Wrestlers practice the three thousand year old sport known as Kushti, a form of wrestling, in its traditional form at the fight club at Chattarshal Stadium in New Delhi. HT/Raj k Raj
People start trickling in from early evening near the makeshift stage abutting the historic Town Hall at Chandni Chowk. By 7pm, the crowd, which swells to block traffic on the busy road, starts getting restless.
The host manoeuvres the betel-nut juice in his mouth to announce the next attraction - a dance show by the local gym boys. Six men, with varying degrees of musculature, start gyrating to suitably macho Hindi film songs, wearing minuscule shorts and awkward smiles.
The crowd starts clapping half-heartedly and suddenly, there is absolute silence - the guests of the felicitation ceremony have arrived. The crowd breaks into raptures as Olympic silver medallist Sushil Kumar and bronze medallist Yogeshwar Dutt climb on to the dais. The excitement wouldn't have been more had they been cricketers or film stars.
Wrestling's success story
Kumar's success in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, followed by the silver in London Olympics, has put India firmly on the international wrestling map. The success story was scripted in Delhi, where champions like Kumar, Dutt and Amit Kumar trained at the Chhatrasal Stadium's akhada run by Satpal Singh.
The figures tell the story. Before Kumar's bronze in Beijing, the akhada had about 60 students. Today the number has risen to nearly 300. "About five to 10 boys come here every day to join the akhada. We have to hold trials, where we gauge their talent," said Yashvir Singh, one of the main coaches.
Delhi - the wrestling hub
Traditional Indian wrestling, kushti, has been popular in Delhi for ages, as it was in Haryana, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra. But in the last decade, Delhi has become a centre of excellence. "It offers more infrastructure and facilities. Many, like Yogeshwar, start training in the village, but come here to hone their techniques," Singh said.
The tryst with pahelwans
If you ask any wrestling coach, they will trace a mythical lineage of Delhi's wrestling tradition. Kushti and akhadas, however, had definitely arrived here much before Independence. "People used to practice 'zor' on the banks of Yamuna. There was a string of akhadas along the bank," said Jagdish Kaliraman, son of the legendary wrestler Guru Chandgi Ram, whose akhada stands near Maju ka Tila.
"There were no gyms back. My father, who trained under Guru Chiranji Lal, would build strength by rowing boats and wringing wet sacks for a strong grip," he said. Kaliraman, who is the chief wrestling coach of UP Police, puts the number of small and big akhadas in Delhi to 100.
Mud to mat
The late afternoon rain had resulted in choked traffic on north Delhi's Roshanara Road. The chaos, however, fades away as you enter the Guru Hanuman Akhada. Inside, the only sounds are that of loud slaps and violent thuds as a dozen well-built men wearing soil stained loincloths grapple with each other in a mud pit.
Maha Singh Rao, Dronacharya awardee and coach of the akhada, hops between its wrestling hall and the mud pit outside, hollering instructions mixed with profanities. The 54-year-old is a man of average build but his thundering voice is enough to make his students to cower. "If I don't shout, there won't be any discipline here," he said.
Wrestling has changed a lot in the last two decades and the akhada, one of the oldest in Delhi, has followed course. "Kushti bouts would go on for one to two hours but in the new international format, matches have two-minute rounds," he said. The wrestlers now practice both in the mud pits and mats, each of which cost Rs. 3.5-5 lakh.
Also, the focus is not just on fighting dangals or international sports events. Even if they don't make it to the Olympics, success even at the national level could mean a stable government job. "I shifted here from Pune to practice wrestling because of the infrastructure and coaching available here," said Vishwas Waghole, 21. "If I go up to the national level, at least a job is guaranteed."