After Sultan, read an excerpt from a book on India’s great tradition of Kushti
From the Great Gama to Gobar Goho to Sushil Kumar, India’s akhadas have produced some great wrestlers. Rudraneil Sengupta’s fascinating book is a meditation on the sport and its dedicated practitioners. This excerpt looks at kushti’s essentially democratic spiritbooks Updated: Jul 16, 2016 15:44 IST
At dusk, Kallu pahalwan and Sohan Lal decide to walk to the ghats.
It’s what they do every evening. They keep away from the more crowded ones, the places where tourists and devotees throng for the evening aarti. The ghat of their choice, under the shadow of a hulking old palace, looks abandoned. A naked bulb hangs from the wall of the palace where the curving steps meet an octagonal stone platform raised above the water. It casts a feeble yellow light on the final few steps. A few feet away, on the next ghat, a band of children run around playing a game of tag, casting long, fleeting shadows over the palace ramparts. Boatfuls of tourists go by, the boatmen shouting out inane bits of information: ‘This is Darbhanga Palace, it was made by the maharaja of Darbhanga; This is Ahilya Ghat, built by Maharani Ahilya’—and so on.
But mostly, there is silence. I sit with the two friends on the platform and watch the water turn black.
‘So why exactly are you here,’ Kallu pahalwan asks.
‘I am writing a book on kushti.’
‘A book? Then you’ve come to the right place. This is a place of learning.’ He smiles widely.
HT Books podcast: Listen to author Rudraneil Sengupta read from Enter the Dangal
‘Banaras ki kushti, aur Banaras ki masti! (Wrestling in Varanasi and ecstasy in Varanasi!) You must experience both, and write about both!’ He smiles, then: ‘There is one very important thing about wrestling that you must understand. It is the most important thing. If it can be grasped, everything else is unnecessary.
‘Kushti is not about fighting at all. It is about spreading love. That’s the main reason why akhadas exist. To spread love. Some people call it bhaichara (brotherliness). When we put mitti on ourselves, we are saying many things. We are saying that we come from mitti, it sustains us, and then we go back to mitti. What that means is that we are all the same. Hindus, Musalmans, high caste, low caste, Brahmin, Chamar, brown skin, white skin, black skin, ugly, beautiful—you know what happens to them when they enter the akhada and wrestle?’
‘They all become the same. They have a body of one colour. They are all covered in mitti. They become members of the same caste—the caste of pahalwans.’
Kallu and Sohan are only telling me what I have heard repeated endlessly by other wrestlers and gurus: kushti is against the divisions of caste.
‘See, this is the only sport where two naked bodies meet. Your sweat, blood, saliva—all of it mingles. If you haven’t broken the barriers of caste and religion, how can you allow this to happen? That’s why kushti has no caste, and it has no religion.’
‘Who is India’s most famous pahalwan?’ Sohan Lal asks.
Without thinking, I say, ‘Gama.’
‘And he is a Musalman,’ Sohan Lal says.
‘Yes. And every pahalwan in India knows of him, and keeps him in his heart, just like with Hanuman,’ Kallu says. ‘I remember—and this was a long time back—when I was twenty or twenty-one, and I had travelled for two days to go to this akhada in Punjab for a competition. I was not feeling too well. But I went to the akhada, and inside there was this huge portrait of Gama—the moment I saw that, I felt the illness leave me.’
Kallu pahalwan’s akhada stands in solidarity with his ideals. The current coach, who was one of Lallu pahalwan’s first students here, is a Brahmin. There are two Dalit boys, both in school. One’s family runs a tailoring shop, the other’s works in a railway engine manufacturing factory. There is a Muslim man, who goes to work in his family’s garments shop after his morning practice. The twenty other practitioners at the akhada are from various Hindu castes.
‘They all have to eat together, bathe together and massage each other,’ Kallu says.
‘It would be nice if these ideals spread outside the akhada, became part of our culture,’ Kallu says, following it up with his throaty laugh. ‘And it already has. Caste is an old idea, and its time is almost over. Why, in twenty, maybe thirty years, it may be forgotten entirely.’
Perhaps not. It has survived for thousands of years, fought and adapted through hundreds of anti-caste movements and revolutions. What cataclysm can destroy it in the next twenty?
The pahalwans try.
The anthropologist Joseph Alter clearly agrees. In his detailed investigation into wrestling and caste in The Wrestler’s Body, he says that it undermines the very basis of caste, challenging its most fundamental concepts of ritual purity.
‘This is not because wrestling provides a forum for social protest against stratification,’ he writes, ‘but rather because it is a context in which the meaning of particular key symbols that relate to the embeddedness of caste are significantly reinterpreted through the medium of the human body.’
Wrestling is not an anti-caste movement, and its ideals stay inside the akhada. Pahalwans who forget caste distinctions at the akhada remember them when they go back home. There are not that many wrestlers from the ‘lowest’ caste groups, the Dalits and Balmikis, at akhadas. This, many gurus say, is because people from these groups are poor, and sending a boy to an akhada is a serious investment with no guarantee of any returns.
‘Pahalwans,’ Kallu says, ‘are not restricted by caste, but by their ability to provide for their diet. Those who have land and buffaloes, they can do it. Like us. We have never wanted for milk, ghee, pahalwan hanuman paneer, or wheat or vegetables, so it was easy for us to become wrestlers, and it’s easy for us to put our sons in it.’
Akhada gurus though take real pride in their lower-caste students, if they get any. When I asked many of the gurus in Delhi who their favourite wrestler was when they were wrestling themselves, an overwhelming majority named Vijay Chura.
Most wrestlers drop their surname so that their caste does not become a badge of identification, adopting casteless monikers like ‘Kumar’, ‘Singh’ or simply ‘Pahalwan’. Vijay, a national champion from Delhi from the 1980s, did just the opposite. He flaunted his caste.
He was also Captain Chand Roop’s favourite student, a role model, and still is. Even now when a student complains that he can’t work any more, the captain tells him: ‘Vijay Chura could do twice as much and still not stop till I told him to stop.’