In the lair of the unknown wrestler

The Akharas may be dilapidated and support of any kind may be non-existent, but the spirit of the Kushti fighter still burns undiminished, finds Vani Sreekanta

It took six autorickshaw drivers two days to figure out what I was asking for. And that means something. Let me rewind. When my editor asked me to do a story on local akharas, also known as gardis (traditional wrestling arenas), I spent days figuring out where they were located.

A photo essay on the iJanaagraha portal told me to head to Cotton Pet, an article in a back issue of Time Out Bengaluru suggested Shivajinagar. Now, anybody who knows Bangalore will tell you that looking for an akhara in either of these locations on a google map is a bit like finding Gobi Manchurian in China. So, I asked around.

When family, friends, and Facebook failed, I did what I should have done to begin with. I asked my auto driver friends who hang around the café I frequent. As the wise say, a gang of auto drivers will usually be able to locate any place in five minutes. So, when they took their time, I knew I was searching for a memory.

Situated on a bylane of Shivajinagar close to the now torn down Elgin Talkies, is Kale Bhai Ka Akhara. Sneeze and you will miss it. Here is the kicker, ask anybody in the city for the best biriyani in Shivajinagar, they will probably bring you here.

I knocked on the tiny green door behind which hides Kale Bhai Ka Akhara (which is close to a hundred years old, I am told) at 6:00 am and found myself staring awkwardly at Tanveer, a man who seemed seven feet tall. “No, you can’t meet Kale Bhai, he’s been dead for a while”, he stated, politely smothering a smile and ushered me in. I walked into another time. The place was dilapidated but clean; populated by men who, if possible, looked more awkward than I felt. Few women ever walk through these doors it seemed.

My visit to the even older Dodda Gardi (over 200 years) in the labyrinth that is Cotton Pet, proved that these things are standard at an akhara – burly men awkward around women, brought together by their shared love of a forgotten sport, practising in a rumbling old place, in pool sized mud pits called mattis.

K Purushotam or Puttanna as he is affectionately called, the trainer at Dodda Gardi, patiently took me through the more ritualistic aspects of Khusti. The Akhara is divided into two sections. The matti – or the mud pit, and the warm-up section.

The rules of madi or purity principles play a role in Khusti, he informed me. “We respect the matti like our mother. It’s regarded as the goddess Nimbujadevi. One can enter the matti only after performing ablutions and tying the langot (loin cloth). We light incense, sprinkle gomutra (cow urine which is considered very auspicious), and perform aarti with camphor. In our days a newcomer had to sweep and clean the gardi before he was allowed inside. He had to earn his entry”, said the nostalgic trainer.

“If you notice, the doors to the gardi are really low. The idea being that you have to enter the space with your head bowed.” This, he said, inspires humility.

The matti is treated with ayurvedic herbs, special oils, vermillion and turmeric. This has scientific reasoning, Puttanna assured me. “When we treat the mud with these, we won’t get skin diseases. They have antiseptic qualities. You must understand, the fighters sweat a lot. They exchange sweat.” The rituals, it seemed, are as much about religion as they are about discipline. And discipline, he told me, is the cornerstone of this sport.

Lack of discipline and easy distractions add to the decline of the sport along with lack of governmental support, said Puttanna. This further translated to lack of infrastructure and no Khusti events. The Karnataka Khusti Sangha hasn’t held any events in the recent past.

Tanveer, architect by profession and trainer at Kale Bhai Ka Akhara by interest, echoed this. The one big event of their year are the competitions during Dussera at Mysore. He bemoaned the loss of patronage and initiated me into class politics and Kushti with “in the mid and high income groups, nobody gets into this because they don’t know what it is about. The boys wear a langot. They come, see, and feel shy thinking ‘oh how will I wear it.’ Mind block is number one. And number two, they can’t withstand it”.

To find out if this is true, I did what any journalist whose editor looks at them incredulously when they request funds and time for a scientific study does, I picked up the phone. And the results of the dip stick can be summarised in the words of M Pradeep, a software engineer and World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) enthusiast who said, “I’ve never fought one, don’t really care to. But I may like to watch. You never hear of a match. I’m sure more people would go if we knew they were happening. But this thing about being incapable of withstanding the rigours of kushti is nonsense. I mean, if we put in the same kind of practice they do, we’d be just as good if not better. Our lifestyle doesn’t allow for it. I have a job.” Pradeep’s last statement –“I have a job” seemed as fraught with class bias as Tanveer’s “they can’t withstand it.”

I found myself wondering if biases were sometimes propogated by the sportsmen themselves. While highlighting the lack of support for the sport, Tanveer told me, “from what I have seen in my career, one set of wrestlers become underworld guys because they have the power. Everybody starts listening to them saying ‘Pehlwanji. Pehlwanji.’”

Narashima Murthy, a researcher who has published two books on Kushti and is considered an expert, took umbrage to such statements declaring them to be “damaging” and asked me “who in the underworld is from Khusti?” I was without answer.

Tanveer also went on to suggest that many wrestlers become milk vendors who delivered milk door to door, and sometimes bouncers. While the latter seemed believable, given the superficial physical resemblance of the khusti wrestlers to every bouncer I’d ever seen, the former flummoxed me. “They think it’s easy business. ‘I wake up in the morning, deliver milk, and I can have the rest of the day off.’ Without support, the wrestlers become disillusioned”.

Disillusionment seems to fight nostalgia at every corner of the akhara. Tanveer’s anger and Puttanna’s acceptance, though seemingly at odds, are both inspired by the apathy towards a sport that forms the core of their identity.

Leave a Comment