To understand the lure of wrestling in India, you need to go underground.
Leave the air-conditioned wrestling hall at Chhatrasal Stadium in Delhi to your left, circumvent the colossal stadium, and walk down the yawning ramp that takes you to a vast underground parking facility constructed for the 2010 Commonwealth Games. An extraordinary scene unfolds here: In one corner, two giant yellow wrestling mats are laid out. A few feet away, a large earthen platform has been raised for kushti. Wrestlers of all ages, shapes and sizes, dressed in red or blue singlets, slam into each other on the mat. A handful of grapplers in white cotton G-strings, stained brick red by the earth, twist and turn out of vice-like holds in the mud pit. Shouts of instruction and encouragement reverberate through the labyrinthine compound.
This is the main training area for the 265 wrestlers at the Chhatrasal akhara, or wrestling school, run by Satpal Singh, one of India’s most successful former wrestlers. India’s sudden rise in international wrestling in the last decade has been carefully scripted here. This is where 2008 Olympic medallist and 2010 world champion Sushil Kumar, current Asian champion Yogeshwar Dutt, and the Asian junior champion and bronze medallist at the 2012 Asian Wrestling Championships in South Korea, Amit Kumar, were trained and nurtured. The trio now form the core of India’s four-member men’s freestyle wrestling team for the 2012 London Olympics. Before Sushil’s success at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the akhara had around 90 students. In the space of four years, that number has almost tripled, necessitating this move from the single-mat wrestling hall to the parking lot.
“Nothing stops us,” says Satpal, still massive and imposing at 57. “If there’s no space, we will create space. If there’s no money, we will empty our own pockets. A good wrestler takes the challenge head-on.”
Wrestling in India, like Satpal and his wards, is on a dogged march forward. Such is the buzz around the sport right now that even at Chhatrasal, Sushil is far from being the only wrestling icon. Here, Amit is the new hero. When he steps on to the mat, he attracts a gaggle of pre-teen trainees, studying his moves and cheering him on. Amit, 19, diminutive but ripped, won a gold at the 2012 Aiba Asian Olympic Qualifying Event in the 55kg category, his first at the senior level.
“I came here eight years ago and watched Sushil and Yogeshwar with awe,” Amit says. “They saw talent in me, and they helped me with everything—food, training, technique, advice. And now I’m going to London with them.”
Amit’s path to the top follows a familiar trajectory. He comes from Nahri village near Sonepat in Haryana. His parents live in a crumbling little house, own a few buffaloes and sell milk for a living. Amit wandered into the village akhara at 8; two years later, his talent already apparent, he shifted from the mud pit of the village to the mats at Chhatrasal. Soon, he was pocketing medals with clockwork regularity—school games, junior national championships, and his maiden senior national championship medal, a bronze, last year. “An Olympic medal will be like holding the world in my hands,” he says.
Till just a decade ago, wrestlers like Amit would not have dreamed of even making it to the Olympics, let alone winning a medal. “Everything has changed now,” Amit says. “Sushil broke down the doors for us.”
Sushil’s medal at Beijing set off a chain of deep ramifications that shook the very roots of wrestling in India. India’s first medals in 42 years at the International Federation of Associated Wrestling Styles (Fila) World Wrestling Championships came in the wake of the Olympic win. The Wrestling Federation of India (WFI), for the first time in its hobbling history, managed to rope in a corporate sponsor. The Hari Ram Indian Wrestling Grand Prix Tournament, Asia’s first top-flight international wrestling tournament under the Fila calendar, took place in May in New Delhi.
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“State government grants for wrestlers and akharas have also tripled in places like Haryana, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh,” Satpal says, adding, “We have started sending both senior and junior teams from India for international competitions throughout the year.”
Sushil himself has witnessed these changes with pride. “I went to the small akhara in my village sometime back,” he says, “and six-year-old kids who can’t even speak properly are learning the basics of wrestling. This is an amazing time to be a wrestler in India.”
But it’s also a return to the past, India’s engagement with international wrestling began with a bang, with Rashid Mian Anwar winning a bronze at the 1934 British Empire Games (now called the Commonwealth Games). India’s first individual Olympic medal was in wrestling again, a bronze won by Khashaba Dadasaheb Jadhav in 1952.
“In the 1950s and 1960s, wrestling and hockey were the only games that were popular across India,” says Jagdish Kaliraman, who heads the Chandgi Ram Akhara in Delhi. His father, Chandgi Ram, was a legendary wrestler, and won a gold in wrestling at the Asian Games in 1970. “Father grew up deeply entrenched in that culture. He would tell me about those times when the only sports mentioned in the newspapers or on the radio were wrestling and hockey.”
Chandgi Ram’s success was not measured by the medals he won on the international stage, but by his achievements in kushti, the traditional form of wrestling in India, fought on mud. In this, Chandgi Ram was almost unbeatable in the 1970s, winning innumerable local and national competitions, called dangals. Like Chandgi Ram, Rashid Anwar and Jadhav too were schooled in kushti. Through sheer skill and willpower, these wrestlers adapted the techniques of kushti to mat-based freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling—the two styles in which international wrestling is fought.
When Jadhav won his Olympic medal, most countries were still trying to adjust to the modern Olympic version of the game. By the 1960s, this was no longer true. The then USSR, US, Japan, Iran—all countries with a rich history of traditional wrestling—had updated to modern wrestling, using their heritage as a platform. India remained insulated from these changes, and inevitably, wrestling took a crushing fall. Kushti, with its deep rural roots, began to lose its sheen with urbanization, and international medals dried up. “When I went for the 1976 Olympics,” Satpal says, “I had never even seen a mat, let alone practised on one. By that time, all the European countries had been wrestling on mats for years.”
The first mat came to India as late as 1979, when a basic jute one was installed at the Guru Hanuman Akhara in Delhi, where Satpal trained. “Look at the difference it made,” Satpal says. “At the 1980 Olympics, I narrowly lost in the quarter-finals, and at the 1982 Asiad, I won a gold.”
Even though kushti and freestyle wrestling are very similar in terms of technique and rules, the difference between mat and mud is huge. The smooth mat has little traction, requiring wrestlers to be very quick on their feet. A freestyle bout is divided into three rounds of 2 minutes each, with 30-second gaps in between, which means fights are furiously fast-paced. In kushti, the mud surface is sticky, and wrestlers dig their feet in. Kushti is fought in two 6-minute rounds, resulting in slow, long matches.
Despite Satpal’s victories, there was very little effort at updating wrestling in India, and mats were as hard to find in the 1990s as they had been a decade ago. The Chhatrasal akhara, which was set up in 1988, got its first mat only in 1992. And then a 15-year-old Sushil, trained on that mat, won a gold at the World Cadet Games in 1998. “Sushil’s win made the sports ministry realize that India could be successful in international wrestling if we modernized the sport,” says Raj Singh, secretary general, WFI, and a former wrestler. “SAI (the Sports Authority of India) began buying mats and distributing them to their own training centres as well as selected akharas.” Between 1979, when the first mat arrived, and 1998, when Sushil won at the World Cadet Games, there were less than 15 mats in India. Now there are over a thousand. Freestyle wrestling on mats, alongside kushti, is now a common feature even at dangals.
“Do away with mud wrestling completely,” says Rajeev Tomar, 30, a 2008 Olympian. “Our career is made on the mat, not mud.” In 2010, when India won a record 19 medals in wrestling at the Commonwealth Games (CWG), obituaries of kushti were written. International wrestling had arrived in India, and kushti was dying.
Here come the ‘pehelwans’
In the pre-dawn dark at the Guru Hanuman Akhara, the trainees stir from their sleep in the wrestling hall that doubles up as a bedroom. Around 30 wrestlers are scattered on the yellow mat that takes up all the floor space of the hall. Within minutes they are outside on the deserted street to begin the day’s training. It’s 4.30am, and Maha Singh Rao’s booming voice rudely shatters the early morning peace. “Hurry up, hurry up,” he screams, “line up together.” Rao, 54, is the head coach of the historic akhara, set up in 1923 with funds from Jugal Kishore Birla, an industrialist who also helped finance the Indian freedom movement. The Birlas continue to back the akhara.
Rao is of average build, but he more than makes up for it with his voice, and his charged, restless persona. Warm-up over, he leads the wrestlers back inside the gated compound of the akhara, which comprises a wrestling hall, a mud pit covered by a tin roof, a small Hanuman temple, a kitchen and a few living quarters. As the wrestlers take their positions in the mud or mat arenas, a furious period of zor, or practice bouts, begins. Thuds and slaps sting the air. Rao shouts and directs the training, skipping and bouncing from one training area to another. In one corner of the mud pit, a wrestler pulls a hoe through the mud to build endurance. The red soil flies in fiery showers, covering the wrestlers’ faces and bodies. “Wrestling in India is thriving because it is such a deep-rooted tradition,” Rao says. “In every village you go, you will find an akhara. It has an undying history from the time of the Mahabharat.”
If Sushil’s Olympic success was meant to signal the end of kushti, just the opposite has happened. “Ten years earlier, there was almost no money to be made at dangals,” Rao says. “Now a pehelwan can make Rs 25-30 lakh a year just from dangals. This too is because of Sushil, and because Indians have more money now.” Take the Hind Kesari, the biggest national kushti championship, held every year since 1958. The 2012 Hind Kesari was held at Shahu Khasbag Akhara in Kolhapur, an industrial town in Maharashtra, around 200km from Pune. Kolhapur is also the wrestling capital of Maharashtra, with over 70 akharas dotting the modest city. The Khasbag Akhara, built in 1912 by Shahu Maharaj, a former king of Kolhapur, celebrated its centenary by hosting the event. Close to 100,000 people attended each day of the three-day event. The tournament offered an unprecedented bounty of Rs 3.1 lakh to the winner. In 2005, it was Rs 51,000.
A much smaller tournament, the Seth Chokhamal Dangal in Kasan village in Uttar Pradesh, offered prize money of Rs 75,100 to the winner in May. This vintage dangal started in the early 20th century, when Seth Chokhamal, a freedom fighter, began organizing it to enable revolutionaries to meet and plot against the British under cover of the competition. Three generations of Chokhamal’s family have kept the tradition alive, though furtive meetings have been off the menu for over 60 years now.
Dangals, like akharas, are organized and funded by village panchayats, temple committees, former wrestlers, businessmen and politicians. They are held in their thousands across the country every year. And while only a minuscule number of top wrestlers, around 40-50 in any given year, make money from international wrestling, dangals are the economic mainstay for the several thousand practising wrestlers in India. “Without these dangals, wrestling will die out,” says Sushil. “I began my career on mud, and that’s where every Indian wrestler still begins theirs.”
“The mainstream media and people in big cities don’t really know the grip wrestling has in rural India,” Satpal says. “Everyone says India has no culture of sports, and no real grass-roots system. Well, wrestling has both.”
Tug of war
But the problem remains: How do you build on this popularity and grass-roots network to make India an international superpower in wrestling?
Supplying mats is a good beginning, but it comes with its own set of pitfalls. It’s impossible to fight on mats during summer, because sweat makes the surface slippery, and the heat spoils mats very quickly. Very few akharas can afford an air-conditioned hall, so most mats are used only in winter. Rural akharas just don’t have the funds to buy mats, each of which can cost Rs 4-6 lakh.
“And what about mat coaches?” asks Guru Jasram, a remarkably active 85-year-old who runs an eponymous akhara in Delhi. “We were given a mat by SAI in 2008, along with a coach. The coach left during the 2010 CWG and did not return. We’ve been applying to SAI for a new coach for two years now with no results, so the mat lies there unused.” Many rural akharas spoke of the same problem.
The WFI also points out that most akharas in India are clueless about modern training methods. “They will do age-old exercises without taking into account what the effect of the load is on a trainee,” Raj says. “A very large number of kids in akharas are always ill because of fatigue.”
The best wrestler is the one whose body is perfectly adapted to the demands of a freestyle bout—peak power for 2 minutes, and full recovery in 30 seconds for three such rounds. “You need to tailor the training and diet for this kind of explosive power, and speed-endurance,” says Raj, “This is completely opposed to kushti, where the stress is entirely on bulk strength and long-term stamina.” Part of the reason for the Chhatrasal akhara’s success is that it is one of the rare training grounds that has adopted the latest practices. “We do modern weight-training, sprints, Interval Training, and we monitor the training loads of each wrestler carefully,” Satpal says. “We have cut down on the traditional kushti diet of milk and ghee a lot, and increased fruits, nuts, vegetables, and protein shakes.”
Akharas also follow the ancient Hindu guru-shishya (master-pupil) system, which demands that the most talented students give up everything and stay on the premises for training. The guru in return becomes a father figure, teaching the students not just wrestling, but a way of life, while giving them free lodging and food. This system is followed everywhere. “But it’s not relevant to modern sports,” says Jagdish. “It makes it difficult for wrestlers to expand their knowledge and take advantage of other sources of information, since the guru is the final word on everything.”
The WFI plans to put a major dent in the guru-shishya system with the introduction of an ambitious plan towards the end of this year where the most talented junior wrestlers, between the ages of 14 and 17, will be brought together at a national camp that will run through the year. “This will make sure that we are going straight to the grass roots,” Raj says.
Rao counters this: “Wrestling is alive only because of the guru-shishya parampara . If I don’t jump and shout from 4 in the morning, there will be zero performance.”
Sushil agrees. “Look, my father was my first coach,” he says. “Then at 14, I shifted to Chhatrasal, and from then on, Satpal, who was my second coach, became also a second father. I am what I am because of them.”
Back at the subterranean training ground at Chhatrasal, a curious man with an exploding mass of hair and beard is watching Amit on the mat. As his opponent aggressively searches for openings, Amit calmly holds his ground. Then suddenly Amit grabs his rival’s neck with both hands and wrenches it down. In a flash, Amit spins around, grabs his waist and jackknifes him into the air, bringing him down with a dull crash. The onlooker, dressed in simple white linen like a hermit, claps from the sidelines. “That was very good, Amit, very good,” he says. Everyone refers to him as sanyasi pehelwan, and it was he who brought Amit to Chhatrasal six years back. His real name is Hansraj, and he is a former wrestler from the akhara who became a sanyasi eight years back. He now lives in the forest around Nahri. He makes a pilgrimage to the village akhara regularly to scout for young, talented wrestlers.
Over the years, he has picked around 20 such boys. His latest, Sunny, 14, is this year’s national school-level champion. “Sunny gives us the same kind of excitement and thrill that Sushil used to when he first came here,” says Chhatrasal akhara’s co-founder and coach Ramphal Singh.
Sunny, from Nahri, lost his father when he was 5, and his mother is a part-time seamstress. When Sunny was 10, he found himself at the village akhara, lured by the prospect of frolicking in the mud pit with his friends, and free food. “Before I knew it, I felt like not leaving the akhara at all,” Sunny says.
Without the all-embracing reach of kushti, and the guru-shishya system of free lodging and training, Sunny’s life would have turned out very differently. And kushti really is all-embracing—twisting and sliding past caste and community barriers with ease. “When two wrestlers grapple,” Satpal says, “they breathe into each other, their sweat mixes, their skin touches. When they eat, they eat together. Where is the space for caste or religion in this?”
Who is Sunny’s favourite wrestler? “Amit,” he says with a toothy grin. “In four years, I will fight at the Olympics like him.”
Deepak Ansuia, a former wrestler who now runs a comprehensive blog reporting on dangals across India, and chronicling the history of akharas, contributed to this story.
Graphic by Ahmed Raza Khan/Mint
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