This isn’t any other air-conditioned hall in the capital city. Boys between the age group of 12 and 17 have assembled here on a balmy evening and are grappling in pairs. We would think it’s an uncommon scenario in a one-sport (cricket) nation. Yet, this is now an all too familiar scene in Delhi’s Chhatrasal Stadium, popularly known as Mahabali Satpal Akhara.
Ever since Satpal Singh retired from wrestling — he was a gold medallist in the 1982 Asian Games — he has been managing this akhara with an unmistakable intensity. He hasn’t missed a day in office, constantly monitoring the progress of each wrestler.
Meeting visitors and parents is part of his daily grind as is obliging the media, or attending functions with star wrestlers. At the akhara he is on the move, dawn to dusk. He has four full-time coaches to assist him along with other staff. Why doesn’t he back off occasionally?
“Most of these young wrestlers come from a humble background,” he explains. “Their parents have a dream; they want their sons to be tomorrow’s Sushil Kumar and Yogeshwar Dutt. Being a coach and a parent to all of them, my responsibility has only grown in scope.”
Ever since Sushil and Yogeshwar returned from London, they are being feted either by government officials or corporate houses. We don’t expect them to be here but are soon taken aback. From afar, we watch Sushil and Yogeshwar engaged in a game of football along with India’s other national-level wrestlers. Missing a day’s practice is never an option.
“That’s the way they relax and unwind,” Satpal says. “Also, football helps in breaking the monotony and makes them more agile and nimble-footed.”
Apparently, for this motley crew of wrestlers, football is not the just a source of entertainment or exercise. They are divided into different age-groups and are involved in a variety of other physical fitness activities.
We watch the synthetic track and the state-of-the-art gymnasium and wonder if modern methods have made their way into Indian-style wrestling. However contemporary the set-up may be, the time-honoured akhara in the stadium’s premise stands out. Traditional techniques are still given priority.
“We mix turmeric power, mustard oil and other ingredients in the soil. They work as tonic and antiseptics. We make our wrestlers grapple here at least once a fortnight. We discourage them from changing their technique and use the same mat style. This helps in improving their speed,” explains Satpal.
We walk a few more paces towards the dormitory where Sushil and Yogeshwar would rest at night for over 15 years. The wrestlers still eat, sleep and spend their days together here.
Now, a new shining Audi car is parked in the vicinity. “Yeh to Yogeshwar bhai ki hai (this one is Yogeshwar’s),” informs a junior wrestler, admiring the four-wheeled beauty. The Audi is a reminder of the many laurels India’s Olympians have won in the last two months.
Yogeshwar has finally finished his football match. He’s embarrassed, almost apologetic, when asked about the car. “It’s the first day I’ve driven it to the stadium. Just the first day…,” he says, as though he doesn’t want to sound like a proud owner of a swanky car.
He insists he hasn’t forgotten his roots. But don’t fame and money have their place in a sportsman’s life?
“Who doesn’t want to be rich?” he asks, adding that money follows you only “if you accomplish your goal in life.” We are reminded of his first words on winning the medal: Jo jeeta wohi sikandar.
“Look at Sushil,” he reminds. “Despite all the success since Beijing, he’s still the same. I want to be the Yogeshwar people know. Money or fame can’t change us. We’re just humble wrestlers and will remain so forever.”
So what has changed post-Olympics? “I wanted to win an Olympic medal for my country. I had worked hard for almost 17 years to win a medal. I’m finally satisfied. Now, I want to help my juniors get there,” said the London bronze medallist.
Sushil and Yogeshwar have trained under Satpal’s watch for over a decade. Satpal remembers an 11-year-old Sushil, who weighed only 35 kilograms when he joined the akhara. “I knew he had a strong character that is rare even for wrestlers. He would follow all that his coaches would instruct him. If I wanted him to do 500 push-ups, he would go way beyond that. If we told him to complete 20 sprint repeats, he would do 30. He is a rare breed and so is Yogeshwar. We are lucky to have them with us.”
Sushil could have chosen the comfort of his Najafgarh home after his bronze feat in Beijing. But wrestling was his first love. He couldn’t be away from it even for a day. Now that he is married to Satpal’s daughter Savi, he returns home after practice. He follows the same discipline, which he has imbibed over the years, steadfastly. “I’ve climbed ropes that dangle from a huge tree like them,” Sushil says pointing at a trunk. “These exercises provide an excellent workout for upper body strength. I can’t remember how many of those push-ups I’ve done,” he says.
Do Indian wrestlers of the present generation have the same unalloyed commitment to the sport? “I’m like a father and mother to all the trainees. Their parents want me to instil in them the values of life. I ensure no one breaks the akhara discipline,” says Satpal, who was awarded the Padma Shri in 1983.
There have been instances when he has had to be firm. Satpal narrates a recent incident when he had to throw out a talented national level wrestler (name withheld) on account of indiscipline. He says, “Look, we are like a family. We have to deal with such episodes occasionally. I keep making inspections even late at night, so that the boys have fear in their minds.”
Then he adds, “Most of these wrestlers come from poor backgrounds. They understand that wrestling is like a tapasya for a better livelihood. ”
His pupils earn their corn from the sport after achieving a certain level of competence. Some of them have been getting jobs in armed and paramilitary forces. “They are lucky as they get offers from various forces. I encourage the boys from poor families to take up jobs elsewhere. But they stay and practise with me till they participate at a competitive level,” he says.
He says, “My boys dream of becoming the next Sushil or Yogeshwar. Some get a bit of cash by fighting in the dangals (wrestling competitions). Watching the seniors at workouts makes them even more determined. They realise there is no short cut to success.”
Mahabali Satpal is happy to have fulfilled the wishes of legendary wrestling coach, Guru Hanumanji, who desired that Indian wrestlers be hailed amongst the best in the world. “He (Guru Hanumanji) always encouraged the Indian-style wrestling but he was also very keen to know about other countries and the way they train their athletes. I’ve never restricted myself. With India now considered as one of the top wrestling nations, I feel proud and satisfied,” says Satpal.
Satpal believes there’s future for wrestling in India. He fears, though, that the sport will be limited to merely one place. “The old akharas are dying as they are not able to keep pace with time and modern technology. I hope that after the success of our wrestlers in the Olympics, there will be a wave of enthusiasm in the game and the akhara tradition would never end in India.”
His concern is genuine. During the 1960s, there were about 200 akharas in and around Delhi. At this point, there are many on the banks of Yamuna and Mehrauli, North Delhi, and Najafgarh. However, with most of the famed wrestlers taking up full-time jobs, there are not many like Guru Hanumanji to dedicate an entire life to the sport.