Sarvajanik Vyayamshala is not an easy place to find. Even people who have lived in the Mumbai suburb of Jogeshwari all their lives draw a blank when asked how to get to the akhada (traditional wrestling arena), one of the few such centres still being run in Mumbai.
Sarvajanik Vyayamshala, or gymnasium, is a metaphor for the state of mud wrestling in Mumbai, which is on the decline, and exists only in a few localities.
One eventually locates the centre, tucked away inside a housing society and barely about 400 sq feet.
Sweat and soil
Around 10 to 12 grapplers of all ages are grappling with each other in the Jogeshwari facility, their bodies drenched in sweat and coated with orange mud. Their fight is as much against their training partners as it is against the oppressive heat. Light coming through tiny windows fall on the wrestlers, all clad in langots, the traditional undergarment fashioned out of cloth.
Despite its unremarkable appearance, it is not just another traditional wrestling training centre in the city. This is the nursery where Mumbai’s biggest names in wrestling, Narsingh Yadav and Sandeep Tulsi Yadav, took their first steps in the sport.
The raging controversy over participation in the 74 kg freestyle event at the Rio Olympics has put Mumbai’s Narsingh Yadav in the limelight. He won the Rio quota place for the country with a world championships bronze medal and insists he should be sent to the Games.
However, twice Olympic medallist Sushil Kumar, who has moved up to Narsingh’s weight class, is demanding that the federation hold trials and sent the winner to the Games.
This controversy has also brought attention to Mumbai’s own traditional wrestling coaching centres, which are more prominent in Delhi and neighbouring states, especially Haryana.
The first steps
Before everything, before Narsingh became SAI Kandivli’s blue-eyed boy, before his gold medal at the 2010 Commonwealth Games, before the Wrestling World Championships bronze that helped him win the Olympic quota place in the 74 kg freestyle division, he was just a little boy who would come to the Sarvajanik Vyayamshala with his father and elder brother. It was here that his father Pancham, elder brother Vinod and his four cousins would wrestle.
Narsingh’s coach at the centre, Bharat Yadav, or Bharat Ustad as Narsingh calls him, says the stint at the akhada provided the base for his trainee’s rise.
“Kids learn wrestling techniques in the mud only. And then when they go on the mat, they refine the technique,” Bharat told HT.
“Wrestlers can do moves they have learnt in the mitti (soil) very easily on the mat as it takes more power to do a move in the mud. The mud sinks when you step into it. The mud also makes a wrestler slippery and difficult to hold.”
Bharat was a wrestler of some standing and the sport helped him get a job in the Central Railways’ workshop in Parel, where he works. He inherited the akhada from his wrestling mentor many years ago. Since then, he has juggled both jobs. He comes to the vyayamshala at 4.30 every morning for a two-hour stint and is back for another such session in the evening.
Back when he used to train here, alongside Narsingh’s father, the akhada had wide open spaces around. Now, in the cramped, claustrophobic room, he teaches 40-odd wards the techniques of the sport, hoping that another Narsingh or Sandeep emerges from here.
Narsingh comes here every Sunday evening when he is in Mumbai, to catch up with old friends and give some useful tips to the younger trainees.
“They still treat me the same way they used to when I was just a kid. Sometimes, we also end up playing other sports like cricket, which helps me relax,” Narsingh said.