The two pehelwans in the ring are circling each other, crouched. Their intense eyes are locked in combat mode, their glistening bodies dripping sweat into the loose clay underfoot. It’s not just the whistle-happy referee and the mike-wielding commentator who are egging on the mud-caked combatants. Screaming encouragements is a jostling crowd of 200 or so — the most that can be fitted into this small arena next to the Mahavir temple in the Ardali Bazar area of Varanasi. Outside, there’s a queue of people waiting to file in; but nobody wants to budge from near the ring.
It’s Nag Panchami, and the screaming crowd is celebrating the big day of their sport: kushti. It’s early August — Sushil Kumar is not even a speck on the nation’s mindscape yet. And the crowd is not hollering for the 2-minute-a-round bout on regulation mat that would eventually get Sushil the Olympic bronze. They are cheering for the draining, 20-to-40-minute-a-bout variety that marks Indian-style wrestling — a mix of millennia-old subcontinental mallakala and Persian influences brought in by the Moghuls.
The crowd’s favourite pehelwan, ‘local boy’ Pramod Kumar Yadav, heaves out of the ring and asks for a glucose drink. Not finding it at hand, the 21-year-old police constable tells the organisers breathlessly, “We wrestlers do not need much — no equipment, no other shoo-sha. The least you could do is be ready with this little help.” A murmur of approval flutters around.
It’s a thought on many Indians’ mind this weekend.
Though this earthy variety of the sport has made for a muddy spectacle in the subcontinent for centuries, state support for it in independent India has been half-hearted at best. At the 1952 Helsinki Games, when Kashaba Jadhav won India’s first individual Olympic medal (a bronze), he had no official to plead the case that he needed his half-hour rest before starting the last bout. In Beijing, Sushil did not have a physiotherapist at hand when he had to grapple through three bouts on the last day.
Curiously, this vacuum — that has existed ever since royal patronage of the Moghul and Maratha varieties dried up — has been filled by religious bodies. Joseph Alter, professor of anthropology at University of Pittsburgh, notes that most of the 150-odd akharas up-and-grappling in Benares are situated on land owned by temple trusts. In and around Kolhapur, a centre of excellence till early 20th century, shakhas of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh have taken up the role.
The most curious mix of religious support exists in Old Delhi, where exhibition bouts are staged every weekend on the greens in front of Jama Masjid. The Itehadi Dangal Committee, which wrestled back the right to stage the bouts a couple of months back, is patronised by the Shahi Imam. And the bouts are co-organised with the Delhi Wrestling Association, headed by the Kedarnath-temple-affiliated Guru Brahmachari.
Haji Mohammad Salim, general-secretary of the Itehadi Dangal Committee, says, “All these arrangements — the mikes, the sitting, the soil — are prepared by us with the help of donations. The government does not help one bit.” Sitting next to Salim, Guru Brahmachari voices another crib: “Mitti makes the stage for real kushti — the mat they use these days is hardly the real thing. And how can you have a fight that ends in 2 minutes?”
India may have rediscovered wrestling as a ‘national sport’ this week. But it doesn’t seem to be the same sport that got
us an Olympic bronze. And the government is surely not its cheerleader.