New Delhi: As Indian women continue to break social stereotypes, Mumbai-born Dr Seema Rao, 49, is perhaps one of few who have multiple firsts to their credit.
The only woman commando trainer in the country, she is also the highest-ranking woman instructor in the world of Jeet Kune Do — Bruce Lee’s martial art.
Seema’s speciality is in Close Quarter Battle (CQB), the art of commando warfare.
This involves both armed and unarmed combat, reflex shooting, tactics and simulation of commando situations.
A pro at venturing into different terrains — from scorching hot deserts, to ice-clad mountains, rocky landscapes and dense forests, she has conquered all.
During her training courses, she gives shooting demonstrations in which husband (Major) Dr Deepak Rao holds a target on his head and Seema shoots five rounds into the bull’s eye from a distance of 75 metres.
Recalling her childhood, Seema says, “Though quite studious, I never appreciated the regimentation in school. Having grown up listening to stories of freedom fighters who gave up their lives for country’s freedom, which we enjoy and take for granted, I was immensely touched by those stories and wanted to do my bit for the country.”
While studying medicine she met Dr Rao, and the two got married.
(A physician, Dr Rao was granted the honorary rank of Major by the President of India in 2011. He is the fifth Indian to receive the Presidential Rank Award since Independence).
Highly impressed and thrilled upon learning about the world of commandos — shoot first, shoot fast and shoot to kill — Seema desired to know more about the subject and eventually decided to be part of the game.
“Apart from the skills and training regimen, it is required of the commando to have the zeal to face challenges of different terrains and climatic conditions,” she says.
“To become an expert, I underwent a professional course in sailing and yatchmanship. In addition, I learnt scuba diving to understand the problems faced in deep waters and a course in mountaineering to beat the challenges posed at high altitudes.”
A training course on skydiving was made possible by the Indian Air Force under the chief’s special sanction.
“Already equipped with knowledge of medicine, I understood the subject of survival and commando training better,” she says.
It was not easy equipping herself, as each of these skills took complete dedication.
There were times when Seema felt defeated and hopeless.
During those moments, her life partner, whom she refers to as her “friend, teacher and confidant”, would tell her to “stand up and fight” and reach her maximum potential.
“In our field, competition is with oneself. You have to continuously strive to be better than yesterday,” Seema remarked.
Along with her commando training, she had been learning martial arts.
“In martial arts, I learnt to relish the adrenalin of getting hit if you don’t hit first. It is one of the skills that I perfected. At the age of 20, I had attained my black belt. I trained in military martial arts, the Israeli Krav Maga and Mixed Martial Arts (MMA),” she added.
She also learnt Jeet Kune Do, the art and philosophy of the legendary Bruce Lee, from grandmaster Richard Bustillo, one of Lee’s students. Years of intensive training later, Seema was graded as senior instructor.
Later, she learnt several other arts as well.
“As member of a sport shooting club, I discovered that I was a crack shot. I could shoot an apple off a man’s head at a distance of 75 yards [70 metres]. I am skilled with a knife and also in small team tactics — and the art of team fire where an entire team shoots together without collateral damage.”
While both Seema and her husband had their own individual capabilities, together those capabilities multiplied, she says.
“We believe that life is a cup of tea, but do not consider drinking from the same cup. We each drink from our own cup, but in the company of each other,” she says.
With all the essentials in her pocket, didn’t she ever consider joining the armed forces?
“Though I always had the highest regard for defence forces, I grew up wanting to become a doctor,” she says, adding “But then destiny lead me to the forces and I ended up becoming a trainer in CQB [which in essence is a commando trainer] and I have been training the forces for over 20 years.”
At the time of the 1999 Kargil War, where soldiers came in proximity with their enemies, and also with frequent urban terror incidents, CQB assumed more importance.
As experts in unarmed combat, Seema and her husband had a chance meeting with a senior police officer.
“Impressed by our skills, he suggested a demo for his force. Subsequently, we were asked to train his troops. At a conference of Deputy Inspector-Generals, we were introduced to other senior police officers and it led us to train different forces.”
An opportunity to meet the commandant of the Army School of Physical Training got them a spell with the esteemed National Security Guards’ Black Cat Commandos.
“Later, seeing our dedication, the chief of army staff planned a six-week army cadre at the prestigious Parachute Regiment Training Centre in Bengaluru,” she says.
It all sounds exciting and adventurous, but the couple had their fair share of difficulties and financial constraints.
“I once had a head injury causing amnesia and a back injury that required months of hospitalisation,” Seema says. “At times, we were travelling to different locations continuously for eight months. With no source of income, we suffered bankruptcy and I had to sell my jewellery to sustain ourselves, but we never once thought of giving it up.”
Years of patience and perseverance bore fruit and the couple have managed to buy a penthouse in a Mumbai suburb.
“We now run a state-of-the-art combat fitness academy and the only authentic JKD centre in Asia, among a hundred quacks,” the commando trainer says.
• Dr Seema Rao’s day begins at 5am. After half an hour of meditation, she trains in martial arts for two hours.
• Once a week, she runs 5km and twice a week goes to the gym, lifting heavy weights.
• Weekends are spent fighting Mixed Martial Arts bouts with men aged 25, who weigh 25kg more than her.
• She routinely ends up knocking them out or hurting them. Occasionally, she too gets her lips smashed and nose broken.
• No parties or nightlife. A teetotaller, she avoids tea, coffee and carbonated drinks.
• No medication or painkillers even when she is sick.
• No protein supplements for her. She eats a balanced diet during the day, including dudhi (bottle gourd) juice in the morning and raw uncooked multigrain powder at night. Every alternate day, it is an all fruits diet.