'Exercise to stimulate, not to annihilate. The world wasn't formed in a day, and neither were we.’
The 12th century notes the earliest records of mallakhamb being performed in India. An ancient sport of Maharashtra, it was believed to be a gift by Lord Hanuman, as a powerful fitness regime, during the reign of the Peshwas. Colaba-based resident, Sharanya Narayan, has turned her childhood passion into a career. ‘Malla’ denotes a ‘gymnast’ and ‘khamb’ refers to a ‘pole’–an individual performs feats and poses with a rope or a vertical wooden pole. It has been observed that men dominate the pole and women, the rope. At the age of 10, Narayan was spotted by her gymnastics teacher doing cartwheels around JB Petit High School. “Within a period of six months, I was introduced to this unique art form. I was basically trained to be a mallakhamb performer till the age of 15,” quips the dusky contortionist, who returned to her roots after her college years.
Basics of it
“After performing at district level competitions as a child, I recognised this as a strength. I was always confident and at ease while performing,” smiles Narayan, who later experimented as an aerial dancer with the Terrence Lewis' dance company. She began applying her trained knowledge to another apparatus, the hoop or a cloth, a concept more common internationally than in India. Once she realised the potential in this art form as a professional skill, she soon began performing as an aerialist–it could be a fashion show in Goa or a wedding in Rajasthan.
Space constraints and lack of trainers in Mumbai hinder the growth of this art form. “In Goa, I could tie the rope onto a coconut tree and climb up with my toes,” enthuses Narayan, who considers the rope as her ideal form of expression, though she warns that it can be a painful process. “One of the reasons girls from my school did not get into it was probably the whole process of your skin enduring bleeds, burns, and blood clotting till your skin could handle it. Not many parents would allow it,” says Narayan, after being questioned on the popularity of this art form during her school days. Performance during a competition is relatively intense; the young girls would have exactly 90 seconds to perform an entire set, it was necessary to incorporate A, B, and C elements, (A being the easiest, B being moderate, and C the most difficult). “It is very fast; you do not hold anything for more than two seconds. If you do more than what is asked of you, you get more points,” continues the contortionist. “It is more of a sport, where speed and strength is the focus.”
Today, rope mallakhamb is probably taken less seriously as a sport and is seen more as an element that increases visual aesthetic appeal during performances. Avishkar Tendle, owner of the aerial rigging company, Natura Adventure Crew, says, “We saw a sudden inorganic spurt happening, where people were doing crazy acts on cloth, rope, and hoops. There are performers and celebrities who actually want to do this–Deepika Padukone being taught an aerial sequence for a movie to a bride and groom landing on the stage in an aerial manner. It is more about an elaborate visual performance.”
Uday Deshpande is a well-known name in the sport. His student, Shruti Jasani, is currently training actress Deepika Padukone for her upcoming film. Jasani believes that there are lots of people learning, but there are not enough teachers. “I began learning at the age of 24. I was the oldest in my batch and I honestly believe motivation, dedication, and persistence can really enable an individual to perfect all the moves associated with aerial and mallakhamb,” quips Jasani. Like Jasani, Narayan too had her tryst with Bollywood, “I trained Katrina Kaif for a week, for her performance in Dhoom 3. I believe its growing popularity is definitely associated with the shock value, it is new and fresh,” grins Narayan. After all, the daring, death defying stunts and the fascinating body bends of a contortionist are always a thrill to witness!
Where to learn? Swing by Shivaji Park at 7 in the morning or post 6 in the evening and you are likely to find living legend Uday Deshpande conducting a class.