Tag Archives: wrestling

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

India’s Potential and Heritage in Wrestling

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: 


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


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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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


Rajinder Singh: 4th Men’s Welterweight, Freestyle

Mahabir Singh: 6th Men’s Flyweight, Freestyle

Rohtas Singh: 5th Men’s Bantamweight, Freestyle


Subhash Verma: 6th Men’s Heavyweight, Freestyle


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


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

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


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 psircar@yahoo.com.


Bajrang Punia wins the gold in Rome.

Bajrang Punia: Fighting for Gold at the Tokyo Olympics

He wrestles with all his might and communicates in immaculate Hindi. 26-year-old freestyle wrestler Bajrang Punia is among the foremost Indian stars for the upcoming 2021 Summer Olympics.

On March 8, 2021, after fighting his first big match in Rome since the pandemic struck, he’s re-secured the 65-kg weight category number 1 spot in the world.  Doing the unthinkable, he defeated his Mongolian opponent in a nail-biting last 30 seconds of the match to clinch the Gold! High on positivity about repeating the same at the upcoming Olympics, he had been training in Michigan.

Awarded with some of the country’s highest honors since 2015, including Padma Shri, Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna Award, and Arjuna Award, Punia started wrestling at age of 7 years by playing in the mud in his village in rural India; he hailed from a financially poor but deeply encouraging family. 

Punia took out time from his challenging routine to speak to India Currents about his devotion to discipline, training during the coronavirus lockdown, and why he has released statements urging the Indian government to resolve the 2020 farmers protest.   

Bajrang Punia shows off his Gold medal in Rome.
Bajrang Punia shows off his Gold medal in Rome.

IC: The announcement of nationwide lockdown in India and the postponement of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics came within hours of each other on March 24. What were your first thoughts? 

BP: First thoughts were definitely saddening – we were just three months away from the Olympics and preparing hard for it. But on second thought, we didn’t know such a virus would arrive and everything around the globe would stop. Lockdown gave me more time to work on my performance. Life is important, the Olympics can come again. 

IC: Tell us about your daily routine. 

BP: The most essential quality for a good athlete is discipline. Without discipline, you are a zero. And the next important thing is – diet. Maintaining these is crucial. If we are at a training center – like now – we have to wake up at 4-4.30 am. I wake up, bhagwan ka naam leta hoon (pray), get fresh, and have bananas or an apple before heading out. We have to be on the mat for the first match by 5 am irrespective of the season.     

During training, we take munakka (currant) and supplements. We drink badam (almond) being made right there in kundi sota (a traditional Indian grinding instrument set). It’s strengthening and body cooling. These are specific to Indian wrestlers. After training for 2-3 hours, go back, take lunch, shower, have milk, and sleep. The same routine is repeated in the evening. I sleep by 10 pm. About 9 hours of sleep is essential. If I’m at a local training camp (when at home), the routine is a little delayed, but the same.  

IC: How was lockdown spent? 

BP: The first month was disturbing. As players, we had never stayed at home before. Now, we had to appeal to people to stay indoors and set an example too. But then I started making arrangements so that my training doesn’t suffer. I took a room for rent near our house in Sonipat and got my partner Jitendra to practice with me. I requested our community in my village Khudan in Jhajjar district, Haryana, for the wrestling mat – which they immediately sent me and we set it in the room. I bought and set up gym equipment worth Rs6-7 lakh ($8,154-$9,153); my physiotherapist Manish Konwar Chetri was with me. And the training started! 

IC: When you are playing in the ring, do you feel connected with the audience and hear them? 

BP: No. When I am on the mat, I think nothing. My full concentration is on kushti. At world-level matches, all players are good. If at all I hear someone shouting/cheering, I think it’s for me; it cannot be for the opponent! 

IC: What is your favorite food? 

BP: Churma (a traditional sweet made with wheat and ghee) made by my mother is my favorite food but I cannot eat it often due to a restricted diet. I relish it after returning home from tournaments. 

IC: Which is your favorite wrestling match? 

BP: It was at the 2013 World Championship. This was my best ever and one of the first senior matches. I won a medal (bronze). Whenever I watch that bout, I think I have to do more. At that time, India had fewer medals in the world championship. If I can win this at the age of 18, I can definitely win it at the Olympics. 

IC: What facilities at your American training center for the Olympics would you want your Indian facility can accommodate?

BP: Indian centers have it all too in my opinion. But here at this center (Cliff Kleen Wrestling Club, Michigan), everything is under one roof – a gym beside the mat, basketball, football, steam, sauna, massage…everything. It helps. 

IC: You have released messages on social media for the government to resolve the largest ever ongoing farmers’ protest in India. What is your opinion on it?

BP: If the farmers are not happy with something, why try to force it on them? If the government believes it is beneficial to them, then sit with them and explain it. Why would farmers not understand? I come from a farmers’ family and thus I understand. If you go to my home, you will see my parents work in the fields. There isn’t a single family member in the job sector. Only I am an exception, a sportsman. Farmers won’t be on the road if there is a benefit in the three farm acts.  

Suruchi Tulsyan is a freelance journalist from Kolkata, India. 


Wrestling to Become a Flautist

Every life is a story waiting to be told, if somebody is ready to listen. 

The life stories of men and women we admire and seek inspiration from, help us find life’s lessons and solutions to our own problems. 

The little I had read about Hariprasad Chaurasia told me that his was a story that, if unravelled, could help show the way for many who wished to chase a dream, regardless of age or calling. Chaurasia is considered one of the world’s most loved flautists. In India, he has been given the title of Padma Vibhushan, the country’s second highest civilian honour. I had yet to know that his journey had not been an easy one.

All I knew about Hariji was that he had played the flute in countless Hindi film songs spanning the 1960s and ’70s. And that today, he is well known for his classical performances, which enthrall audiences from India to Japan, California and Brazil; once a year he vanishes to Europe and holds classes at a music school, where he teaches Indian classical music on the flute to groups of Western students. 

I decided to write his biography but to my dismay I discovered, there were already two books on the flautist. One of them by a student who had moved closely with Hariji and recorded facts and milestones in great detail. 

So, what could I write that was new? 

Turning a perceived disadvantage to my advantage I realised I could use the published biography as a background. It was like having a thorough research assistant’s notes presented to me. Realising that biographies of classical artistes have limited appeal among younger people, I staked my hope on a new format for the story. A format that, in keeping with the shorter attention spans, the power of the visual over the written word, and the newly rediscovered love for listening to stories, would entertain and beguile with pictures to tell the tale. It was a risk, a format that may come apart if not held together well, but nothing ventured, nothing gained.

The story itself was fascinating, I realised. Unlike many of his contemporary musicians, who were born into traditional gharanas where the musical heritage was passed down through generations, Hariji’s legacy was wrestling. A skill that his wrestler father, renowned for the power his limbs could wield, wished his son to follow. Destiny led him to music – from learning vocals to taking up the flute. The radio became his teacher. And so, step by secret step he moved up the scales of musical learning, secretly playing, listening, even as he exchanged the thrashings he suffered in the wrestling pit to the tedium of a clerical job.

How he joined All India Radio and went on to becoming the Hindi film industry’s highest earning flautist and why he decided to give it all up to learn classical music from the reclusive wife of Ravi Shankar, Annapurna Devi, forms the rest of the story. But the taste of every pudding is in the eating. Here is an excerpt from my book, Breath of Gold: Hariprasad Chaurasia.


An Interlude

London. 1966. It is a strange world he finds himself in. For one, he is cold. His hands are cold, his fingers too, as is the tip of his nose. Worst of all, his flute is not warm and responsive to his touch, but feels cold. He lifts it to his lips, blows tentatively; the sound comforts him, it is almost clear as always, except for the slightest hint of a hiss. Perhaps if he wraps the flute up in a woollen scarf, it will feel better . . .

He looks around at the hall he is to perform in. It is huge, and impressive. He has already been awed by the building’s façade, but the semicircular seating inside, with tiers that rise one over the other in a widening arc, is like nothing he has seen before. He does not know if all the plush seats will be filled—there seem to be so many! He supposes it must be some thousands. (The actual number is 5267.)

His recital is part of an evening of dance and music. He has been asked to play for twelve minutes.

When his turn comes, the audience welcomes him with applause, as is the custom in the West. It warms his heart. He has decided to play a simple raga, knowing that the time allotted is not enough for anything complex. He looks into the dim interiors of the space before him, settles down, signals to the tabla player accompanying him, and closing his eyes, blows into his flute.

‘When I play, I close my eyes, because then I am playing only for God.’

For the stretch of time that follows, he is aware of nothing except his music. He could well be sitting by Draupadi Ghat in Allahabad. Tabla and flute play in tandem, then together, in perfect sync, and listening to the music, the audience is in thrall. It knows it is in the presence of a true master.

When the recital ends, the clock shows that it has lasted twenty minutes. But the audience does not mind. It calls for an encore.

Flushed and happy, Hariprasad stands in the wings, waiting for the applause to stop. Someone pushes him on to the stage, telling him to take a bow. He stumbles out; then, walking up to centrestage, bends low in a namaste.

It is much later that he realizes the magnitude of his achievement. Not only has he performed at the Royal Albert Hall, London, coveted venue of every performing artiste across the world, but the audience of British and Indian listeners boasted celebrity performers, including Yehudi Menuhin, the world- famous violinist.

He celebrates by buying gifts for Anuradha. Perfumes, which, in those days, were not available as easily as they are now, in India. 


I rest my case. In these times that test us sorely, it is possibly a good idea to immerse oneself in another time and space. Music and books offer that. This book combines the joys of both. 

Sathya Saran edited Femina for 12 years. She is now Consulting Editor with Penguin Random House and a full time author. Her books include fiction, essays, and biographies of cinema greats linked to music. Her most recent publication is ‘Breath of Gold: Hariprasad Chaurasia’.