In the wake of Dara Singh’s death, Sunaina Kumar examines Maharashtra's once grand wrestling tradition
AT 3 in the afternoon, Laxmi Narayan Vyayamshala slowly comes to life. There are 12 men sleeping on the floor in the tiny makeshift room constructed above the mud pit, the hub of all activity in this akhara in central Mumbai. By 4 pm, the wrestlers will hit the mud pit as they have done every morning and evening for the past 80 years. The schedule is as rigorously observed as an ancient temple rite. The akhara, the oldest surviving one in Mumbai, was founded in 1930 in pre-Independence India to mobilise the youth and encourage them to join the freedom movement. In its glory days, more than 500 men would learn kushti here. The number is now close to 30.
After an exacting warm-up, the men start entering the pit. First, they all bend and offer obeisance to the mud. The altar to Lord Hanuman is positioned with an aerial view of the pit. They pair up in twos and lock each other in a slow embrace, as their coach Prakash Tanawade, a 50-year-old pehelwan, looks on. The bout between Vithal Jadhav and his opponent lasts for over 15 minutes. After an hour in the pit, and caked in mud, Jadhav sits down to tell his story. He belongs to a village in Sangli district in Maharashtra. Sangli and Kolhapur are the two remaining strongholds of kushti in the state. His father was a pehelwan and his father before him. At 10, he joined the village akhara. He has lived in Mumbai for the past eight years under the watchful eye of his guru Tanawade, practising kushti by day and working by night in a wholesalers’ vegetable market in Vashi, loading vegetables in trucks.
Jadhav, 26, speaks passionately about wrestling and how akhara life has kept him on the straight and narrow, away from bad habits like tobacco and alcohol. Kushti is as much about ideology as about fitness. But he will soon have to give up his father’s dream of being a wrestler, as he struggles financially and physically. More than half of his earnings of 7,000 go towards his diet, with milk, almonds and protein making up the bulk. “Kushti demands a lot of the body, and I never find time to rest. I would have given up my job if I could support myself with wrestling, but I cannot.”
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