These Delhi schools are driving the wrestling renaissance

  • Shantanu Srivastava, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Aug 09, 2015 14:50 IST

A stream of children makes its way to a temple in Pochanpur village near Dwarka in New Delhi. They seek the blessing of Sheenu Sehrawat, their coach, and then break up into groups to prepare for another gruelling session of kushti or traditional Indian wrestling.

Some work with weights, others do sit-ups. With 15 of his 20 pupils in, the coach decides to begin the session, with some jogging and warm-up exercises. Sheenu, 38, has been coaching children in kushti for five years at the Shyam Akhara in Pochanpur. He is the sole coach; always has been. "It's the only akhara in Delhi that also trains girls," he says.

Near the wrestling mat inside the temple, Class 10 student Manju Sehrawat, 15, is getting ready to join the action. She has been training here for three years, and recently participated in the Junior Girls' Freestyle National Wrestling Championship in Ranchi. She is the youngest of five siblings and was introduced to wrestling by her father, who wanted to become a wrestler but ended up a property dealer.

"I was always strong, so my father thought I would wrestle well," she says.

Manju trains for six to eight hours a day, doing a minimum of 500 push-ups; her daily diet includes 120 almonds and a litre of milk. Her family is vegetarian, but Manju is allowed to eat eggs.

Her family faced initial resistance from neighbours and relatives, Manju says. But her father stood firm. On the mat today, it takes her less than a minute to spin her sparring partner and pin her down.

Read: India's Bajrang, Babita enter World Wrestling Championship

The success of Olympic medallists Sushil Kumar and Yogeshwar Dutt has given rise to a kind of wrestling renaissance. Shalini Sehrawat, 13, is another budding by-product. She was drawn to kushti after attending a function where Kumar was chief guest.

"The entire stadium stood up to applaud Sushil Kumar in that function. It was then that I decided that I have to attain similar heights," she says. "I still remember the day I told my parents that I wanted to join this akhara. My mother was not supportive, but my father insisted I follow my heart."

That was over three years ago. Her mother eventually gave in, but made Shalini promise her studies would not be affected.

"Some elder relatives still raise objections, but my father takes care of them. He once told a dadi from the neighbourhood to mind her own business," she says, giggling. "Things are different for girls. Every time I fail or get injured, I have to tackle barbs and brickbats. I have to constantly prove myself. People in my village were initially apprehensive of me training with boys, but everyone is equal in sports. One thing wrestling teaches you is to get up after every fall."

While kushti is traditionally fought on mud, national and international wrestling events are held on mats, so Sheenu uses mats too - as do many of the akharas in the National Capital Region.

Not all are as well set-up, though. At the Sanjay Akhara in Majnu ka Tilla in Delhi, the previous night's rain has drenched the open-air facility's only wrestling mat.

"We want to get a tin roof erected here, but it's too expensive. We don't get any grants from the government," says coach Jagbir Singh Dahiya, 47. An erstwhile disciple of the legendary Guru Changdiram, Jagbir has been running the facility since 1992. The akhara houses about 40 boys, none from the city.

"We have boys from Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Haryana, and some from outskirts of Delhi. Kushti is still an essentially rural sport," says the NIS-certified coach.

Lakshya Sehrawat, 10, lives at the akhara with his father, also a wrestler. The boy has been wrestling for over three years, but shifted here only four months ago. "I used to wrestle in village dangals. I also played kabaddi for my school, but wrestling excites me more," he says. Fellow student Aditya Singh, 15, agrees. "Injuries never scare me," he says, sporting a fresh cut on his nose. "I want to be a full-time wrestler."

Some, like 18-year-old Laxman Pehelwan of the Guru Shyam Lal Akhara near Gurgaon, plan to use wrestling as a launchpad into the police force or army. "We wrestle despite injuries," says Pehelwan, flaunting a deep cut on his forehead from a nasty fall in a mud pit. "This cut is from when an opponent lifted me and dropped me head-first. It was nasty, but such things happen."

This 55-year old akhara caters to about 50 boys, a number that has risen sharply in recent years. "We initially had just 10 or 15 students at a time, but the success of Sushil Kumar has changed things," says Harinder Pehelwan, a coach since 1990.

Nine pairs of boys sweat it out in a hall at Chhatrasal Stadium, New Delhi, surrounded by coaches and more youngsters waiting their turn. "Chitt kar de (Pin him down)," booms the powerful baritone of coach Satpal, who goes by only one name.

Parents and guardians, some from as far away as Haryana, have come to assess their wards' progress. India's only double Olympic medallist, Sushil Kumar, trained in the same hall, responded to the same baritone.

Kumar drops by again this morning. Pandemonium ensues as he jogs in, acknowledging the shrieks and cheers with a nod, and makes his way to Satpal to seek his blessing. Then the young ones throng the star for his blessing. The guru-shishya (teacher-disciple) custom completed, Sushil begins to warm up with a few laps around the hall.

"He takes his training very seriously. Whenever he is in town, he trains here, sometimes for the entire day," says Satpal, who is also his father-in-law. Satpal would know. For 49 years, the Dronacharya Award-winning coach has been waking at 4 am to begin his training sessions.
"I have no social life, but I have no regrets," he says. "The game has given me so much. I have got so much from this country - the Arjuna Award, Padma Shri, Padma Bhushan, Dronacharya… This is my way of giving something back to the game."

The 1982 Asian Games gold-medallist has trained 200 of the wrestlers who have represented India internationally over the past half-century. Graduates from his akhara have brought home 30 medals from the Asian Games, 25 from the Commonwealth Games, 3 from the Olympics, and 5 from World Championships.

"Only 2% of my students come from cities, though," Satpal says. "Wrestling requires a lot of hard work, from the kids and their parents."

Take Haryana farmer Gopichand, 79, who is currently watching his grandson practise.
For two years, Gopichand has started his day at 2.30 am to milk his cow and then travel two hours to Delhi to provide milk, and homemade ghee and curd to his grandson at the akhara.

Satyaprakash, a sub-inspector with the Delhi police and a resident of a village near Narela, on the border with Haryana, does the same for his son. "I don't want my son to join the police force. I want him to wrestle for India," he says.

Balali village in Bhiwani, Haryana's largest district, is 150 km from New Delhi, nestled in the heart of a feudal and patriarchal society.

And yet it is here that Mahavir Phogat (right), an influential landlord and a former wrestler, began a transformational journey that would see two girls win international awards in wrestling, inspiring others to try and follow in their footsteps.

Coach Satpal trains a group of young students at Chattarsal Stadium in Delhi. India’s only double Olympic medallist, Sushil Kumar, trained in the same hall, under him.

He is the man behind the famous Phogat sisters of Haryana, Geeta and Babita. Their coach and their father, he has also trained his two nieces, and is now training women from across
the region.

"There's always opposition to good work. When I started training my daughters 15 years ago, the villagers would not talk to me. They would call me 'shameless father'. I decided not to care," he says.

Geeta, who won gold in the Commonwealth Games in 2010, became the first Indian female wrestler to qualify for the Olympics, in 2012. Babita won silver and gold at the Commonwealth Games in Delhi and Glasgow in 2010 and 2014 respectively.

Their brothers are not keen on wrestling. Their cousin, Rahul, is currently managing the sisters' travel and training arrangements. A graduate in mechanical engineering, he says he doesn't plan to get a job anytime soon. "I want to stay here to help," he adds.

In a state known for female infanticide, honour killings and having one of the lowest sex ratios in the country, Phogat has proved that change is possible, and possibly on its way.
"It's all in the mind. Why shouldn't girls be treated at par with boys? Didn't Kalpana Chawla go to space? Wasn't Indira Gandhi our prime minister?" he says.

His one grouse: The complete lack of assistance from the government.

"The politicians are happy to stand beside me for photographs, but we have not got an iota of financial support," he says.

What it takes to be a wrestler
*At the akharas in the National Capital Region, training typically begins at 5 am, with running, jogging and other warm-up exercises.

*Students are then taught specific moves from among the 522 techniques practised in kushti or traditional Indian wrestling.

*After the students are taught a move or daanv, they are taught the corresponding defence move against it.

*Coaches say pehelwani (championship) is all about control. As a result, discipline is strict. There are no cellphones allowed, no computers, usually no television; all forms of alcohol and tobacco are banned; students cannot leave the premises without permission.

*We are advised celibacy till at least 25, says Laxman Pehelwan, 18, a student at Guru Shyam Lal Akhara near Gurgaon. "Our families talks to us on the coach's phone."

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