It was a week later, since that night of inner churning, when I met Sangram Singh again, and for the first time at his one room flat in Delhi. And most interestingly, he was already drinking, since sunrise.
His whole house smelled of tobacco. Lights not brighter than the ones we sat under, in his auto. The green wall behind him wore a Hanuman calendar of the previous year. His eyes swollen, pointed, looking towards me, followed my gaze from the wall to the glass that was kept at the low table beside his bed, rum still left in it. “It’s not good for a wrestler, you know”. He picked up the glass and emptied it in one gulp. When I was young even the smell of this bothered me, but now it’s my nectar. It is this, which makes me feel alive. But Narayan, you look different today, Sangram suddenly getting aware of my presence.
You seem all ready? He said looking at my camera. You wanted to see the wrestling place, right? I smiled slowly. Lets go.
We took the metro to the north campus and there after walked till the place where his akhara* was. Kushti is a form of combat wrestling originated in India, Sangram breaking the silence between us spoke, and the wrestlers practice the sport on mud and by becoming a disciple of the Akhada under a Guru who runs it. Traditionally, Akhadas are places where the Pehelwans live and train along with their Guru to learn the art of wrestling. Even though all this time as I heard him speak i couldn’t let myself but kept judging his every word, as I was not used to walking along with early morning healthy looking drunkards. He kept me amused though, as we neared the wrestling place his excitement grew.
To be truthful If i talk about myself I had no idea about Kushti* before that day arrived and it was him, Sangram Singh who first introduced me to this ancient sport and its importance. Even though it will take a lot of time again for me to experience the sport’s essence, I kept hearing to all whatever passionately kept coming out of his heart.
Kushti is as old as Indian Scriptures are, as our land’s soil is. In ancient times it was known as Mall Yudh. Mall Yuddh has been mentioned in the Ramayana epic, where there is an account of combat wrestling between Bali and Ravana. This depicts that the Indian wrestling sport Kushti has existed in the continent since ancient times. In Mahabharat, the great warrior bheem, Duryodhana, Krishna’s brother Balrama and even his arch rival Jarasandh were known to be great wrestlers.
And ‘Our’ Hanumanji, is regarded as any wrestler’s divine Guru. And not just because of his raw strength or divine powers but for one reason that symbolically teaches us to stay in conduct within one’s soul, to abstain from any sexual activity for life, which in wrestling is regarded as the first duty towards sport and life.
As we entered there was a huge poster of the great gama, I hadn’t known it then but as I moved across the big wrestling arena my eyes kept going towards his photograph, when I asked Sangram, if he is the founder of this akhara. Sangram smiled, as he was on his way to bring something. He brought a glass of milk for me, completed his smile and said he is the guru for all of us. We all know him as the great gama, or rustam-e-hind, noone amongst us has seen him but he was the strongest pehelwan ever known to India in early 20th century, Gama ji was an undefeated champion, the first Indian and it is said that he never, not even once lost a fight in his life. He was known for his extremely disciplined life and eating habits. He lived by the ancient rules and was known to have remained unmarried throughout his life. The Great Gama epitomised this ancient art of Mall Yuddh in pre-independence rural India. He was a living inspiration to all us Pehelwans and thus he is here to keep blessing us with his grace.
From that day Sangram took me to the oldest wrestling places in the city, he introduced me to many a wrestlers, whom I interviewed, made photographs and tried to learn about their diets and discipline. It was a world of pure body conscience that I was not aware of it before that phase of my life. How to become strong, internally and outside i learnt meeting these wrestlers. Like learning about the essence of preparing food than merely eating. It would take the junior disciple wrestlers an hour to two, to prepare a glass of special milk and other organic fluids before they could drink it. And similarly practising with the mud. Even before wrestling, wrestlers used to tend to the mud, giving it the highest respect.
Kushti is not just a sport in India, rather a part of an ancient culture. And different techniques have been mentioned in many old texts, which are still learned and practiced today. Indian wrestlers who have brought laurels for our country credit all their success to their Akhada training that they did during their initial days. This culture takes us back to our roots and makes us imbibe the essential philosophies of life. A Pehelwan is seen as one of the most humble athletes, living a simple life away from all materialistic pleasure. They are taught to respect the women and protect the weak as their core principles of the Akhada. This cultural heritage that has been in the country since centuries needs to be preserved, supported, and promoted as a part of our rich heritage.
Wrestling, kushti, has ruled the farmlands of India for centuries. And even Before it’s modern form, the ancient Indian fighting style malla-yuddha allowed punches, kicks, head butts, clawing and even biting. It was practiced in small parts of Indian subcontinent at least since the 5th millennium BC, described in the 13th century treatise Malla Purana.
It had the pride of place in the courts of Chalukya kings and Mughal emperors, has led to 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. But even before Pandemic striked, Khushti has been on the decline and now may be even dead.
Two wrestlers fighting on mat, painting circa 1825.
Sangram had left wrestling few years ago even before we met. And even left driving an auto, he took to sitting, opened a shop of daily use items. I met him a few times again after almost a month of interviewing and photographing wrestlers then. But slowly as life took over, we quietly moved on with our lives.
The deadly second wave of Covid-19 took Sangram away last month in May 2021. He died alone. And his death triggered in me a chain of events that lead me to him and all the more towards myself. Towards the last post and this final one. A tribute to him. Because through him the experiences that are living in me, helped me become a man from the boy i was. He was there looking over me just when i had stood for myself, and i then was with him, and through him experiencing this wonderful world of now dying sport.
Pandemic has hit hard and Wrestlers are roaming unemployed, fighting none but wearing suits and becoming security guards, standing all day either night on many a apartment gates. Or trying their luck becoming foot soldiers of the government.
Before I share my days with Sangram visiting many akharas, I remember one incident when he was challenged by an old acquaintance, calling him on the mat. He didn’t waste much time to remove his clothes; entered the arena, bowed down touched the mud with his forehead. And as young wrestlers huddled together standing silently watching their old guru wrestling the new, a ready opponent. He not just defeated him but kept him entangled till he lost almost his breath, leaving him naked, of even his pride.
Later while drinking, sulking within the depths of his own darkness i remember him sharing a moment of his passion sitting on his roof on a full moon night, he had said, ‘When I’m on the mat, I am so filled with this awareness that the slightest touch feels like electricity to my body, and my body reacts to that the same way it would have reacted if I had touched a livewire.”
Wherever his soul is, i pray he rests in peace.
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