Winding lanes crammed with traffic lead one to the Royal Sports Club, situated on the top floor of a building in Delhi’s Punjabi Bagh West. The space is enveloped in silence, as arm-wrestlers from across age groups focus intently on their game. Some stand by, taking notes. Contrary to the popular notion that panja ladaana, as it is known in Hindi, is a man’s sport, here one can find girls, as young as 13, pitting their skills against older players. In one corner, a 21-year-old political science student is testing her strength against a 41-year-old homemaker. Once the session is over, the two discuss the signature techniques—top roll, hook, flash, and more—that worked for them, and the ones that didn’t. Both are national champions, who have participated in the 40th World Armwrestling Championship 2018, held in Turkey in October. The two will be participating in the 18th Delhi Armwrestling Championship in December, and the Royal Armwrestling Fights in January.

The Royal Sports Club, founded in 1995 by Laxman Singh Bhandari—general secretary and chief coach, Delhi Armwrestling Association, and a gold medallist at the Asian and World Arm Wrestling Championships—stands as a representation of the hundreds of such clubs across the country, where women arm-wrestlers are finding a platform to test their skills. I ask one of the athletes, Pooja Bisht, 23, why arm-wrestling and not any other sport? “It’s economical," she says. Unlike other sports, where you need to shell out thousands to lakhs on equipment and gear, here you only need a table. “You could build your upper body strength by working out at the gym, or you could simply go to the park and climb ropes to strengthen your wrists," she says. However, it’s not just about being easy on the pocket, the sport helps build confidence and emotional strength. “All my life, I have seen boys arm-wrestle in school and college, and they think it’s about power. But the sport is about technique and your mental abilities. And now, when I am able to defeat boys, who think they are stronger and more powerful than me, it gives me a lot of confidence," says Bisht, who also has a black belt in taekwondo. Her favourite technique is the top roll, in which the roll of the wrist is used to bring the opponent’s arm down. She pays strict attention to the grip of her opponent, guessing in seconds whether he or she will use a top roll or a flash, and then employs her technique accordingly.

Another factor, which works well for the sport, is that it is egalitarian. There are categories for all: sub-junior for those aged 12 and below; junior for below 18; senior, an open category for any age; masters for 40 and above; grand masters for 50 and above, and for the differently-abled as well. “We have a lot of players, who are visually impaired, and some who are senior citizens, having taken to the sport late in life," says Bhandari, who offers coaching at the club, free of cost. “You should see the girls, after they master the technique. Their body language changes. They don’t take crap from anyone." He also gets a lot of youngsters, who have lost direction in life and have taken to gambling, drugs and alcohol. Motivated by the ease of the game and the economy of it, the youth take to the sport quickly. “You can’t help but regain your focus as you have barely seconds to pin your opponent’s arm," says Bhandari, who is also a senior referee affiliated with the Asian and World Armwrestling Federation.

Though arm-wrestling finds a mention in old records of the Mughal courts, it acquired an organized form only in the 1960s-70s, when the World Armwrestling Federation was formed, soon after which the Indian Arm Wrestling Federation was founded in 1977. Today, nearly 28 states are affiliated to the national body, and 42 national championships have been held so far in India. The 43rd National Arm Wrestling Championship will tentatively be held in May. Since inception, the competitions have seen participation by women athletes, but the numbers have gone up drastically in the past couple of years. “Twenty years ago, one saw a lot of participation by women from the North-East and Madhya Pradesh. But now, one can see girls coming in from Delhi, Haryana, Punjab and Kerala as well," says Manoj Nayar, an administrative official associated with the sport. “It helps that the chances of physical injury in this sport are far lesser than in other sport."

Bhandari with some of the arm-wrestlers. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
Bhandari with some of the arm-wrestlers. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

Today, of the 500 participants at the national championships, at least 150 are women. It reflects the rising popularity of the sport—it is practised in 70 countries, including the US, Canada, Bulgaria, Kazakhstan and Poland. Russia has emerged as a leader within this set, with athletes such as Julia Merkulova striking gold at the world championships. In the US, there is the Confederation of Lady Arm Wrestlers (CLAW), a national not-for-profit of 18 leagues, which raise money for organizations that help women. Then, there is the Boston Arm Wrestling Dames, which is more WWE style, in which each player has a theme song, a costume and an entourage. The clubs in India are slightly less dramatic, focusing more on skill and less on theatrics. However, the end-result—the feeling of empowerment and self-confidence—is universal. In a 30 December 2011 Guardian report, theatre artist Karie Miller, who hosts meetings of CLAW’s Chicago chapter under the pseudonym Rockke L. Squelch, mentions how she also felt self-conscious about being 6ft-tall. “I don’t feel like I have to apologize for my height anymore. I’m like 6ft, 6 inches by the time I’ve put the outfit on, and it’s fun to be even larger and exploit that height," she says in the report.

Her sentiments are echoed by Shruti Bala, 17, who stays near Dwarka Mod, in Delhi, and has been arm-wrestling for the past five years. “I used to be so under confident and weak that I couldn’t even cross the road on my own. My father enrolled me for kushti and then arm-wrestling, and today, mujhse panga koi nahi leta (no one messes with me). I can take care of my own security," says Bala, who has won gold at the nationals four times.

A lot of the women who become arm- wrestlers are usually also practising another sport, such as kushti or powerlifting. A classic example of this is Bala, who is a junior-level champion in arm-wrestling and is also a WWE player. “Each sport tests a different part of your body. For instance, powerlifting is about your core strength. Arm-wrestling is about your upper body strength. And I like to test both," says Rohini Gohri, who lives in Delhi’s Karol Bagh area. A homemaker, she took up both the sports rather late in life, at 41. But such was her focus, that she won gold in both, at state-level championships. “I was a regular at the gym and I told my instructor that I wanted to do something different. So, he introduced me to Laxman Sir two years back, and I have never looked back ever since," she says. It took a while for her to overcome jitters, while performing in front of a large gathering, and to overlook the negative opinions of her acquaintances, who felt she would never be able to make it as arm- wrestler. “Today, the appreciation is tremendous. It’s so heartening to read my younger son write about my skill as an arm-wrestler and a powerlifter in his school essay. I feel I can conquer the world," says Gohri. Now, all that the players want is for the government to recognize the sport, so that they can get proper funding for forthcoming national and world tournaments.

Know your sport

Key techniques

Top roll, hook and back press, finger press

Kit

A table (40x36x26 inches), table top (7x7x2 inches) and a touch pad on which the players keeps their elbow (10x4x2 inches)

Rules

Contestants have to come to the table within 60 seconds of being called. The thumb grip must be visible. The shoulders should be square to the table. Back pressure, which pulls your opponent’s arm across the marked centre of the table, will be deemed as a false start. There should be a hand’s width between the shoulder and the forearm of each competitor.

Exercises

Finger walks, grippers, lever lifts, heavy bench press partials in a power rack

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