Amidst glitz and glamour, Pankaj Advani was on Tuesday ceremonially conferred the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna -- the country's highest sporting honour -- by President A P J Abdul Kalam, marking a momentous occasion for India's young cue sport specialist.
Hordes of shutterbugs worked frantically to capture the moment, as Advani, who has the distinction of winning both snooker and billiards World championships, received the coveted award at the glittering Darbar Hall, at the Rashtrapati Bhawan in the presence of a host of dignitaries.
Advani, who flew in this morning from the United States after leading the Indian 'A' team to the IBSF World Snooker Team Championships final in San Jose, California, was excited.
"I am not in a state of mind to say anything now. I am too excited," said the 20-year-old from Bangalore.
Smartly turned out in a navy blue blazer and grey trousers, Advani is only the second cueist after Geet Sethi to receive the Khel Ratna.
"First let me just enjoy this moment and then I will think what next," said Advani, who also won the Asian Snooker title last year.
Fifteen other top sportspersons, including woman shuttler Aparna Popat and shooter Gagan Narang were presented the Arjuna award for outstanding showing in their disciplines for the last three years, while the Dronacharya awards were given away to eminent coaches.
For the second year running, there was no male cricketer nominated for the awards. Woman cricket player Anju Jain bagged the Arjuna.
The Khel Ratna, which had earlier been won by celebrated stars such as Sachin Tendulkar, Leander Paes and Viswanathan Anand among others, carries a purse of Rs 500,000, a medal and scroll of honour. The Arjuna awardees were presented Rs 300,000, a statuette and scroll of honour.
A hushed silence descended in the packed Darbar Hall as the President, accompanied by his immaculately dressed bodyguards, entered the arena for the presentation, which is held every year on August 29.
Ace shooter Gagan Narang, hockey star Viren Rasquinha, chess player Surya Shekhar Ganguly, athlete Manjeet Kaur, archers Dola Banerjee and Tarundeep Rai, and Anuja Prakash Thakur, the first woman cueist ever to receive the honour, were among the prominent sportspersons who bagged the award.
However, Kaur and Rasquinha could not be present at the function as they are abroad. While Kaur is training for the athletics World Cup in Ukraine, Rasquinha is in Germany with the Indian hockey team for the World Cup.
The biggest applause was reserved for chair-borne powerlifter Rajinder Singh Rahelu, who was the last name in the list for the Arjuna in the physically handicapped category.
In a touching gesture, the President, accompanied by Sports Minister Mani Shankar Aiyar, walked up to Rahelu to present the award.
"This is the biggest day of my life," said the Jalandhar sportsman, who won a bronze at the 2004 Athens Paralympic Games.
Ganguly said he was glad chess made a comeback to the list after a gap of one year.
"After (Koneru) Humpy won the award for the year 2003, Abhijit (Kunte) and P Harikrishna could have got the award last year, but I don't know what is their criteria," he said.
"I had applied for the first time and may be they considered me for the three National titles on the trot and some of my international performances," he said.
Narang, who won gold medals in China and Melbourne Commonwealth Games, said the award had motivated him to strive for higher honours.
"It is really a great motivation after the productive year."
Others who got the Arjuna were shuttler Aparna Popat, boxer Akhil Kumar, Kabaddi player Ramesh Kumar, women's swimmer Shikha Tandon, table tennis player Soumyadeep Roy and wrestler Sushil Kumar.
The Dronacharya awards for eminent coaches was presented to captain M Venu (boxing), Balwan Singh (kabaddi), Maha Singh Rao (wrestling) and Ismail Baig (rowing).