It was a sultry summer afternoon in Kolkata, sweaty and scorching. The kind when the whole city indulges in a short mid-day siesta it is famous for. “Hold your reins tighter”, a voice shot through the white heat at me. Mrs. Martin was slogging after our horse-riding technique at the riding school in the Royal Calcutta Turf Club.
A handful of us listened to her dutifully, proceeding to make the same mistakes over again. “Pick up the rein”, she repeated, tireless in her efforts to transform a motley group of amateurs into equestrians of some skill. This is a regular scene, rain, storm, sun and all sorts of unpredictable weather notwithstanding.
Mrs. Revaz P. Martin is the only female horse-riding trainer in Kolkata and while I am usually reluctant about reducing any professional to their gender identity, her lessons schooled me in feminism in ways years of liberal arts education at premiere institutions in the country and abroad could not. This is her story.
Mrs. Martin, an avid dog-lover and horse-lover, has been associated with the club for over a five decades. Her father was an active associate of the club. She joined the RCTC Riding School as an instructor in 2011 when she came back to Kolkata with her husband. Professionals count their successes in various ways. The success of Mrs. Martin’s decade here is visible in the sheer love that trails her in the form of little children, rescue dogs, and horses as she makes her way busily around in the premises of the club.
Very young children as well as adults well into their middle-ages receive the same strict but caring training, as they progress through various stages of becoming an equestrian. Hailing from a family of equestrians, Mrs. Martin’s lineage speaks of a long history of empowered women.
Her grandmother rode astride, and side-saddle though she did not have the same opportunities offered to her, regrets Martin. This inherited memory of the love for the sport is reflected in the casual grace with which she speaks to scared and misbehaving horses, in the studied poise with which she picks up her reins. Yet, as she goes about teaching little girls and young women to pick up their reins, she is teaching them something much deeper, and it is this transformative touch of her presence that is the most valuable.
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If two aspects of growing up as a woman in South Asia proved to be the most challenging, it would be the constant fear and threat of bodily danger and the lack of feeling in control. Every girl past adolescence has looked back several times while crossing dark pathways and most of them have felt that a lot of their life decisions were imposed upon them by societal expectations.
Horse-riding, like any other sport in the subcontinent, is a largely male-dominated territory. Yet, as Mrs. Martin goes about training young girls to control horses twice, sometimes thrice, their physical weight, she passes on something much more invaluable: a sense of empowerment that comes with freedom from fear.
Afterall, if you saw yourself through the tracks in tropical stormy weather and have cantered without stirrups, few things would appear scary to you any longer! She constantly pushes her students to overcome their boundaries. Teaching them to have the strength and the spine to take control, to literally and metaphorically “pick up the reins” and lead their lives on their own terms, and to break out of stereotypes long imposed on women like she did.
When she joined the school, as an instructor, she found herself up against her predecessor, an ex-jockey who had trained under her father. He actively and publicly questioned her understanding of horses. The experience is uncannily similar to scores of women professionals who have often been questioned about their professional capabilities simply because they are women.
Female equestrians have historically been associated with empowerment, whether it is the Scythian women of the 8th and 7th century BC central Asia, credited with the first use of stylised saddles, or the more recent Rani of Jhansi, and her valor against colonial invasion. Mrs. Martin joins this long-list of equestrian foremothers who challenged stereotypes to rise to their calling.
However, she is different. These women, warriors and ruling elites of their times, were women coming from their privileges. Mrs. Martin is a teacher who is careful to not project any differential treatment towards students. Often sensitive to the costs of learning an equestrian sport, the fees at the school is one of the lowest in the country. Her students come from all backgrounds and socio-economic groups, learning to respect each other as well as the animals around.
The most striking feature in the sociological environment of the school circles back to a very important feminist agenda – men. The boys who look after the horses, and student riders at the school accord its female students with respect, priority and a nurturing equal environment where they are free to learn, have fun, and excel.
One wonders whether this environment, so rare in the subcontinent and so precious to the few of us who have the privilege of experiencing it, is not a direct impact of Mrs. Martin’s presence itself – a strong woman unwilling to be dictated by social norms. Of course, one tends to forget this blessing as she decides to take away the stirrups one random afternoon and makes you trot without them, but what is a little soreness in the core when it means we are changing the world to be a slightly better place.
Srimati is a lecturer at the Jindal Global Law School at the O.P. Jindal Global University. She is a scholar of South Asian History, Politics and Culture and has completed her MPhil. from the University of Cambridge. She enjoys reading, writing on social and political issues, and has been involved in the past in activism. She now focuses her energies on engaging her students in critical thinking and a desire to question. In her free time, she enjoys swimming, playing badminton, archery, riding horses and rowing. An avid traveler and reader, she hopes to see the world and help build a more equal society. You may find her on Instagram