When one talks about Harika Dronavalli in the realms of women’s chess in India, her list of accomplishments are staggering. An Asian U-12 gold medalist in 2002, Woman International Master at the age of 12 which made her the youngest to achieve the feat and 2006 World Youth Championship gold medal winner all made her a star even before she became a teenager. As the years progressed, more laurels followed. An Arjuna Award in 2007 was followed by strong performances in several world events for three to four years. At age 20, in 2011, Harika became a Women Grandmaster. In 2015, she had settled for bronze in the Women’s World Chess championship in Sharjah but in the 2016 Chendu Chess Grand Prix, Dronavalli finally scaled the summit.
With so many accolades in chess, it was only a mere formality that Harika would be conferred with more awards. However, in 2016, she had applied for the Padma Shri, the fourth-highest civilian award in India but she was rejected. She was dejected but she kept on performing consistently. In 2017, after magnificent performances in the Women’s World Chess Championship, she once again settled for bronze. Finally, all her achievements were recognised and on Republic Day 2019, she was the recipient of the Padma Shri.
Speaking exclusively to News Nation, Harika summed up her years of struggle and highlighted how she turned the pain of rejection into something motivational. “When I did not receive it, I was upset. You lose something, you feel bad. You feel that you must win it all cost. I had won all the women's titles possible. The only thing remaining was the world title. I had felt that this was enough to win the title. Otherwise, I was wondering how I would convince the world of my achievement,” Harika said.
The 28-year-old from Guntur then highlighted as to how she turned the rejection around and put in some fine performances. “I told myself that this is good for me. The pain gave me more extra motivation to do well. I then applied again next year. I was just doing it. I was not expecting it. I thought one day or the other my appreciation would come. I was trying hard and was keeping myself doubly motivated,” Harika said.
‘Happy for parents’
When Harika finally won the Padma Shri, the happiness that she shared on all her social platforms was unlike any which was seen on her previous social media activity. She said her parents were on ‘cloud nine’ following her achievement. Harika said the award meant a lot as her parents had put in plenty of work to make her reach where she was.
“I am happy for my parents because they are incredibly happy. In their disappointment, I started feeling bad. This was important for my parents as they had worked extremely hard to get to where I am. It holds immense value. It takes a lot to get an award like the Padma Shri. Chess is not a viewer friendly sport. These kind of awards motivate us. For me, getting the Padma Shri is making people understand the amount of hard work and struggles that we have put in chess to get to where we are,” Harika said.
Considering the fact that she had to wait so long for the award, Harika actually pointed out the paradox of the entire Padma Shri episode, highlighting her plight with female athletes of other sports. “Women are more privileged in the country. They got more recognition. However, if I have to see my sport, we are yet to get the recognition for what we have achieved. It will change in the near term,” Harika said.
When asked whether the thought of quitting the sport ever occurred to Dronavalli in case she never won the Padma Shri, she emphatically replied No but highlighted the value of getting such an award. “We don't play for awards. This is one of the awards that will give you recognition in the country. It did not occur for a second (about quitting). I never doubted my skills. I only try to bring laurels for the country,” Harika said.
In 2018, the queen of chess was checkmated by her king when she married Karteek Chandra, who is a managing director at a construction and civil engineering company. Harika said she is glad to have gotten such a supportive partner, stating that she is travelling more and playing more. The fact that she got the award after marriage highlighted her belief that marriage has been lucky for her.
“I was always told, that after marriage, a lot will change. I was thinking I might not have time to concentrate on my profession. I started having doubts whether I would be able to concentrate on chess. Luckily, my husband has given me equal support if not more. I am playing after marriage and I am able to travel a lot more. He shares all the happiness and helps me reduce my sorrows. He ensures that I can concentrate full-time on my game,” Harika said.
Dronavalli resumed playing after seven months in the Women’s World Chess championship in Russia where she crashed out in the round of 16 but the 28-year-old was not too disappointed as she was coming back after a seven-month break. However, for Dronavalli, the saying, “Better late than never” applies perfectly to her life. The Padma Shri could lay the base for greater achievements in the near future for Harika.