Grappling with neglect and decline, former pehelwans (wrestlers) want politicians to do their bit to put these traditional training centres of the physical sport on the road to recovering some of their former glory.
In an age of modern gyms, the akharas have indeed fallen on hard days and need recognition.
Abdul Aziz ‘Pehelwan’, a former wrestler who now mentors youngsters at Gulab Akhara here, told HT: “We want our leaders to register our akhara and provide us with some space outside this graveyard (where the akhara is located). I want to secure the future of these children before I die.”
Though politicians still come to him during elections, their number is far less than what used to be two or three decades ago.
Aziz remembers escorting candidates in elections, just a few months after he won the Rohilkhand Kesri title in January 1980. “Hame to bas saath chalna hota tha (I just had to walk along with the candidate). I just used to accompany the politician wherever he went,” Aziz said at the Akhara which was named after his grandfather Gulab Pehelwan.
Gulab Pehelwan established the akhara inside a graveyard on the outskirts of the city in the early 1900s.
Since then, wrestlers of all ages and groups have trained there amid the silence of the graves. Aziz now looks after the affairs of the akhara as its head ustad (coach). “They (politicians) used to come to the akhara and request our ustads to let us join heir campaign. On their request, our ustads use to allow some of us to accompany them,” he said.
“People used to treat us like stars and we had to make a speech on public demand,” he reminisced.
The poll-time demand for pehelwans was at its peak in the 1980s, Aziz said. It was an era when politicians started using strongmen to sway election results by capturing booths, stealing or even burning ballot boxes. The condition was much worse in the panchayat elections. “Panchayati ka chunav to keval lathi par hota tha (Panchayat elections were all about strength),” said Muneer Pehelwan, another wrestler in Bareilly.
“Apart from Gulab’s akhara, there were seven more prominent akaharas in the district,” said Aziz. The miscreants involved in booth capturing were never from akharas. “We never accompanied a politician to help him show off or capture booths. We did so out of mutual respect. Nothing more,” he said. With the poll panel becoming more and more effective in checking irregularities, the incidents of booth capturing and other incidents declined. The demand for the pehelwans waned. “They now hire people from security firms or rope in bodybuilders from gyms. There is no demand for pehalwans,” said Aziz. In the changed times, Gulab akhara along with a couple of smaller ones in Badaun are the only traditional wrestling centres left in the region. They are not registered with any sports body.
But, with elections approaching, some local politicians still go to meet pehelwans. Aziz is ready to allow some of his students to accompany the politicians if they are willing to help the akharas get registered.