AT 3 in the afternoon, Laxmi Narayan Vyayamshala slowly comes to life. There are 12 men sleeping on the floor in the tiny makeshift room constructed above the mud pit, the hub of all activity in this akhara in central Mumbai. By 4 pm, the wrestlers will hit the mud pit as they have done every morning and evening for the past 80 years. The schedule is as rigorously observed as an ancient temple rite. The akhara, the oldest surviving one in Mumbai, was founded in 1930 in pre-Independence India to mobilise the youth and encourage them to join the freedom movement. In its glory days, more than 500 men would learn kushti here. The number is now close to 30.
After an exacting warm-up, the men start entering the pit. First, they all bend and offer obeisance to the mud. The altar to Lord Hanuman is positioned with an aerial view of the pit. They pair up in twos and lock each other in a slow embrace, as their coach Prakash Tanawade, a 50-year-old pehelwan, looks on. The bout between Vithal Jadhav and his opponent lasts for over 15 minutes. After an hour in the pit, and caked in mud, Jadhav sits down to tell his story. He belongs to a village in Sangli district in Maharashtra. Sangli and Kolhapur are the two remaining strongholds of kushti in the state. His father was a pehelwan and his father before him. At 10, he joined the village akhara. He has lived in Mumbai for the past eight years under the watchful eye of his guru Tanawade, practising kushti by day and working by night in a wholesalers’ vegetable market in Vashi, loading vegetables in trucks.
Jadhav, 26, speaks passionately about wrestling and how akhara life has kept him on the straight and narrow, away from bad habits like tobacco and alcohol. Kushti is as much about ideology as about fitness. But he will soon have to give up his father’s dream of being a wrestler, as he struggles financially and physically. More than half of his earnings of 7,000 go towards his diet, with milk, almonds and protein making up the bulk.“Kushti demands a lot of the body, and I never find time to rest. I would have given up my job if I could support myself with wrestling, but I cannot.”
Across the remaining akharas in Mumbai, young men who move to the city, hoping to land a government job and practise kushti, tell the same story. Most of them end up working as security guards, bouncers and vegetable and fish vendors. They supplement their earnings through dangal (local competitions) season — which starts with Dussehra and ends before the rains — and travel through villages all over the state. The few lucky ones land a job with the sports teams of the Railways or the Police.
There are nearly 15 akharas left in the working-class neighbourhood of the city around Dadar and Lower Parel, the mill workers’ area where the first wave of migrants settled in the late 19th century and akharas along with liquor shops opened at every corner. It is estimated that this part of the city had more than 100 akharas at one time. The ones that are left are now fighting for survival. Like the Mahatma Phule Vyayam Mandir near Chinchpokli. The coach Vasantrao Patil petitions all visitors, including this writer, to donate money. “All my wrestlers come from poor backgrounds,” he says. “Some do not have jobs. How are they supposed to survive without being able to afford the traditional diet of a pehelwan?” asks Patil. He says there are few outsiders who venture into the sport. Those who are in it are following the family tradition that has been handed down the generations.
While the story emerging from north India paints a picture of easily accessible world-class training facilities, in Mumbai and the rest of Maharashtra, akharas suffer from neglect, and a crippling lack of funds. Most wrestlers recognise that mat wrestling is the future of the sport, just as mud wrestling is entrenched deeply in the past. Not one akhara in Mumbai can afford a mat for its wrestlers. Stuck in a time rut, till they do not modernise, they cannot send players to international competitions, and they cannot modernise because they cannot afford it.
Difficult to believe then that the state ever had a “golden age of wrestling”. KD Jadhav from Satara district was India’s first individual Olympic medallist in 1952; he won a bronze for wrestling. His record was finally broken by Sushil Kumar in 2008. Harishchandra Birajdar, a gold medallist in the 1970 Commonwealth Games, was one of the last players to bring glory to the state. “From the 1950s to the ’70s, wrestlers from Maharashtra were at par and in some ways ahead of Haryana, Punjab and Delhi. Dara Singh came all the way to Kolhapur to train at one akhara,” points out Dattatray Jadhav, a blogger who promotes kushti. The highest title in Indian wrestling is the Rustam-e-Hind, which was bestowed on Dara Singh in 1978. Two wrestlers from Maharashtra had previously held the title —Harishchandra Birajdar of Pune in 1972 and Dadu Chougule of Kolhapur in 1973.
Jadhav says the state’s apathy has led to a slide in fortunes, which is difficult to recover from. He is from Kolhapur and trained in an akhara till his early 20s, following the family tradition. The meagre income his father made from farming was not enough to sustain him. He gave it up and now works in Mumbai as a graphic designer with a news daily and supports his younger brother who’s training to be a wrestler. His brother leaves for Punjab this month to receive mat training. He has great hopes from his brother of winning in the international arena and putting Kolhapur on the wrestling map again. “Kolhapur is very prosperous for wrestlers, it’s the hawa, paani, mitti. Those who go there gain strength in no time,” says Jadhav.
One man is set to change the status for Maharashtra. Just as Sushil Kumar’s medal ensured that every village akhara in Haryana got a mat, Narsingh Yadav of Mumbai, selected for London Olympics and a favourite to win, is expected to do the same for his state. Jagmal Singh, his coach at the Sports Authority of India (SAI) centre in Mumbai, says there is no space for mud wrestling anymore. Narsingh made a start at a localakhara, but was soon selected at SAI and trained in modern techniques.
“My akhara has produced national champions, but the state has not bothered to recognise this. Wrestling is prospering in states that are investing in it, by providing facilities and jobs to the wresters. Until that changes here, the sport will die out despite the potential in our young men,” says Vasantrao Patil.
One of the pehelwans at his akhara is Rohit Patil, a fresh-faced 25-year-old from Sangli. Son of a farmer, he failed to find a government job in Sangli, moved to Mumbai and is now employed by the Mumbai Police in their sports team. He looks at Narsingh as a hero, someone who will bring respectability to the sport. “My family asked me to give up wrestling. Luckily, I have got this job and I can pursue my dream. Narsingh gives hope to young wrestlers like me.”
As in so many things in India, the conflict between tradition and modernity can be seen in wrestling too. Everywhere in the country where the sport is practised, the debate between those who want to take the international route via mat wrestling and those who stand by the culture of the mud pit is raged. In Maharashtra, there is one key difference that affects the outcome, the dangal culture. Even though mud wrestling dangals are organised all over the country, nowhere are the stakes as high, the prize-money as attractive and the following as avid. Villagers in Maharashtra line up and pay from their meagre earnings to see their local heroes. Politicians have also jumped into the fray bringing big bucks. If a wrestler wants, he can compete in a dangal in a different village every day for six months. This has severely tilted the scales towards traditional wrestling in Maharashtra, leaving no room for modernity.
Joseph S Alter, author of several books on men and masculinity in India, has explored the concepts of brahmacharya, male chastity and nationalism in wrestling and yoga in his book Moral Materialism. In The Wrestler’s Body: Identity and Ideology in North India, he explored the idea of moral reform in akhara life. He offers an intriguing theory about why wrestling has surged ahead in the North in an email interview, “State support is only part of the reason for the growth of wrestling in Haryana and Punjab. There is another factor, a resurgence in the ideals of rural masculinity that are associated with agricultural prosperity.” He points out that in the context of Mumbai and urban wrestling, “the culture of masculinity appealed to working-class men, and this was the basis upon which industry provided support for akharas.”
In Mumbai, a way of life is battling for continuance with rivals like gyms and fight nights. A resuscitation of fortunes is urgently needed. It is a bout the wrestlers do not want to lose.
Sunaina Kumar is a Special Correspondent with Tehelka.