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Akharas battle for survival with changing format
Indian wrestlers have won five medals at the Olympics, second only to hockey’s tally of 11. Four of the five have come in the last three editions and all the winners hail from Haryana and Delhi. This late flourish notwithstanding, the wrestlers haven’t lived up to expectations, given the long history of the sport in India.
For centuries, wrestling has been a popular spectator sport in India, captivating the imagination of villagers across the vast landscape, with wrestlers in loincloth-much like the ancient Roman gladiators -grappling for the attention and money of their patrons.
The great Maratha leader Shivaji established numerous akharas (wrestling gyms) throughout Maharashtra at the behest of his guru Samarth Ramdas. The maharajas and nawabs of India did their best to promote wrestling and were the royal patrons of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The maharajas of Kolhapur, Indore, Patiala, Jodhpur, Datiya, Aundh and Miraj were all strong supporters of wrestling as a way of life. They are regarded by contemporary wrestlers as the guardians of an honoured tradition. According to sports historians, the art of wrestling would have vanished had it not been for this royal patronage.
In the 20th century, the most famous wrestler in India was Rustam e Zaman (the greatest wrestler in the world) Gama (real name: Ghulam Mohammed). Born in 1888, Gama won many bouts (daily diet of about 10 litres of milk, half a litre of ghee, a litre and a half of butter and two kg fruit) and in 1928, after 16 years in the Maharaja of Patiala’s court, Gama was pitted against the, then world wrestling champion Zbyszko.
Zbyszko was defeated in two and a half seconds in front of a crowd of over 40,000 spectators who had come from all over India to witness the fight. After the victory, his patron the Maharaja of Patiala embraced Gama, gave the wrestler the pearl necklace he was wearing and arranged a parade in the arena which Gama rode on the king’s elephant holding in his arms a silver mace made specially for the occasion. Further he was granted the jaghir (ownership) of a whole village and an annual stipend of Rs 6,000. In today’s money the cash award would be worth Rs 10 million.
Wrestling in modern India is a synthesis of two different traditions: the Persian form of the art brought into south Asia by the Moghuls and an indigenous Hindu form that dates back at least to the Mahabharata era 4,000 years ago.
According to the techniques and methodology used, the wrestling is divided into four types: hanumanti concentrates on the technical superiority, jambuvanti uses locks and holds to force the opponent into submission, jarasandhi concentrates on breaking of the limbs and joints and bhimaseni focuses on sheer strength.
With thousands of akharas in the country, this sport has literally millions of fans. Normally the professional wrestlers in India would start their career at 20, continue till they are about 40. Some retire early to avoid laurels being snatched by some greenhorns. Most wrestlers have only small ambitions, hoping to make a living out of government jobs while they wrestle on the side.
Indian wrestlers have won several medals in the Asian Games and Commonwealth games, but have largely failed to replicate these successes on a global platform like Olympics. Khashaba Dadasahbe Jadhav won India’s first individual medal after he clinched a bronze in the 1952 Helsinki Games.
Most wrestlers blame their initial training in mud arenas for their failure on the big stage, where competitions are held on the mat. Duels on mud last for hours while on mat, it is maximum of six minutes, with three rounds of two minutes each in which the grappler has to score tactical points over his opponent. To ensure that Indians do well at the highest level, the Wrestling Federation of India has banned training in mud arenas.
The WFI has started hiring foreign coaches as they know most of the international wrestling styles very well. According to the WFI, there are about 1,500 male wrestlers and 200 female wrestlers in India.
The thousands of akharas all around India are now deserted or closed down, as they are unable to compete with the modern gyms. Now, budding wrestlers do not want to roll on the mud. Another reason for the slow death is pressure of time and money. To become a good wrestler one has to spend Rs 600 to Rs 800 a day on food and about six hours on exercise, says renowned wrestler Pappu Pehlwan.
A daily diet of four litres of milk, 300 gm of ghee, dried fruits, vegetables, rice, chapattis and cereals cannot fit into everyone’s budget. And the governments extend very little support to akharas. There has been virtually no effort to promote akharas and if they can attract a small fraction of the money that cricket does, akharas have a fighting chance of survival.
But the world has changed for the wrestlers of the modern day.