An akhara of aspirations

Published: January 5, 2010 - 17:40 Updated: January 5, 2010 - 17:49

Young wrestlers in the invisible margins, ignored by the sports establishment, prepare for another year of reckoning and recognition
Akash Bisht Delhi

It is one of the coldest days of the season and the icy winds following fresh snowfall in Himachal and Kashmir enter the bone marrow as people shiver in Delhi. In these hostile weather conditions, a young man dressed only in langot (a piece of cloth tied like an underwear), tries hard to light a diya at a Hanuman temple in Guru Hanuman Akhara near Roshanara Park in Old Delhi. Several others dressed in langots roam around the courtyard of the akhara busy with their daily chores, unperturbed and completely unselfconscious of their bodies.

Born in 1925, the akhara (wrestling pit) was a gift from industrialist KK Birla to Guru Hanuman, a legendary wrestler and trainer, who used it to groom young wrestlers as world-class competitors. It was earlier known as Birla Vyayamshala and later renamed after Guru Hanuman.

Guru Hanuman was an icon in the wrestling spectrum in India, a media celebrity those days when sports did not only mean big bucks cricket, a familiar face around sports journalists at newspaper offices during the 1980s. His old akhara is considered as the epicentre of wrestling in India. It has produced some of the finest wrestling talents of the country.

Indeed, time stands still here, despite the hype around the wrestling Olympic bronze won by Sushil Kumar. (Indeed, before his Olympic feat, Sushil Kumar himself trained in a huge ramshackle dormitory in Delhi with abysmal facilities, sharing living space with other youngsters, completely ignored by our sports establishment.) Nothing much has changed in this akhara too since 1925.

The door that leads to the akhara bears the testimony of time. The small door looks like the typical entrance to an archaic temple tucked under a tree in the backwaters of a small town. One wonders how these 6 feet plus wrestlers manage to wriggle in and out of this miniscule structure with such ease.

The door leads to a small courtyard that has several gas stoves strewn all over. On some of these stoves, empty utensils used for boiling milk are yet to be cleaned. Some drops of milk and coarse almonds stuck at the bottom give a clue of the ingredients. Few steps further you can get a glimpse of a small pit filled with sand that has young boys trying hard to pin down their counterparts in a wrestling bout.

Senior wrestlers dressed in langots watch carefully while a vocal instructor keeps the young boys on their toes. The instructor in a blue jacket with 'India' written on it keeps patting the heads of boys and men who bow down to touch his feet, reaffirming the old guru-shishya parampara.

He is Maha Singh Rao who has for the past 26 years dedicated his life to the cause of wrestling, "ignoring his family life", as the folklore goes among young wrestlers. It's like 'tapasya' and 'sanyas' for him, says one of his disciples. Rao came to Delhi in the mid-1980s and met his fellow villager Guru Hanuman who asked him to come over to the akhara. So impressed was he with Guru Hanuman that he soon became his assistant. Thus began a long legacy of great wrestling, Indian style.

After Guru Hanuman died in an accident in 1999, Rao took charge. Since then, he has been exceptional in grooming young, rustic and talented boys, who have earned glory for their country at innumerable international events. "I believe that Guruji, even if not fully content, will be pleased with my efforts," says a hardworking Rao.

Significantly, while many of his students have achieved fame and media coverage, he has lived in total obscurity, taking care of the akhara that he took over from his guru. Apart from training, his job includes the miscellaneous list of 'everyday life': changing bulbs, ensuring water supply, ration, milk, food, electricity, water bills, maintenance, among host of other issues.

More than 125 boys are enrolled and some are outstation students. Since most of the outstation and poor students live in the akhara, it is his duty that everybody is looked after well. The boys have been divided into teams and each team is given the responsibility of cleaning, cooking, washing, and other jobs. Once the boys get over with their wrestling exercises, they have to do rest of the household chores. "We need more than 10 trainers here, but such is the apathy towards the sport that I have been reduced to doing every errand and daily chore - from cleaning and upkeep, to training," says an angry Rao.

A Dronacharya awardee, Rao expresses regret with the way the government, media and sports establishment in India have made a mockery of a sport so old that it finds mention in Indian mythology. He rues that many poor students, who could be potential medal winners, could not pursue their careers owing to extreme poverty.

Some, who attained partial success, could not carry it forward since there has been consistent lack of recognition, coaching facilities, basic financial stability, good diet, and concrete, infrastructural support. They were terribly demotivated and frustrated. "Compare this sport with all the coaches, the money and facilities given to cricket. The sports system in India cares little for talent, including in wrestling, one of the success stories in our abysmal track record," says a young wrestler.

To sustain the careers of bright wrestlers from humble backgrounds, Rao has persuaded many of his famous and well-to-do wrestlers to help young wrestlers by employing them and training them. But it's like whistling in the dark.

"And this is an established akhara. Consider the bleak scenario in other, poverty-stricken akharas," says another wrestler, still a teenager.

Rao is extremely happy with Virendra Yadav, his pleasure is infectious and he just can't hide it. A hearing-impaired wrestler, Virendra Yadav won a gold medal at the Melbourne Deaf Olympics in 2005, a silver medal in the World Championship and a bronze medal in the recently held Taiwan Deaf Olympics, 2009. "He is an extraordinary talent, but no one knows him. Newspapers don't want to talk about him and channels have no interest in a deaf wrestler. He needs special encouragement, the nation should be proud of him. Only medals can't keep him motivated," says Rao.

Rao hails from Chirawa, a small village in Rajasthan where his wife and elder son live. His wife is a teacher and his elder son is pursuing MBA. His younger son is studying Zoology (Hons) at Delhi University. His eyes lights up when he talks about his sons - he has great expectations from them. His younger son cleared the medical entrance exam but didn't pursue it because Rao wants him to be an IAS officer. He gets a bit uncomfortable talking about his family, he barely gets time to visit home, he says. Clearly, his life is elsewhere.

"This akhara is my home and my family. I have a greater responsibility as all these young boys are like my children. My children have a mother to look after them, but these children have none," he says, stoically. 

Rao's room is next to the wrestling pit and is full of memorabilia, shields, trophies, medallions and gadas (mace) that hang from the walls, proudly displayed on tables and chairs, cluttered on the floor. "Look at this, we have earned them through hard work and talent. But cricket news is spread all across the pages in newspapers, on the front pages, on channels, while other sports barely find a mention, even when we break records," he says.

He remains optimistic. He believes that this new year would bring joy for him and his students. For Rao, the year 2009 has been no different in terms of national attention despite his tireless efforts and unwritten success stories, but he does hope that 2010 would bring more prosperity to sportspersons in the country. He believes that a wrestler wishes a medal, and a trainer is content watching his students scale new heights. Next year, he wants to train more students who can win contests, or at least be competitive. 

His ideas for making other sports a success in India in 2010 are simple: The government should pass a policy that multinational companies should adopt different sports in the country and support them. It should make it mandatory for the media to give equal coverage to all sports. "If this happens in 2010, one has to wait and watch how these neglected sports can bring glory to the country and gain respect in the hearts of the people who genuinely love all sports and not just cricket."    

A few steps away from Rao's office is a big hall that is used as a gym with a large, dilapidated sponge mattress in the middle. The room is dark, cold and damp and stinks of static, accumulated sweat. In this room, several wrestlers sleep along the walls wrapped in dirty quilts on a cold floor.

In this room, a young wrestler is introduced in a classic duality of deprivation and hope: "He is the future of Indian wrestling," says Rao. The boy is shy. He quietly says that his love for sports is much greater than the hardship he endures everyday. It does not matter, he will cope with it. He is hoping on the Commonwealth Games to change his fortune. One day he too will be a face on the ads, a picture in the papers.

Another 'famous' wrestler, who has won several championships, including Rustam-e-Hind, the top wrestling award in India, drops by to meet Rao. He has come to seek his blessings for the Commonwealth Games and new year. "We can do it," he says and smiles.

In this invisible backyard of an unknown akhara, in abysmal training and living conditions, with not a stroke of support or encouragement from the sports establishment, the government or the media, young men and boys are reshaping their bodies and minds with a disciplined resilience and hope unimaginable to those who can't think beyond established success stories. In the margins, faceless and stoic, they are dreaming of a new year which will be different than the last.

A year of reckoning and recognition. That is why, in this rustic, almost innocent male bonhomie, optimism floats.

Young wrestlers in the invisible margins, ignored by the sports establishment, prepare for another year of reckoning and recognition
Akash Bisht Delhi

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This story is from print issue of HardNews