Book Review: Grappling With Glory: India and its Wrestling tradition

The Great Gama - India\'s first sporting superstar
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Enter the DangalBy Vikas Datta

Title: Enter the Dangal; Author: Rudraneil Sengupta; Publisher: Harper Sport (HarperCollins); Pages: 274; Price: Rs 350

Sakshi Malik picked up the first medal for India at Rio in women’s wrestling — a discipline which only made its Olympic debut in 2004 and has been practised in the country for not even two decades now. But wrestling, which is possibly the oldest sport played in India, has always been unique, for no other activity, sporting or otherwise, has had the capacity to surmount the country’s endemic caste and religious barriers and now, even gender ones.

But ‘kushti’, as wrestling is called, has despite its contributions to social and gender equality as well as Indian sporting achievements — most individual medals at Olympics, Asiads and various global competitions — always perceived to be a rough, rustic endeavour requiring brawn more than brain, more associated with villages and with a celibate male god its patron, confined to men. Wrong on all counts, argues journalist Rudraneil Sengupta, who in this book, shows how wrestling is as entrenched an urban phenomenon as rural and requires as much as skill, acumen and flexibility as solid muscle – though the last comes in useful too, while breaking all sorts of barriers due to some visionary men — and spirited women.

The Great Gama - India\'s first sporting superstar
The Great Gama – India\’s first sporting superstar

As a sports journalist, Sengupta saw his interest in wrestling spark, like countless other Indians, when Sushil Kumar won a medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics — over 50 years since the first — and the term repechage entered the nation’s sporting vocabulary. He was soon cured of his misconceptions.

“I thought wrestling was a niche sport, like most games in India are apart from cricket, and that witnessing a match would be a difficult proposition. It was bit of a shock then to find out that there are close to a hundred wrestling tournaments that take place just in Delhi every year” and the “akhada” or traditional wrestling arena and training centre is ubiquitous — even in Delhi where “there were everywhere: tucked away behind markets and cemeteries, hidden behind high-rises and office blocks, flanked by wheat fields and citrus groves, along the reedy banks of the Yamuna, or in dim halls inside decaying stadia”.

In this book, which offers both a fairly detailed account of the sport in all its variations but also of its presence and impact in Indian culture and history, including during the “national awakening” and freedom struggle, Sengupta seeks to “explore wrestling as it is now practised in India; the men, women and events that have shaped its history from Gama (“India’s first sporting superstar”) to Sushil Kumar” as well as undertake “a journey through the wrestling landscape of India” spanning from “behind the scenes with India’s Olympic wrestlers to akhadas quietly defying urbanisation” and from “dangal to dangal in villages and small towns to the intrepid women who dared to break the barriers in this ‘manly’ sport”.

Wrestler Chadngi Ram who after his own sparkling career persevered to train women wrestlers including his own daughters
Wrestler Chadngi Ram who after his own sparkling career persevered to train women wrestlers including his own daughters

And in his engrossing and enlightening account, detailed accounts of Sushil Kumar and Yogehwar Dutt’s paths to glory — and some poetic descriptions of the sport and frustrating accounts of India’s sports administrators — are entwined with depictions of dangals across north India, of unearthing the akhadas of Varanasi and a slum in Indore where at least some residents gained a sense of worth from wrestling and one enterprising man picked it up for his own upward mobility.

Also getting their due are Satpal Singh, whose contribution to Indian wrestlers transiting from the “akhada” to Olympic mats is second to none despite an obstructive and petty bureaucracy, and ‘Master’ Chandgi Ram, who after his own stellar career, started training his own daughters to wrestle as soon as the IOC decided to include the women’s version, and persevered despite all opposition and attacks, including a physical one on his own akhada in 2000 by some of his own coaches and students. Among many he inspired was student Mahavir Phogat, who faced an easier time in training his six daughters and nieces, being sarpanch of his village.

Then, besides Gama and his remarkable family, whose ultimately tragic story is told in detail, there is Jatindracharan Goho, or Gobar Goho, who trained along with a youth who would be known as ‘Bagha Jatin’ and who himself, after a spate of proper but not lucrative wrestling bouts, found success in the forerunner of WWF in America in the 1920s.

But Sengupta’s book is not only about wrestling but a traditional vibrant and inclusive sport and the culture it embodied — and the threats it faces from sectarianism, unthinking modernity and commercialisation. (IANS)


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