Around 6:45 am at the Guru Jasram akhada in Jasola Vihar, the warmup session has already started. Guru is seated in his chair, supervising the wrestlers. Everyone who enters the compound takes his blessing first, and then enters the akhada.
First, the soil is rendered by rolling it to make it fit for practicing. Once the soil is fit for wrestling, Guru puts people in pairs to practice. The session goes on till 9 am.
Carrying the legacy of his father Guru Jasram Singh ahead, Guru Virpal Singh aspires to train these wrestlers to bring home Olympic or international medals.
Around 50 students are being trained in the akhada free of cost. Like the traditional akhada culture, 20-25 wrestlers reside in the akhada itself. The akhada hosts all kinds of wrestlers starting from the age of eight. Some wrestlers focus only on the sport, while others manage it along with their education and job.
Singh says, “The number of wrestlers is less compared to our time. When we used to wrestle, the akhada used to be filled with pehalwans.”
After the closure of akhadas during the lockdown, the wrestlers had a hard time running their families. Most of them are the sole breadwinners of their families. When there was no dangal (wrestling competition), it was hard for them to manage the situation, adds Singh.
The wrestlers in Guru Jasram Akhada not only practice in mud but also on the mat as the international games are mat-based. “But most of them like to train in the mud and participate in dangals because it helps them earn money”, he says.
Source of income
The amount they earn differs depending upon the level of the players. Sometimes, it goes up to Rs 5 lakh.
Wrestlers practice daily without any break unless there is an emergency in the family or it is the day before dangal, when resting is mandatory. Training continuously is what keeps them in the field.
Getting into the national team, earning a medal for the country and securing a job is the aim of all wrestlers. However, they are all keen to participate in dangals. Winning the dangal means receiving a good sum of money.
Singh explains, “Before the pandemic, wrestlers received a reasonable amount after every match. The one who lost the match also received half of the amount. Post pandemic, they are only receiving one-fourth, which is a bit hard on them.”
“Everyone can’t be the winner. The kids have increased their efforts now and are determined to win”, he adds.
Money can lure the wrestlers to form bad contacts, or at least interact with them. While instances of such cases have been reported in many areas, none of the wrestlers from Jasram akhada have ever been involved in such incidents, says Singh. “Wrestling is a passion for them, it’s in the blood”, he adds.
‘The younger, the better’
While talking about the right age to start wrestling, Singh asserts that eight or nine is the best age to enrol someone in wrestling. “By the age of 15, they’ll perfect all the skills and techniques”, he adds.
Abhishek, 14, started wrestling at the age of 10. For him, it was the respect and honour for wrestlers that motivated him to wrestle. He stays at the akhada and travels to the school from the akhada. Both his father and brother were wrestlers, and he joined them later. “In 2020, I participated in my first dangal and won. It feels good to win. That’s what inspires us to achieve more”, he says. His school also supports his interest, and one of his friends joined wrestling after seeing him.
Aravind from Uttar Pradesh is 15-years-old, and he participated in his first dangal in 2019 where he lost the first match and won the other two. His father too used to wrestle, and that’s how he learned the basics. “Whenever I win, it feels so great because the whole village becomes proud”, he adds.
A majority of the wrestlers now at the akhadas have someone in the family with a background in wrestling, thus making it easier for the wrestlers to follow in their footsteps. Singh says, “Pehalwans used to be the pride of the village. Every family had at least one pehalwan in their house. For me, throughout my life, what I learned, what I breathed is all wrestling.”
Wrestling after pandemic
The scene has changed now. Mostly, people from economically weaker sections of the society join wrestling to earn money along with status and respect. Others are the ones with a background in wrestling. Some parents even enrol their children for nothing but fitness.
“The number of wrestlers from NCR has decreased. Though Haryana has become the hub of wrestlers and training centres, we have wrestlers from other states too”, says Singh.
Honey Chaprana is one of the few wrestlers from NCR who wrestles both in mud and mat. It’s been seven years since he started wrestling. Though his father was also a wrestler, he never pushed him towards wrestling. It was Chaprana’s interest that brought him here. He’s pursuing his bachelor’s degree at Delhi University and has won three gold medals for the university. “The teachers are supportive. They give concessions in attendance. But the focus is on wrestling”, he says.
He continues, “During Covid-19, most of us reached the peak point of our career, but we couldn’t go for any matches due to the lockdowns. After the pandemic, we had to start from zero. Those from really impoverished backgrounds had to leave wrestling and take up some other job”, he adds.
Singh claims cricket has become the main sport for everyone. “Wrestling brings more medals to the country. Before, the government also didn’t care much about the sport. Now, with the new federation, we are getting more support”, he says.
Shamshaad’s wrestling journey started by crushing almonds for his brother – a wrestler in the Palwal district of Haryana. During his brother’s dangal, he participated and won Rs 50, which ignited his interest in wrestling. In his most recent dangal, he earned Rs 2 lakh.
Seeing his interest, Shamshaad’s brother took him along for training and matches. After two years of training with his brother in the village akhada, his brother brought him to Jasram akhada. Today, it’s been eight years since he started training under Singh. He stays in the akhada.
“I am here because of Guruji. He trained me very well. Guruji used to sit with me while exercising. In four years, I completed my target here and started participating in matches”, says Shamshaad.
Speaking about the impact of monetary loss brought by the pandemic, Singh says, “In a month, wrestlers spend around Rs 25,000-30,000 on their food. So, diet was mainly affected. Milk, ghee and almonds are the main elements of the diet, and it gives them strength and stamina. Now, it’s become hard to get good-quality milk.”
Those who stay in the akhada, cook their own food and train every morning and evening.
The last three years were hard for the wrestlers with no dangals, and taking money from their family was a big no for them. Though dangals have started again, it will take at least one year to return to the past glory, Shamshaad says.
He has won medals in state and national wrestling championships. When asked about the interest in wrestling among the younger generation, he says, “With the number of medals coming in, people are interested. But most of them are interested in mat. Not many are interested in mud wrestling.”
Getting a job in the army or navy after playing for the nation is what inspired Danish from Aligarh, Uttar Pradesh, apart from his familial roots in wrestling. “Our whole life depends on wrestling. The target is that along with wrestling, the status of our family also upgrades.”
In mat matches, the wrestlers get certificates that can help them bag a decent job. “There are wrestlers who got selected in navy and CRPF, and that motivates us”, says Danish.
“During dangals, depending on our skills, we may get an opportunity to participate in other matches too”, he adds.
The 20-year-old wrestler urges that everyone must learn a sport along with their education. “It doesn’t need to be wrestling. It is to keep yourself away from bad activities and to be fit”, he says.
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