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Wrestling back into shape

Almost forgotten:Fani Aali Talim is one of the last surviving akhadas in Pune.— Photo: Kunal Ray  

There’s an interesting story behind Fani Aali Talim that sits in a non-descript bylane in Pune’s Kasba Peth, a bustling settlement in the city’s oldest quarters. A tale of how an erstwhile colony of comb makers made way for a wrestling arena.

According to legend, comb makers from Nasik were invited to set up shop in Pune after Sawai Madhavrao Peshwa called for the use of ivory combs for Brahmin women as prescribed in sacred Hindu texts. Kasba Peth, the new home of the guests, came to be identified as Fani Aali, which translates to comb and lane in Marathi. Following the defeat of the Marathas at the hands of the British, the artisans lost the Peshwa’s patronage and migrated.

Enter the kushti era

On popular demand, a talim (an old-style gymnasium) was opened in the area, and a comb shop was converted into a wrestling arena. Today, Fani Aali Talim is now one of the last surviving akhadas in the city.

Kushti (wrestling) was popularised by the Peshwas who nurtured talims and restored and conserved akhadas . Several famous wrestling matches are believed to have been fought in the ground outside Shaniwar Wada, the seat of the Peshwa rulers, which built by Peshwa Bajirao of Bajirao Mastani fame. Wrestlers thronged the kingdom from all over the country. The talims where they trained or taught were invariably named after them. The architecture of the talims and the style of kushti they practised differed vastly from their north Indian counterparts. Unfortunately, the talim tradition was almost wiped out during the British rule. The few remaining talims were frequented by youngsters from the neighbouring districts of Pune who wanted to join the police force and the Indian army. Women are denied entry as Hanuman is the main deity in akhadas and pehelwans wrestle wearing a langot .

Stumbling on history

Fani Aali Talim would have also remained in oblivion if not for the Pune Heritage Walk. Conceived in 2012 by NGO Janwani in collaboration with the Pune Municipal Corporation, the heritage walk, adjudged the best in the country, featured Fani Aali Talim and revived interest in the crumbling akhada .

Prajakta Divekar, Deputy Director of Heritage Conservation and Management at Janwani and the chief architect of the heritage walk, says, “While designing the heritage walk route, I was exploring the lanes and bylanes of Kasba Peth to list elements of cultural heritage. When I learnt there was an akhada on the route, I knew we had to include it as a part of the living cultural heritage of Pune’s talim tradition. It helped me to map the evolution, cultural diversity and local character of our city. I have always felt that heritage has to be people-centric.”

Since then, more than 2,500 enthusiasts, including a significant number of foreign tourists, have visited Fani Aali Talim. When the talim was closed for public-viewing in 2014 citing cleaning and maintenance work, Divekar and her team were informed of plans of building a new structure on the site.

Divekar says, “We were worried that the traditional akhada would be razed down. We informed the Pune Municipal Corporation Heritage Cell and we were assured that since the akhada was within 100 metres of an Archaeological Survey of India monument [Shaniwar Wada], no new construction would be permitted. We also wrote to the Fani Aali Talim Trust with feedback we received from visitors. We requested them to conserve the place and offered to help.”

The Trust petitioned the Maharashtra government for a grant and was sanctioned Rs. 10.5 lakh. The akhada was closed for renovation three months ago. Restoration and repair work is likely to begin soon. While the existing structure is unlikely to be altered, there are plans to construct an exclusive gymnasium for women.

Rajendra Kharade, president of the Trust, says, “The heritage walk has aligned with our cause and generated interest about the talim . We have also been sidelined by state-of-the-art gyms, but the physical benefits of exercising at a talim are long-lasting.”

See puneheritagewalk. com for more details

The author is a freelance art writer and Chair, Centre for South Asia at Flame University, Pune

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Printable version | Jan 19, 2022 1:07:59 PM |

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