Wrestling, kushti, rules the farmlands, as it has for centuries. It had pride of place in the courts of Chalukya kings and Mughal emperors. It was embraced by Hinduism and its epics, and has led its own untroubled revolution against the caste system. The British loved it when they first came to India, then rejected it during the freedom struggle. No, wrestling has never been marginal – even if it is largely ignored in modern-day narratives of sport and culture.
From the Great Gama to Sushil Kumar – whose two Olympic medals yanked kushti out of rural obscurity and on to TV screens – and the many, many pahalwans in between, Enter the Dan al goes behind the scenes to the akhadas that quietly defy urbanization. It travels to villages and small towns to meet the intrepid women who fight their way into 'manly' wrestling arenas. Beyond the indifferent wrestling associations and cities that are impervious to wrestling is an old, old sport.
RUDRANEIL SENGUPTA is the deputy editor of 'Lounge, the weekly feature section of Mint. He lives in New Delhi with his wife and five dogs. He holds a master's degree in English from Jadavpur University, Kolkata, and worked as a sports journalist for TV news channels till 2010. In 2008, he was awarded the Ramnath Goenka Award for Excellence in Journalism for a documentary on river rafting in India (Best Sports Journalist, TV). In 2015, he won the Society of Publishers of Asia (SOPA) award for excellence in reporting on human rights issues for a story he co-wrote with Dhamini Ratnam on gender testing of female athletes.
IN THE BEGINNING there was the Great Gama. He was India's first sporting superstar. From Peshawar to Patna, from Junagadh to Jamshedpur, in Calcutta or Dhaka or Srinagar or Madras—there was no place where the Great Gama did not draw magnificent crowds.
He was not a big man. There were other wrestlers of legendary heft, but this compact tempest of muscle had blown them all off the ground.
More than half a century after his death, Gama remains a powerful memory, wrapped in a myth: an oral legend passed from wrestler to wrestler in every wrestling school in India.
An old wrestler told me: 'When I am ill, I look at a portrait of Gama that hangs in my akhada. I feel the illness leave me, I feel my strength surging back.'
Who really was the Great Gama?
This is a book that explores wrestling as it is practised now in India; the men, women and events that have shaped its history from Gama to Sushil Kumar; whose two Olympic medals yanked the sport out of its rural obscurity and on to TV screens. It is a journey through the wrestling landscape of India, both past and present.
From behind the scenes with India's Olympic wrestlers to akhadas quietly defying urbanization. From dangal to dangal in villages and small towns to the intrepid women who dared to break the barriers in this 'manly' sport. From Gama's journey to becoming a 'world champion' to the man who became one of the first Asians to foray into staged American pro wrestling, what we now know popularly as World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE).
Through the voyage, an observation: wrestling is not obscure, and never has been. It has only been hidden from those who have never tilled land. Kushti rules the farmlands. It has done so for centuries. It has had pride of place in the courts of Chalukya kings and Mughal emperors. It was embraced by Hinduism and Islam, and has led its own gentle revolution against the caste system, rejecting its fundamental underpinnings.
The British loved it when they first came to the country, and understood immediately its importance to India's martial tradition. Then they turned against it during the freedom movement.
Nonetheless, this is not a book of history, nor is it a scholarly investigation.
The focus of this book is to tease out the lived experience of Indian wrestlers now, to share their daily life (for wrestling is not a sport, as every wrestler told me, but a way of life), their struggles and beliefs and their oral tradition. The historical references are used as a storytelling tool, to give context and depth—when needed—to the stories and beliefs that are an integral part of the wrestling philosophy.
Since wrestling in India now is dominated by the northern states—Haryana, Delhi, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra—the book too stays largely within these geographical boundaries.
The southern states of India, as well as places like Bihar and Gujarat, can claim a rich history of the sport, but in the present times, wrestling has all but disappeared from these places, surviving only in little pockets. No international wrestlers come out of these areas, nor do they form a part of the local 'dangal' circuit. I have had to leave those pockets out.
The most glaring omission here, a question I can't shake off, is the puzzling decline of a Muslim wrestling culture. As the importance of Gama—Ghulam Muhammad—attests, there was once, not so long ago, a thriving and vibrant community of Muslim wrestlers. Much of the lexicon of Indian wrestling, for example, consists of Persian and Arabic words, and contemporary wrestlers and coaches are well versed with the exalted importance of wrestling in the Mughal court, and the contribution of the Mughal Empire in spreading the culture of wrestling through patronage. Now, a Muslim wrestler is as rare as an Indian Olympic champion. This loss deserves a book of its own, and is far beyond the scope of this one.
The names of two people in this book have been changed on their request—Satbir and Billu Singh.
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