A group of girls are grappling enthusiastically in mud pits of India’s wrestling hub, Delhi, unmindful of the sweltering heat and the harsh summer sun.
An unthinkable scenario, given the kind of dismay and anger that was evident in sporting circles ever since news came that wrestling faced a bleak future with the international sports body considering “dropping” it from the 2020 Olympics.
However, thanks to the sport’s many admirers and practitioners, a significant number comprising young women that the game has been saved from certain oblivion. Today, wrestling is part of the league of Olympic sports and women are being promised more participation in future.
And this is the reality for most of the female wrestlers in India.
Most of the wrestling dangals (tournaments), including the two-day long Rajiv Gandhi memorial wrestling dangal being organised by and attended by India’s former sports minister Ajay Maken amongst others, are still the only source of living for most of our wrestlers. The game continues, the heat, dust and lack of infrastructure notwithstanding, in stadiums and open fields.
Despite knowing well that the cost of hosting dangals as per the international rules and on synthetic mats hardly places a huge financial burden on the organisers, there is hardly any sincere effort to take an initiative in this direction. Ask any of the known women wrestlers Suman Kundu, Kamlesh, Anshu Tomar, Divya or Neelam participating in these mud fields why it is taking so much time, and the answer is the same…
“This is our only source of survival. The money we win from these dangals will feed us for many days to come. We don’t have a choice to play on modern, high-tech surfaces as mostly all the dangals are being hosted on mud pits,” said the Commonwealth Games bronze medallist Suman Kundu.
The post-Olympics craze, after India won two medals in men’s wrestling for the first time in Indian history, the game has seen more lows than the highs since the London Games.
Wrestling has only managed to survive in Olympics because of the promise to enhance participation of women and also by implementing rule changes to make it more appealing to the masses. So, the big question is why the Indian wrestling fraternity is refusing to read the writing on the wall.
“It’s the mindset and not the money which is stopping us from welcoming change,” says former India wrestler Jagdish Kaliraman of the famous Guru Chandgi Ram Akhara in the national Capital. “We’ve all the facilities in the world post 2010 Commonwealth Games, but only because wrestling is being played mostly by poor people, it is taking far longer for our mindset to change,” he added.
Guru Chandgi Ram Akhara was the first one in the country to open door for the women wrestlers in the country.
However, even after more than a decade only women wrestlers from the poor families are taking up the sport. “I’m from a family of seven girls and it was very difficult for my labourer father to take care of such huge family. I took up wrestling three years ago because I thought it would give me an opportunity to make a living out of it,” said 17-year-old Neelam, who has won several medals in school and cadet level wrestling.
Commonwealth Games silver medallist Kamlesh’s story is different. The 28-year-old the two-time Bharat Kesari and eight-time Bharat Kumari, took up the sport only after her marriage to Somvir, a patwari in a village near Panipat.
“Indian women can do everything. With the changing times and also because of impoverished family conditions, I took up to wrestling after my marriage with the sole aim to help my family. I also strongly believe that an Indian woman is more powerful than the foreigners and hence we (women wrestlers) have bright future in this country,” said Kamlesh.
Arjuna Awardee and current India’s women coach Kripa Shankar also has great expectations from women wrestlers, but calls upon the administrators to adapt quickly to new rules in order to move ahead with the times.
“Most of these young wrestlers come from humble background.
It’s not just that these girls have been working hard to achieve a goal, but their hopeful parents too have been running around with the dream that their wards will be the Geeta Phogats of future,” said Kripa Shankar.
Though, he believes that the future of wrestling is secure in India, but he is worried that wrestling Akharas are taking a long time to adapt to the changing world around.
“The old Akharas are all dying slowly as they are unable to keep pace with modern techniques and methods. I just hope that with the recent decision to keep wrestling in Olympics, there will be a spurt of interest in the game and the akhara tradition will never end in India,” added Kaliraman.
Kaliraman’s concern is genuine. A women wrestler needs Rs 800 to Rs 1,200 per day in order to maintain a proper diet. With more Olympic medals in the offing for women from 2020, the corporate sector and government of India need to provide more jobs to these girls.
“Give these poor girls some job security and believe you me that Olympic medals will not be far away from us,” national women coach Kripa Shankar optimistically concluded.