Akhadas are sweating it out for survival

After Independence, akhadas (wrestling hubs) have constantly suffered the apathy of governments. As a result, most of the akhadas teaching native art of wrestling in the country are struggling for survival

Ashwani DwivediAshwani Dwivedi   3 Sep 2019 5:36 AM GMT

Akhadas are sweating it out for survival

Earlier we had mythological characters like Bali-Sughriva and Jarasandh-Bheema sweating it out in akhadas – wrestling hubs -- in television serials Ramayana and Mahabharata that were shown on Doordarshan. Recently, actor Salman Khan impressed the current generation with his acting prowess when he played a wrestler in Bollywood movie Sultan.

That's wrestling for you in reel life.

The bitter truth is that in real life akhadas -- native wrestling hubs where the art and sport of wrestling is taught -- are losing their appeal in the absence of encouragement from the government.

"In many parts of India, dangals (fights) are organized by towns and villages during the festivals. In my village too wrestling competitions are held wherein pahalwans (wrestlers) and local youngsters actively participate, but wrestling is not as popular as it used to be. The new generation does not even know what akhadas are. The akhada in my village has been shut down," said Alok Yadav, who lives in Uttar Pradesh's Ghazipur village.

Akhadas thrived under state patronage in Feudal India

The country has a long and rich tradition of akhadas and wrestling. From ancient epics till the legends of Alha and Udhal, all narratives tell of the wrestling feats and bravery of the pahalwans of the time. Also mentioned is the state patronage that akhadas enjoyed in the Mughal era and during the Feudal era in the country.

Akhadas of the erstwhile principalities such as Patiala, Mysore, Kolhapur, Indore, Ajmer, Baroda, Bharatpur, Jaipur, Benaras and Bardhman were known worldwide at the time. Pahalwans were pampered with numerous privileges during the past era and famous pahalwans participated in dangals popularizing the sport of wrestling.

Now a dying sport

The akhadas of Kanpur, Allahabad, Lucknow, Benaras, Ghazipur and Gorakhpur in Uttar Pradesh were immensely popular once upon a time. While looking out for an akhara, when Gaon Connection team reached Qaiserbagh in Lucknow, we accidentally stumbled upon one. This akhada belonging to the khatik community was established in the 1940s, but presently sees wrestling only during festivals like Nag Panchami and Dussehra and is kept shut the remaining year.

Governments, politicians not bothered

When Gaon Connection went to Aminabad in Lucknow to visit the akhada of Pahalwan Ramkhelavan, we could see its owner 'khalifa' only after identifying ourselves as journalists. Khalifa informed that although the akhada belongs to the chutka pahalwan, it is now hailed by his name. This akhada belongs to the British era and has produced numerous state-level wrestlers. The master also told that the akhara is currently hailed number-1 in Lucknow, though the number of its members has decreased, it is still frequented by wrestling enthusiast, both in the mornings as well as the evenings, for exercise and training.

Ramkhelavan added that the latest tournament organized in the akhara was well attended by some ministers and politicians. They were exhorted to lend support to the akhada in the form of state aid. During Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party rules, many letters were written soliciting government aid and patronage, but the government officials merely replied that there wasn't any provision for the government aid to promote an akhada in the urban area.

Elderly pahalwan Ramkhelavan doesn't go out much but is alert, nonetheless, to any development in the wrestling field. Telling about the notable pahalwans from the fifties to nineties, he mentions names of Dara Singh (Rustam-e-Hind) from Punjab, Maruti and Champam Munitale from Maharashtra, Magla Rai from Benaras, Baram Dev Pahalwan, Ramnarayan Pahalwan and Janardan Pahawan from Gorakhpur, Pannalal Pahalwan, Sukhdev Pahalwan from Azamgarh, Baba Harishanker Pahalwan from Ayodhya and Mahadev Pahalwan, Jagannath Pahalwan from Lucknow.

Telling about one of the major pahalwans -- Gama Pahalwan -- he says that although Gama at one time was the pride of the nation, he cannot be enumerated as a great Indian Wrestler because he moved to Pakistan after partition.

The government values only medal-fetching wrestlers

Ramkhelavan's aide Munna Pahalwan, 72, said: "People's ardour for the sport continues to be strong. Our country's wrestlers have won world tournaments. Currently, Sushil Kumar, the son-in-law of Satpal Pahalwan, is counted among the top wrestlers as he has earned many medals for the country. But the problem is that when a wrestler wins at the national or international level tournament, the government showers privileges and prizes on the individual while ignoring the akhadas which train them.

Munna Pahalwan also talked of the wrestling in other countries where governments preserved and promoted their native wrestling traditions. He wishes that we would do the same.

Pahalwans wrestle upon the earth, know how the soil is prepared in akhadas.

Ustad Ramkhelavan said that he had seen Dangal movie and the way Aamir Khan prepares the soil for the akhada for his daughters but actually soil for akhada isn't prepared in that fashion. The soil is first sieved then is sprinkled to soften. Thereafter buttermilk, neem leaves and haldi powder are mixed to it in order to avoid infections to the pahalwans. Ramkhelavan also showed us wrestling equipment made of wood like mudgar, weights, dumbbells and gada maintained in the akhada.

Native wrestling's techniques are still unparalleled

Munna Pahalwan said that although wrestling format has changed, but if we infuse our ancient technique and combative skill with modernity, it will benefit the sport immensely. Dhobi pacchadh, kamardhank ghissa, multani dao, baglideep, putthi dao, gaheli dao and lukan dao – these are some of the wrestling skills that are still unparalleled.

Head of All India Wrestling Federation and BJP MP, Brijbhushan Sharan Singh said: "Maximum number of country's wrestlers have come from Guru Hanuman Akhada. Wrestling sport has left earthen akhadas to enter the cushioned arena. Akhadas should be protected, the tradition of soil wrestling doesn't phase out-for this purpose WWE's founder Jessie MacMahone had put forth an initiative to preserve it in front of the International Wrestling Federation but no development has happened so far.

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