India’s Potential and Heritage in Wrestling

Divya Kakran (21) could be one of the stars of wrestling in the coming decade. (Image from Olympics.com)
Divya Kakran (21) could be one of the stars of wrestling in the coming decade. (Image from Olympics.com)

Wrestling competitions at the Olympics have begun, and India is yet to medal. India has a seven-member contingent, which includes two women. Many may recall that Sakshi Malik won a bronze medal in 2016 in Reno.  (Incidentally, she did not make the team for Tokyo). Also, in 2012 in London, India won two medals (a rarity!) in the men’s division: a silver and a bronze. So, there is good reason for keeping our eyes on wrestling from India’s Olympic perspective.

Many of you may recall my diatribes in my earlier article where I was crying hoarsely to ‘prove’ that Indians’ lack of success in sports (other than cricket) is primarily due to lack of talent and not due to shortage of training and associated facilities and adequate financial rewards. Well, perhaps I am now backtracking somewhat from my stubborn stand earlier, due to some new information and developments. I am talking about wrestling.

India had fourth-place finishes on seven occasions! This woke me up – how come I was not aware of it? 

I have compiled the table below which includes all the medalists, and fourth, fifth and sixth place finishers in Olympic wrestling, both men and women: 

1920

Randhir Shinde: 4th in Men’s Featherweight, Freestyle

1948

Khashaba Jhadav: 6th in Men’s Flyweight, Freestyle

1952

Khashaba Jhadav: BRONZE MEDAL in Men’s Bantamweight, Freestyle

Keshav Mangave: 4th in Men’s Featherweight, Freestyle

1968

Sudesh Kumar: 6th in Men’s Flyweight, Freestyle

Udey Chand: 6th in Men’s Lightweight, Freestyle

1972

Adkar Maruti: 4th in Men’s Flyweight, Freestyle

Sudesh Kumar: 4th in Men’s Flyweight, Freestyle

Prem Nath: 4th in Men’s Bantamweight, Freestyle

1980

Jagmander Singh: 4th in Men’s Lightweight, Freestyle

Mahabir Singh: 5th in Men’s Light-Flyweight, Freestyle

1984

Rajinder Singh: 4th Men’s Welterweight, Freestyle

Mahabir Singh: 6th Men’s Flyweight, Freestyle

Rohtas Singh: 5th Men’s Bantamweight, Freestyle

1992

Subhash Verma: 6th Men’s Heavyweight, Freestyle

2008

Sushil Kumar: BRONZE MEDAL in Men’s Welterweight, Freestyle

2012

Sushil Kumar: SILVER MEDAL in Men’s Welterweight, Freestyle

Yogeshwar Dutt: BRONZE MEDAL in Men’s Lightweight, Freestyle

2016

Sakshi Malik: BRONZE MEDAL in Women’s freestyle 58 kg

The table above is surely impressive. No other Olympic sport can boast of a similar level of performance on the part of Indians (except perhaps Field Hockey, if the recent successes mature into something more substantive). 

Add to that the 59 medals in the Asian Games (11 gold, 14 silver, and 34 bronze) from 1954 to 2018 including 5 medals (2 gold, and 1 bronze) in 2018. In addition, India won 11 medals in the 2018 Commonwealth Games (5 gold, 3 silver, and 3 bronze). The better performances in the Commonwealth Games compared to the Asian Games are clearly reflective of the presence of wrestling powerhouses Iran, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Japan in the Asiads.  All this has me fully convinced that there is talent in India in wrestling, a sport that has been included in all the modern Olympics and even in the Ancient Olympics in Greece.  

A Brief History of Wrestling in India

Wrestling (pehlwani or kushti) has after all been a part of our heritage from the days of yore. The epic Mahabharata is replete with the exploits of Bhima, the second Pandava who demolishes numerous kings and demons with his superhuman strength. I am tempted to put Bhima as the world’s first accomplished wrestler. 

The malla-yuddha in Ramayana speaks of the presence of wrestling in India in antiquity. There are also allusions to Krishna and his brother Balaram being legendary wrestlers.  In fact, there is a Purana dated in the thirteenth century called Malla Purana.  It describes the various wrestling techniques.  Interestingly, the techniques are named after the legendary wrestlers Jarasandha, Hanuman and Jambuvan, and of course Bhima.

Bhima kills Jarasandha in a wrestling match, a folio from the Bhagavata Purana. c. 1520–1540 (Image from the Met Museum)
Bhima kills Jarasandha in a wrestling match, a folio from the Bhagavata Purana. c. 1520–1540 (Image from the Met Museum)

However, the prevailing form of wrestling in India probably evolved during the Mughal rule by combining the native malla-yuddha (which incorporates grappling, joint-breaking, punching, biting, choking and pressure point striking) with influences from Persian sources. A particular feature that distinguished pehlwani from the earlier malla-yuddha was that strikes and kicks during a match were not allowed. Wrestling (of the pehlwani variety) became a very popular sport in the nineteenth and early parts of the twentieth century, particularly in Punjab and North India.  Many zamindars and maharajas like the Maharaja of Patiala, avidly patronized the sport and had a stable of fighters.

Legendary fighters like Karim Bux, Gulam, Rahim Baksh Sultaniwala, and The Great Gama caught the imagination of the sporting public of the day. The Great Gama (1878-1960), also known as the Gama Pehalwan, whose real name was Ghulam Mohammed Butt, was undoubtedly the greatest Indian wrestler of his time, perhaps of all time. In 2015, The Great Gama was inducted posthumously in the Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame (PWHF) as a wrestler of the Pioneer Era.   

Wrestling in various forms emerged as a spectator sport in various parts of India. One popular form to emerge, particularly in Punjab, Haryana, and western UP was the Dangal.  It was showcased by a popular blockbuster by the same name. The film presented the story of a Phogat family, where a man from Haryana trained his six daughters and nieces, all of whom became successful wrestlers with distinguished successes in the Asian Games and the Olympics. In our generation had all grown up with the name of Dara Singh and his match with a foreign wrestler named King Kong. 

And finally talking about our tradition of wrestling, I cannot refrain from remembering the big fat men, often with huge mustaches, gleefully engaged trying to pin down each other in akhadas (wrestling mats) in the banks of the Ganges. It is somewhat of a mystery to me as to why these dedicated and talented practitioners of the sport did not try their hand at the Olympics. Maybe it was because typical pehlwani, as practiced in India, does not translate easily to the more stringent rules of Olympic wrestling.


Partha Sircar has a BE in Civil Engineering from Bengal Engineering College in Shibpur, India, and a Ph.D. in Geotechnical Engineering from the University of California at Berkeley. He is a 53-year resident of the United States, including the last 36 years in California. He loves to write and can be reached by e-mail at [email protected].


 

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