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Kushti bhaichara

By Anosh Malekar

Royal patronage for the tradition of wrestling in Kolhapur bred a brotherhood between the north Indians who came to learn the sport at the local talims and the local Maharashtrians. This bhaichara, nurtured in the wrestling pits, could be one reason why the MNS’s anti-north Indian campaign left this city untouched. But with kushti in decline, and with growing tensions following globalisation over the last two decades, will the brotherhood survive?

Dinanath Singh, one of India’s champion and Kolhapur’s legendary wrestlers, calls himself a bhaiyya’s son who became Maharashtra Kesari and later the fifth Hind Kesari from Maharashtra

I began the telephonic conversation in Hindi, introduced myself and the publication I work for, then briefly described the purpose of my intended visit and requested a convenient date and time for an interview from the man at the other end. “Ya ki kadibi, vaat bagto ki tumchi,” (Come anytime, I’ll be waiting for you), the response came in ‘assal Kolhapuri’ Marathi.  

For the uninitiated, a sentence in ‘assal Kolhapuri’ begins with an obscenity and ends with the same, enough to turn anyone used to ‘cultured Puneri’ Marathi tomato-red. This I knew about Kolhapur and Kolhapuri, though I have never lived in this city of nearly half-a-million nestled in a lush corner of India’s sugar belt, approximately 425 km southeast of Mumbai in Maharashtra.  

The man at the other end of the telephone was Dinanath Singh, one of India’s and Kolhapur’s legendary wrestlers. “Bhaiyya cha porga, jo Maharashtra Kesari jhala, aani Maharashtracha pachwa Hind Kesari jhala,” (A bhaiyya’s son who became Maharashtra Kesari, and later the fifth Hind Kesari from Maharashtra), is how he described himself when we met a few days later at Gangaves talim, a well-known traditional wrestling gymnasium in Kolhapur. 

We were meeting at a peculiar time, early-November 2008. The Marathi-Bhaiyya divide in Mumbai had taken a violent turn on the streets of Maharashtra’s cities and towns, leaving many across the nation shocked. Can we ever hope to coexist, asked a national television anchor as the linguistic battles raged, the aftershocks being felt in Patna and New Delhi.  

I was going to pose a similar question to Dinanath Singh. But, I cautioned myself, I would have to use words carefully. 

Standing in front of me was a nearly six-foot tall, burly man with a swarthy, blunt-featured face. At 62, his broad shoulders, barrel chest, strong arms and pillar-like legs made me wonder what he must have looked like in his prime. In 1966, Dinanath became the state’s top wrestler by winning the Maharashtra Kesari and following it up with the national top honour -- the Hind Kesari -- in 1971. To achieve this, Dinanath Singh had wrestled with the best in the country, defeating the likes of Chamba Mutnal and Meher Din.  

“I train even today,” he said with pride. But I was not as much interested in his achievements in the kushti akhada as I was in his post-retirement life in Kolhapur as an “outsider”. He was quick to realise this: “For the record, I was born in 1945 in Varanasi, in eastern Uttar Pradesh, into a family that used to sell milk on the streets of Mumbai. We owned a shed of cows and buffaloes, so typical of those days.”  

Dinanath Singh could easily have ended up as yet another bhaiyya (north Indian) eking out a living on Mumbai’s crowded streets. But a chance meeting with then Maharashtra Chief Minister Vasantdada Patil in 1964 proved the turning point in his life. “Patil was impressed by my physique and asked if I would accompany him to his hometown Sangli to train as a wrestler. My family readily agreed. They felt that if I became a wrestler it would help in recovering dues from customers in Mumbai.” 

The young Dinanath spent the initial couple of years in Sangli before shifting to neighbouring Kolhapur, which was famous for its old, indigenous institution called ‘talim’ dating back to the early-19th century tradition of nurturing the physical culture. “It is here that my tryst with the red clay mud began,” he recalled with nostalgia.  

In those days it was not uncommon for young boys from all over India to join the talims of Kolhapur, where they would train, eat and sleep together in austere conditions. It is said that Kolhapur had more young aspiring wrestlers than Mumbai had budding cricketers until a few decades ago.  

The 70-odd talims -- Gangaves, Motibaug, Shahupuri, Kala Imam and Math being the oldest -- continue to attract wannabe wrestlers from outside to the city to this day. It is easy to spot the wrestlers in nooks and corners of the city, during breaks in their early morning and evening training sessions. Typically, all the wrestlers have cauliflower ears, a result of being repeatedly clouted and grabbed roughly!  

Young boys from all over India come to the talims in Kolhapur, where they train, eat and sleep together in austere conditions

Every talim has a haud (wrestling pit) where matches are arranged between various gymnasiums in the city. The Dasera festival is a big event for the wrestling community because of the annual ‘challenge bouts’ held across villages and towns where the winners are honoured with a handsome prize -- a turban, a silver bracelet or mace, and cash awards. 

For Dinanath Singh, the wrestling pit remains a place of worship. “Whatever I am today is because of this blessed mud. We have a tradition of adding lemon juice, turmeric powder, peanut oil, yoghurt and milk to the mud. This forms hard mud pellets, which are then broken by the wrestler’s body and sweat, caking the body in the process. It is believed that this has cleansing and curative properties, besides a calming effect on the aggressive wrestler,” Dinanath Singh explained.  

But did he ever consider moving to his native soil after his wrestling days were over? 

“Never! I had decided before I retired that this is where I would spend the rest of my life. After winning the Hind Kesari, I visited Varanasi. While travelling in a bus, I was accosted by a group of rowdy young men who wanted me to vacate the seat for them. They ridiculed my girth and the amount of space I occupied. I did not react, but decided there and then that the place of my birth was just not meant for me,” he said. His mother used to curse him saying: “Why do you want to die in an unknown place far away from the land of your birth?” 

Life is peaceful in this city, Dinanath Singh said. He has seen Kolhapur grow from a trading post into a small city in the past few decades. “There is no Marathi versus Uttar Bharatiya situation here,” he wanted me to believe.  

Dinanath Singh was the guest of honour when the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) formally launched its unit in Kolhapur a couple of years ago. And, more recently, when its leader Raj Thackeray’s public statements triggered violence against north Indians in Mumbai and other prominent cities, this city remained largely calm. 

MNS district unit chief Uday Powar said the senior champion wrestler had graced many party functions as a guest of the MNS because it regarded him as “a true son of the soil who had brought laurels to his adopted home”. There were several north Indians like him who had made the city their home and adopted the local way of life. “There are no social tensions in the city on the scale witnessed in Mumbai, Pune and Nashik. We had even planned to hold joint celebrations for Chhat Puja this year, but considering the tense situation across the state the district administration and police officials dissuaded us from our grand plans,” Powar said. 

The city of Kolhapur itself has approximately 25,000 north Indians, the migrations having begun soon after the formation of the state of Maharashtra in 1960. Prior to that too, nearly a century ago, Kolhapur was known across north India as a princely state left independent under the British and ruled by a king, Chhatrapati Shahu Maharaj, who was very fond of wrestling. Royal patronage to the indigenous sport ensured that many north Indian wrestlers came here and became familiar faces in a society consisting of royalty and landed gentry at the top, and a vast bottom of ancillary classes like traders and sharecroppers. 

The second wave of migrations that started in the early-’60s consisted of skilled technicians and workers, said Lal Singh, a civil engineer from Varanasi, who followed his elder brother Ram Singh here in 1968. “The state’s first chief minister Yashwantrao Chavan and senior minister Balasaheb Desai persuaded us to set up shop as government contractors. We were actively involved in the process of setting up the cooperatives network across western Maharashtra,” he claimed.  

Lal Singh, who heads the local association of north Indians, said they have been working closely with the MNS to keep the peace in the city. It is not as if everything was hunky-dory in Kolhapur when anti-north Indian sentiments were blowing across cities and towns in Maharashtra. The MNS had issues with recent recruitments in private companies -- 13 big, 850 medium and 217 small units -- at Shiroli, Gokul Shirgaon, Kagal and Ichalkaranji clusters that form the industrial backbone of the district. Some 40,000 unskilled and semi-skilled jobs in local industries have gone to north Indians during the last decade or so, Powar alleges. 

The younger generation of peasant Marathas, who have always known a working class life of cultivating sugarcane and making jaggery, or labouring in sugar factories and small industrial units, are now desperate for their share of the spoils of globalisation. “Is there really anything for locals in the private industries coming up on our land? The jobs are being grabbed by outsiders,” complained Suraj More, a 17-year-old preparing for the higher secondary school examination.  

Kolhapur is known across north India as the princely state of Chhatrapati Shahu Maharaj who was very fond of wrestling

Kolhapur is also known for its artisan community, some of whom have made a name as expert craftsmen. Kolhapuri saaz, a traditional gold necklace with delicate craftsmanship, is popular in Maharashtra and northern Karnataka, and Kolhapuri chappals (slippers) with their sturdy rustic look are renowned internationally. Local craftsmen are now feeling the heat with cheap outside labour providing even cheaper alternatives for their products. The tastes of the globalised customer are changing and newer brands are invading the markets to satisfy them, as anywhere else. 

But Powar alleges: “The recent wave of migrants is a highly politicised lot, primarily from the northern states and some illegal Bangladeshis. They do not respect the local culture.” Dinanath Singh and Lal Singh agree with Powar, but feel these are minor creases that can be ironed out by their respective organisations working together for the city’s social and economic development. 

The small city has been yielding to a metropolitan dream in recent times, and the old regime dominated by elderly sugar barons and their cronies has ceded to a more fluid order. Today, Kolhapur’s influential figures include younger politicians, executives, retailers, and property developers. The older regime began crumbling as the younger generation of farmers and salaried middle class began to diversify, each in their own way. 

Member of the legislative assembly and a young member of the royal family, Chhatrapati Maloji Raje, explained: “While one section of our younger generation has diversified into agriculture processing and horticulture, the other is building factories making car parts, oil engines and textiles. Once a 12-hour drive from Mumbai on a hazardous single-lane road, Kolhapur is now linked to the country’s financial capital by a four-lane national highway and a daily airline flight.” This new growth is bound to attract migrants, and some conflict of interest is likely to be there between locals and outsiders. But Maloji Raje is confident that Kolhapur’s progressive culture of inclusiveness will withstand the challenge. 

The earliest affirmative action programmes in the country were initiated in Kolhapur in the year 1902. Chhatrapati Shahu Maharaj is credited with introducing reforms in education and employment, making subsidised education available to all sections of society. He opened several hostels in Kolhapur for students from disadvantaged communities and also ensured suitable employment for them.

Pune-based journalist Radheshyam Jadhav, who is from Kolhapur, says: “Kolhapur has always had a strong connection with social reformer Mahatma Phule’s Satyashodhak movement. The Rayat Shikshan Sanstha started by Bhaurao Jadhav from Kolhapur pioneered the education movement in Maharashtra and Chhatrapati Shahu’s hostels for the disadvantaged castes were a unique experiment. Even today, progressive thinker-activists like Govindrao Pansare work for the unorganised workers, including migrants.” 

The modern-day residents of Kolhapur acknowledge that it is largely due to the efforts of the visionary ruler that the city became home to the arts including music, painting and cinema in the later decades. To this day, Kolhapur remains one of the very few districts in the country to enjoy water availability throughout the year, thanks to the Radhanagari dam constructed by Shahu Maharaj nearly a century ago. Warna, the first wired village in India, is another distinctive feature of this district’s development graph.  

The Kolhapuri Marathas are a proud lot, and equally gracious hosts. Descendents of rustic warriors who loved hunting and eating quail and wild boar, they are hearty meat-eaters. Employing the same recipes as their ancestors, they cook some of the finest, spiciest and most ebullient curries of meat and chicken that are watery thin, but delicious and blistering hot.

Relishing the typical non-vegetarian fare with local journalist friends at the Padma Guest House in the heart of the city one late afternoon, I pondered whether the outward symbols of status like Nokias and Mercedes, even vanity numbers for mobile phones and car licence plates, on display everywhere meant that cosmopolitan values had truly arrived in this rustic city. Or were these modern symbols mere bubbles of small-city aspirations? Would they liberate the young, or destroy the social system?  

The peasants’ cooperatives that dominated the district’s economy are crumbling one after another like elsewhere in Maharashtra due to mismanagement and large-scale corruption. Cultural institutions like the once-famous film studios and prominent artists have long shifted base to bigger locations like Pune and Mumbai. ‘The cradle of Marathi cinema and the fine arts’ remains just a sobriquet now. 

To try and find an answer to my questions I returned to the wrestling arena. The kushti akhada was, after all, the city’s strongest cultural and sporting link to the outside world for the past two centuries. It was here that legends were made, once upon a time. And here that the foundations of a unique bhaichara (brotherhood) between the rustics of this southern city and the northern states were laid by an erstwhile royal, all united by their craze for wrestling. 

“The future of wrestling in Kolhapur is right here,” said Dinanath Singh pointing to the younger lot of wrestlers at the Gangaves talim preparing for the upcoming Maharashtra Kesari bouts. Where are the legends like Shripati Khanchnale, Ganpat Andalkar, Maruti Mane, Harishchandra Birajdar and Yuvraj Patil? These wrestlers from Kolhapur were known to crush their opponents into submission with their sheer strength. The younger lot does not have it in them. They are happy if they win district and state competitions, Dinanath said. 

Wrestlers from the north continue to perform a token pilgrimage to Kolhapur, most of them flying in and out of the city to participate in national competitions. Rarely does a wrestler from Delhi or Haryana stay back to train in Kolhapur. Old talims like Gangaves and Motibaug are barely surviving; the visible neglect and paucity of funds have reduced them to junkyards of a lost era. The facilities back home are better. 

The royals of Kolhapur lost their titles and privy purses soon after Independence, and the city’s wrestling lost its patronage. The new rulers of Maharashtra did not pay as much attention to the sport as did their counterparts in Haryana and Punjab which are now producing Olympic winners.  

The neglect is criminal in a land that once produced Khashaba Jadhav, a long-forgotten wrestler who won Independent India its first Olympic individual medal competing in the bantam weight category at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics. Jadhav’s tale of neglect mirrors the rot in the system. Nothing came his way, not even a promotion in the state police force which he served till a road accident claimed him in 1984. 

“When we meet our counterparts from Delhi, Punjab and Haryana we are ashamed. They are flown in airplanes by their governments, which also employ them in high positions. Asian Games gold medallist Kartar Singh is an IPS officer, while Satpal Singh is a sports official who trains Olympians,” said Dinanath Singh.  

The champion wrestlers from Maharashtra are left to subsist on paltry pensions -- Rs 2,000 for a Hind Kesari, Rs 1,000 for a Maharashtra Kesari, and Rs 800 for other notables. Their demand for photo identity cards that would entitle them to free travel in state transport buses is still pending with the state government. 

The younger lot of wrestlers is also disheartened. Vishal Mane, a 19-year-old aspiring wrestler at Gangaves talim, said: “How do you expect us to compete at the highest level? We cannot even afford a daily diet.” The wrestlers are expected to follow a strict regimen of rigorous exercise and a rich diet. All food has to be cooked in pure ghee; no oil for a professional wrestler. The daily diet may consist of around a dozen boiled eggs, a kilogram or two of chicken and mutton, pulses, green and leafy vegetables, and four to five glasses of thandai, a special drink made from buffalo milk mixed with badam, dhania, elaichi, and kaju

“Shahu Maharajachi kushti Panchganga ghatavar meli, khalash jhali,” (Shahu Maharaj’s wrestling died on the banks of the Panchganga river; it’s over) said Dinanath Singh in a moment of utter frustration. His sons, Abhay Singh, 22, and Nirbhay Singh, 20, opted to play kabaddi after seeing the plight of former wrestlers like him. And the younger generation in Kolhapur has new sporting heroes -- international swimmer Veerdhaval Khade and ace shooter Tejaswini Sawant -- to cheer. 

“We have physical power, but we lack ideas. That’s where the world scores over us,” said Dinanath Singh. “We understand this traditional physical culture needs to be preserved in the midst of the virtual onslaught of commercial sports culture. But no politician is interested. Perhaps they have better things to do. What more can a wrestler like me say on this subject?”  

I asked MLA Maloji Raje about the future of wrestling in Kolhapur, and his response was typical: “The traditional wrestling gymnasiums are a cultural treasure that need to be preserved. I have got the state government to sanction Rs 1.50 crore to modernise facilities at around 20 talims in the city.”  

MNS’s Powar added: “We are planning to revive traditional wrestling in Kolhapur. But there are limitations when you are not in power.” The budding party claiming to represent the interests of locals felt it needed to address the larger issue of unemployment among the youth before getting into specifics like the future of wrestling. 

Naturally, Maloji Raje and Powar have their own strong reasons for being more focused on developments at the newly set up five-star industrial estate at Kagal, 20 km from Kolhapur, that boasts an investment of Rs 5,500 crore, besides the IT Park, textile SEZ and a foundry cluster coming up in the vicinity. 

Incidentally, Kagal is the birthplace of Chhatrapati Shahu who was so fond of wrestling. It is likely that the five-star industrial estate may be named after this visionary ruler of Kolhapur who died in 1922. Sadly, his real legacy has been left to grapple with its own future in the erstwhile kingdom. 

(Anosh Malekar is a senior researcher with www.infochangeindia.org and Infochange Agenda) 

Infochange News & Features, August 2009