next doors.  I was barely five or six years old when Leela entered the scene to my horror.  She scanned the people and her eyes fell on us. Bang, she strode up and started hitting my brother without any rhyme or reason. My college going brother stood up, caught her hands and launched a counter offensive asking her `you know who I am’. The moment she heard my footballer uncle’s name, her expression changed from aggression to sublime. After a hard look, she sat down next to us and asked us in a very motherly tone whether we would like to eat anything. Before she got any answer, she waived at Chaina, another iconic figure in Barabati Stadium those days, who sold dahi bara and aloo dum, and signalled him to come near us. Chaina was from Sheikh Bazar, a contemporary of my older brother, who sold his tasty dahi bara aloo dum near the court and Ravenshaw Collegiate School, our alma mater, during the day and at the stadium in the afternoon. Leela insisted on our having the dishes from Chaina while she watched us with a complete affection. Leela never harassed us thereafter.

She had another facet to her life. Her main avocation was selling tickets in black at the Capital Cinema and the Stadium, during events, was a sort of pastime. She was a terror in the movie hall campus too in a business dominated my men. In a way, she was a lady don of Cuttack and was a household name. As I grew up and started watching cinema on the sly, Leela gave me tickets for free on a couple of occasions.

She always remained an enigma to me ever since my brother had a scuffle with her in the Stadium. What impressed me about her was her softer side and I often pondered how a lunatic could also have a sensibility and behave motherly at times. Leela has remained an unforgettable character in my mind. I still try to analyse her even now. She, to my mind, was not insane though she was termed as one. She was at best a bi-polar, tom boyish and a bully in saree, who may had been spurned in love but gave a damn to the world.

Years later, I narrated our tryst with Leela to my father and asked him why she flinched hearing Uncle’s name. Leela, he said, was a lover of sports and was always there in the playing arenas of Cuttack much before Barabati Stadium came to being. She was a sort of cheer leader. ``Your Uncle was a goodlooking footballer and Leela was a big fan of his because of his dribbling and swift moves as a centre forward’’.

Leela, perhaps, had an unfulfilled dream and chased a mirage when was she young. Though dusky, she had good features and may have desired that one of the sportspersons might get attracted to her. But that did not happen. She chose to remain a spinster and become a bully out of vengeance. Had she lived, she would have been well past 100 years and she still remains a mystery to the oldies of Cuttack like me.

The author is former Resident Editor of New Indian Express. He can be contacted at [email protected] 

(DISCLAIMER: This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are the author’s own and have nothing to do with www.prameyanews.com)


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