It’s a 25x25 feet loft where metal trunks and suitcases are strewn, an old portable TV set lies unused and clothes hang randomly wherever the overhead beams allow a little gap. About 25 well-built men jostle for space as they live in this mezzanine facility. Some are security guards, some constables, a few sell vegetables, while many double up as bouncers in pubs.
However, there is a thread that binds them all they are wrestlers.
Tucked away in a corner between a teeming housing colony on a busy street lined with shops and railway tracks in Chinchpokli is the city’s oldest surviving Akhara Lakshmi Narayan Vyayam Shaala. The ‘residential loft’ stands about 10 feet above the mud pit used for wrestling.
Started in 1930, the akhara is battling for survival, much like the few remaining ones here. In 1930, two inspired men Balakrishna Shivram and Bhausaheb Golatkar started from Lakshmi Narayan temple (near Chinchpokli station) and led a chain of youngsters, hand in hand down the streets, exhorting youth to join the freedom movement. They also wanted youngsters to be physically fit for the mission. And thus was born the Lakshmi Narayan Vyayam Shaala.
“Most of these wrestlers are poor,” says Prakash Tanawade, secretary of the Mumbai City Taalim Sangh and is also associated with the akhara. “Forget accolades and a good lifestyle, these youngsters don’t even have jobs and the means to supplement their demanding diet.”
Kushti stands precariously close to extinction in the city. In the early 1900s, there were nearly 50 akharas in the south-central part of the city alone. Only about 10 have survived. Their fate stands in stark contrast with the growth of the sport. While the likes of Sushil Kumar, Yogeshwar Dutt and Mumbai’s Narsing Yadav have brought home glory, the akharas suffer because mud wrestling is not accepted internationally. And the mats are beyond the pockets of these dilapidated akharas.
Though the wrestlers here have been taught to grapple for as long as they can remember, it is only now that they are learning to grapple with their situation. “We took up kushti because we love it,” says Sambhaji Patil. “Now, we wrestle because we hope to get a job through it.”
Standing 6’4” tall, Anand Khokhade fills his safari suit to the last seam. The 31-year-old used to be a champion wrestler and his bouts were a sell-out. “Now, I am a bodyguard for a builder,” says Khokhade, who was state champion twice. “You might have also seen me in a few movies Sarkar Raj and Wanted,” he says with a hint of pride. He could be extremely optimistic expecting to be remembered for working as an extra in films, but this is natural for a breed whose opium is fame and its short in supply.
Most of the wrestlers are from villages in Satara, Sangli and Kolhapur districts and belong to families of wrestlers or farmers.
Kushti is a way of life there. “It is a matter of pride if a family has a pehelwan,” says Tanawade. “Sometimes people even sell their land and get into debts so that their pehelwan son gets a good diet.”
Rural Maharashtra still sees many dangals (local competitions), especially during the Dussehra-Diwali season. Though these contests satiate the wrestlers’ yearning for fame, it’s Mumbai they head to for regular jobs and end up at places like Lakshmi Narayan Vyayam Shaala. That’s how Sambhaji Patil, who works as a watchman with the BMC, landed here. Or Milind Jadhav, who works with a telecom firm.
Tanawade recalls the time when mills thrived and patronised wrestling.
“There would be fights between Maharashtrians and wrestlers from UP and Bihar. If a north Indian won, those from the North would collect money and pay him, and if a local won, Marathi-speaking people would pay him,” he reminisces. “People would buy tickets worth Rs50, or even Rs500, to watch these fights.”
The history of wrestling in the state is illustrious Khashaba Jadhav from Satara was India’s first individual Olympic medallist, winning bronze in 1952. Harishchandra Birajdar won gold in Commonwealth Games (CWG) in 1970 and Narsing Yadav won gold in CWG 2010. None of the youngsters in the akhara have such dreams. They know they don’t have much chance against wrestlers trained on mat; they just want to continue wrestling along with a job.
The road on which the akhara stands is named in memory of the two men who started it. In a way, they still guide people to the wrestling pit but, now, not many want to walk the path.
Once a champ, now a security guard
Those frequenting the Oberoi Hotel at Nariman Point would hardly have noticed a security guard standing near the gate or guiding visitors in the parking lot. The 23-year-old Uday Jondhale is a champion wrestler who won gold in the 86-kg category at the Hind Kesari 2012, a national championship. He is now employed with the Maharashtra Security Board and posted at the hotel.
Jondhale is one of the six sons of a farmer in Rethare village, Kolhapur. He was destined to be a wrestler. “My father is a farmer but wanted a pehelwan in the family. He put me in an akhara when I was still a boy,” says Jondhale, who was coached by the legendary Banda Patil Retharekar, who participated in 1952 Olympics in which wrestler Khashaba Jadhav won a bronze.
Jondhale earns Rs7,000 a month. It is barely enough to sustain his diet, which includes a kilogram of almonds every month, a litre of milk daily, a dozen bananas, apples and other nutritious but expensive food items. However, even this is a frugal meal for wrestlers.
All his five brothers are graduates. One is a software engineer, another a BHMS medical practitioner and the eldest is in the army.“My father regrets putting me into wrestling because there is fame in village, but no job. And here I have a job but nobody recognises me,” he says.
Asked if he ever blames his father for his situation, Jondhale says, “No. I love kushti. Just that sometimes, I wish I had a better life.” A place in the police force is a gleam in his eye just yet.
Watch a slideshow: The Akharas, where wrestling's stars are made