Poised on top of a tall wooden pole, Ramesh Sharma knows no fear. Around him, his fellow school pupils—some as young as six years old—contort their bodies into a variety of shapes as they warm up for their turns.
None of them fail to impress as they glide up the pole one after the other. Later, they will all work together to form a human pyramid and hold their stance for as long as their coach asks them to. What makes their display of gymnastics even more impressive, though, is that each and every one of them is visually impaired.
The students of the Victoria Memorial School for the Blind have been practising the Indian sport of mallakhamb under the guidance of Uday Deshpande, head coach at Mumbai’s Shree Samartha Vyayam Mandir, the Shivaji Park-based outfit which has conducted various mallakhamb events abroad.
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Deshpande is dealing with a sport that originated 800 years ago, although it gained popularity only in the 17th century under the patronage of Bajirao Peshwa II, as a form of exercise for wrestlers in Maharashtra. Malla means wrestler and khamb means pole, and the practice involves the use of a 2.6m-high teak or sheesham pole. It has a circumference of 55cm at the base, tapering to 35cm at the top.
In the last 20 years, mallakhamb has seen something of a renaissance in India and abroad. Possibly the biggest endorsement for the rise of the sport comes from the Oxford Dictionary’s inclusion of its name. But it is yet to be recognized by the Union government as a national sport.
Deshpande, one of the key figures behind its growth, has taken teams from Mumbai to compete in international contests in Mexico, Singapore and Germany. Under his guidance the sport has been taken up by three Mumbai schools for the visually impaired, including the prestigious Victoria Memorial School for the Blind.
Deshpande is optimistic about the renewed recognition for the sport. “Although mallakhamb was not included in the Commonwealth Games this year, I hope it will be included in future international sporting events,” he says.
“Mallakhamb lends itself perfectly to visually impaired athletes. It is more about feeling and understanding the strength and balance of your body,” says Deshpande. “Blind children in India aren’t given a chance in the sports arena, but as you can see with mallakhamb they’re equally as good, if not better, as those with 20/20 vision.”
Tom Parker is a photographer from the UK who has been based in Mumbai for the last three years. He is a regular contributor to GQ, Condé Nast Traveller and The Sunday Times. He is also working on a photo project called “This is Modern India”. (www.thisismodernindia.com)