Kushti, the traditional Indian sport, is fast losing ground

The mud floored dungal (ring) lies empty, gada (traditional dumbbells) kept aside disengaged, a wrestler or two sleeping in shoddy straw huts. This is the general spectacle at the once famous wrestling arena ‘Akhara Sheikhon-Wala', located in the cramped nostalgic bylanes of Ballimaran.

Master Kishan Chand, the coach at the arena, laments, “There is nothing left of it (wrestling) now. It is a materialistic world today… life is in the fast lane, and everyone is running after money. It was in the bygone days that the sport had its glory when famed wrestlers like Gholu Pehelwan from Pakistan and Siddique Pehelwan, among many others, used to lock arms with each other here”. The situation is grim likewise with all the other wrestling arenas or akharas, as aficionados of the sport would call it, in Delhi.

Wrestling, the very popular sport of yesteryears, is fast losing acceptance and finds no place in the hearts of Delhiites anymore. With packed schedules and hectic lifestyles, wrestling doesn't seem to fit anywhere in the current scheme of things. Says Master Chandgi Ram, who won the gold medal at the 1970 Asian Games in Bangkok, “Today, the world belongs to the rich and not the passionate. Wrestling is a sport for the passionate.”

The sport today is dominated by youths mainly from far flung towns like Hissar, Rohtak, Shamli, Meerut and Muzaffarnagar, who join it not for the love of the sport, but to secure government jobs by performing well in wrestling. Says Satpal, an aspiring wrestler, “Conditions are worse in villages. There are no jobs or any other suitable modes of income. My educational qualifications won't lend me a job in cities… so I hope to do a Sushil Kumar, the famous bronze medal winning wrestler at Beijing Olympics, who secured a government job at the Indian Railways for his feat.”

Lack of funds

The lack of funds haunts wrestling, a game which demands a strict diet and fitness regime. As Chandgi Ram, who now runs his own akhara, puts it, “On an average, it takes Rs.1,000 per day to provide only the essential elements of the diet (milk and almonds) to 10 wrestlers. Also, we have got to pay a wage, although meagre, to the wrestlers so that they can make ends meet.” Insufficient funds and absence of proper infrastructure has led the wrestlers into all sorts of murky businesses. With their strong builds, they are used to influence parties in and out of agreements for money as very vividly portrayed in the famous Bollywood movie Khosla Ka Ghosla. Kishan Pehelwan, the dreaded gangster, accused of multiple crimes, belonged to the Chandgi Ram ka Akhara. Jameel Khan, a professional wrestler, who doesn't find wrestling his true calling anymore, says, “There is a huge scarcity of funds, plus the need for strict and expensive diet… how is one going to manage? The bad habits of drinking and smoking add to the woes. Certainly one could try to cash in on his strong built physique in the worst of times.”

With the situation deteriorating in most of the wrestling arenas, some are thinking of giving up their passion. Those who don't, like the Akhara Sheikhon-wala, the government plans to acquire their land for more profitable projects like schools. Sighs Master Kishan Chand, “All that is left (of wrestling) would be gone too”.

Keywords: Wrestlingsport