In Pakistan Chowk, Karachi, the once famous akhara of the Bholu brothers is now a gymnasium for youth wishing to beef up. Outside, Wasim Tara, a wrestler from the yesteryears, is engaged in dressing the fractured leg of a woman. Whatever happened to wrestling?
Traditional wrestling or Pahalwani had its most famous practioner and proponent in Rustam-e-Zaman Gama Pahalwan. The legendary strongman who remained undefeated in his career of over 50 years in undivided India and abroad, his strength(s) were soon those of his sons, the famed Bholu Pahalwan brothers. Today, however, the familial as well as cultural heritage of this sport, considered sacred by its patrons – a world away from the evils of modern-day steroids and supplements – is shrinking, as Nasir Bholu, grandson of The Great Gama, and son of Bholu Pahalwan points out. This third generation wrestler laments how the Gama kin are reduced to running a gymnasium in Karachi, or living off the local custom of getting medical dressing done by pahalwans.
TSI: When did you start your wrestling career?
Nasir Bholu (NB): It started in 1976 when I was 15. The famous Japanese wrestler Anoki was in Pakistan along with a team of wrestlers. I fought with one of the wrestlers accompanying him and won the bout.
TSI: When did your family migrate to Pakistan?
NB: My father Bholu Pahalwan was born in Amritsar. In India, the Maharaja of Indore and Maharaja of Baroda encouraged wrestling a lot. My father migrated to Pakistan in 1947 and during the early years, we received a lot of encouragement from the Pakistan government too.
TSI: Why is the tradition of local wrestling losing out in Pakistan?
NB: Wrestling is a very costly affair. Previous governments encouraged wrestling and people in general were emotionally involved in it.
Thousands of people would come to watch a wrestling bout, and hundreds of thousands would watch it on television. It used to be exciting to watch these matches, especially between Pakistani wrestlers and world famous foreign wrestlers. President Ayub Khan gave Rs 100,000 and agricultural land to Bholu brothers as a mark of appreciation, but then the governments withdrew their support for unknown reasons and local wrestling faded away. The prime land for our akhara in Karachi, that has now been converted into a (modern) gymnasium, was allotted by no less a person than then Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan.
TSI: So don’t we have any wrestling in Pakistan any more?
NB: No… Wrestling does take place in Punjab, but not on the scale like when it used to be a national game and everybody took interest in it. The number of wrestlers has also dropped significantly in Pakistan. Despite discouragement from the government we do have wrestling in oriental style in Pakistan. Now our youth only comes to the akharas for exercise. Akharas survive but there is no wrestling.
TSI: Who or what was your inspiration to wrestle?
NB: When I was in the school I would see my uncles doing exercise in our akhara early in the morning and I was inspired by them. They taught me the art of wrestling and also guided me to the right type of fitness regime, and the right diet to maintain a good physique.
TSI: Who were your main trainers?
NB: My uncles Aslam Pahalwan and Akram Pahalwan trained me. They would also advise me on the type of food to be had to keep myself fit. They trained me on the tactics of wrestling.
TSI: Have you also participated in wrestling abroad?
NB: Yes. I have not only won wrestling bouts with prominent wrestlers in Pakistan but have also participated in wrestling matches in the Middle-Eastern countries, Bangladesh and other countries. In 1982, when I went to Bangladesh to participate in Asian Games, there was curfew in Dhaka but Bangladesh ruler Gen. Irshad relaxed it so that everybody could watch wrestling matches. I bagged the Asian title in wrestling there.
TSI: What are your dreams?
NB: I had a dream to contest for the world title. Sadly enough, we had even negotiated with world title holders in wrestling, but appropriate arrangements could not be made in Pakistan for these wrestling bouts and thus they were never held. It was disappointing. In a family that has a tradition of wrestling since 100-150 years, we don’t find wrestlers anymore and it’s very frustrating.
This blog belongs to everyone interested in preserving and promoting traditional Indian wrestling. Please feel free to contribute photos, videos, links to news articles or your own blog posts. E-mail contributions to firstname.lastname@example.org.