Among a group of children learning mallakhamb, a traditional Indian sport, at the Shree Samartha Vyayam Mandir at Shivaji Park, David Grace, an American, stood out as he tried to balance his body on the wooden pole in the centre of the room.
Grace, 33, a fitness trainer, who owns a gym in California, landed in Mumbai two weeks ago. “I saw a couple of Youtube videos demonstrating mallakhamb and was very impressed by the strength and flexibility of the performers,” said Grace, who is learning the sport from Uday Deshpande, a former national level mallakhamb player.
Grace approached several coaches across the country, who declined teaching him. “I then found Uday sir. No gymnasium can build your strength and flexibility in the way that mallakhamb does. Once I have mastered this art, I am planning to teach it back in the states.”
The word mallakhamb consists of two parts- malla, which means gymnast, and khamb, meaning pole. Invented in the 19th century, during the reign of the Peshwas, it is a traditional Indian sport in which a person performs feats on a wooden pole or a rope.
“Mallakhamb gives your body the maximum amount of exercise in the minimum amount of time. It is ideal for fast-paced life of Mumbaiites,” said Deshpande,” who has been teaching the sport for 55 years.
“Most modern-day fitness techniques have very short-term effects on your body. The physical benefits of mallakhamb, on the other hand, last even after one stops practicing it. It is time that the age-old sport be given its due importance,” added Deshpande.
Women practice mallakhamb on a rope, instead of a pole, informs Neeta Tatke, 47, who is in charge of mallakhamb at Samartha Vyayam Mandir. “I started learning mallakhamb at the age of seven, and has been teaching it for the past 15 years,” said Tatke, who is also the vice principal of Ruparel College, Dadar.
One can start learning mallakhamb at any age, though the earlier the better. “We had a man who came in to learn mallakhamb at the age of 80 and we taught him. However, we do advise people above the age of 60 to seek a doctor's opinion before starting it,” Tatke cautioned.
More than a sport, mallakhamb is also an excellent way to exercise your body and is turning out to be the newfound passion of many Mumbaiites.
“The level of concentration involved in mallakhamb is more than I have ever seen in any other sport,” said Nivedita Rawal, 47, a psychotherapist. “It has also improved my strength and flexibility. Practicing it has made me feel young again,” added Rawal.
Though Sheela Sharma, 53, was dragged into learning the sport by her daughter, who first saw it in the movie ‘Kisna’ in which the female lead would do mallakhamb as an exercise, Sharma has found herself practicing it diligently. “In a gymnasium, you have different equipments for different muscles, here it is all combined into one,” said Sharma, who practices twice a week for three hours each.
For Dr Rupin Shah, 50, the sight of people practicing mallakhamb while passing through Shivaji Park got him curious about the sport. “In mallakhamb, one uses his own body weight for a work-out. Instead of all the artificial machines working on your body, it is your body which is working on the pole,” explained Shah, a neurologist.
In spite of its numerous benefits, awareness about the indigenous sport is lacking. “We have conducted demonstrations and seminars in many schools to raise the awareness,” said Ravi Gaekwad, who teaches mallakhamb at Sane Guruji Aarogya Mandir, Santa Cruz. “It is also one of the most inexpensive forms of exercise. All you need is two mattresses and a wooden pole,” he added.