In Kolhapur’s famous mud pits, the art of wrestling continues to enthral | Latest News India - Hindustan Times
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In Kolhapur’s famous mud pits, the art of wrestling continues to enthral

BySharda Ugra, Kolhapur
Mar 02, 2024 05:38 AM IST

For Kolhapur locals, it was the first time in more than five years that Khasbag was packed, standing room only, the action visible even to the spectator furthest from the centre

Ever heard a Maharani cheer? Amruta Pujari, locked in combat, may not have been able to, but Sanyogeeta Raje, red silk saree draped over her head, was invested, involved and audible. “Come on, Amruta!” she went , eyes glued to the centre of the maidan where the final rounds of the Swarajya Kesari 2024 were taking place.

If there’s an indigenous Indian sport awash with both royal and commoner support in a region, it has to be kushti in Kolhapur. (HT photo)
If there’s an indigenous Indian sport awash with both royal and commoner support in a region, it has to be kushti in Kolhapur. (HT photo)

There are few sports and places where this could have been possible. But if there is an indigenous Indian sport awash with both royal and commoner support in a region, it has to be kusti/ kushti or traditional wrestling in Kolhapur . North India may have its dangals with mind-boggling prize money, but if it comes to a contest over where mitti (mud) wrestling still matters, the residents of Kolhapur and Maharashtra believe they can take down any rival.

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For the past year, the news out of Indian wrestling has been terrible and depressing, but what I watched along with Sanyogeeta Raje and maybe 40,000 to 50,000 people proved that there are many interpretations of Indian wrestling. Swarajya Kesari 2024, a seven-hour wrestling competition featured 144 men’s bouts – in seven weight categories from “20 to 30kg” all the way to “100kg plus” -- and six women’s bouts.

It was watched by a mostly male crowd packed shoulder to shoulder, tens of thousands on an earthen bleachers curving around the vast red-mud circular centre of one of India’s truly iconic sporting venues, Kolhapur’s Khasbag Maidan. The Maidan was completed more than a hundred years ago in 1915 on orders from a king well ahead of his time, Kolhapur’s legendary and loved Shahu Maharaj. The event this February was held to mark the birthday of Shahu’s great grandson Sambhaji Raje, husband of Sanyogeeta Raje, former Rajya Sabha MP and head of the Kolhapur royal family. Large banners and the voluble PA commentators reminded us that 2024 is also 150 years since Shahu’s birth and the 350th anniversary of the mighty Shivaji’s coronation.

For Kolhapur locals, it was the first time in more than five years that Khasbag was packed, standing room only, the action visible even to the spectator furthest from the centre. The February evening was driven by much of the new – flashing lights, a hovering drone and fireworks -- but a sense of something much older than anyone in around the maidan that night stirred just beneath the surface.

This was not wrestling as we understand it off TV, with neat circles on blue mats, regulated draws, sometimes bewildering points scoring and presumptuous medal-worthiness. This was the wrestling of the medieval miniature and the Grecian frieze. The maidan accommodated at least four simultaneous bouts with no time or round constraints. When one wrestler pinned the other to the mud, the round ended, whether it took five seconds or five minutes. Only when Amruta couldn’t break through her rival Tannu’s defence after 15 minutes did the judges stop the bout, announce a tie and share the prize.

Intermittently, a music troupe with dhols and cymbals walked around the periphery of the ring in celebration. Sometimes marking the entry of important dignitaries or when the big star fighters who would soon be competing, sometimes just because. If you were a big cheese, then the distinctive, curved tutari, Maharashtra’s trumpet, got involved. All this even as commentators rattled on enthusiastically or called new fighters onto the centre.

On the event poster, each of the 300 wrestlers’ name was prefixed with the Devnagari letter Pe. For pehelwan, like a title of honour. Matin Shaikh a former wrestler who quit the sport after a shoulder injury before working as a journalist was the ideal guide for uninformed visitors like me. Each wrestler from the 20-30kg kids, Matin said, up to the level just below the 100kg plus grandees would receive prize money, in an 80-20 winner-loser split -- another Shahu introduction to ensure that everyone went home with something. The top wrestlers would pick up anything between 1-1.5 lakh each, the winner being awarded a silver mace. Matin’s maternal uncle pehelwan Aslam Kazi, he told me, had 51 of those at home. Two wrestlers from Iran competed with Maharashtra’s best, and Asian Games gold medallist Satpal Singh was chief guest, exhorting Kolhapur’s wrestlers to win India’s first Olympic gold in the sport.

Maharashtra wrestlers come from farmer or farm labourer families. The sport’s allure for them, like the wrestling we watched that night, was outside familiar form. Matin, currently Shivaji University PhD scholar in contemporary politics, says, “We have a lot of good wrestlers, a lot of potential but everyone’s goal is to win the Maharahstra Kesari and then stop wrestling.” Post their wrestling lives , they return to their villages or start small businesses.

If not a government job or the glory, what’s the draw? “Wrestling is in our DNA,” Matin says. “Our fathers, grandfathers, someone in our gharaana/family has been a wrestler. Every family believes it is mandatory that at least one boy from that house should be a wrestler, even if only for five or six years, but that they should compete.” The story about a village with a wrestler in every home he says, is true: Amashi is 20km west of Kolhapur.

The women’s wrestling ecosystem in Maharashtra’s, much newer, kicked off only post the 2010 CWG. Matin tells of Kaushalya Wagh of Sangli district who wrestled with boys in competition as there was no other women to fight. She opened a wrestling school which was destroyed by a monsoon storm and there’s been no news of it since.

Her successors proliferate in wrestling centres around Maharashtra, and unlike the men only train on mats. There’s the the non-residential Sadashivrao Mandalik National Wrestling SAI Centre in a town called Murgud. Its coach Dada Lavate then built a hostel for girls on his own initiative where 40 of its 55 female trainees currently live. Lavate’s most celebrated female trainee at the moment?

Amruta Pujari, winner of the Maharashtra Kesari women’s title in December 2023. The fighter being cheered on Sanyogeetaraje.

In Kolhapur’s wrestling, everyone’s connected.

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