Royal patronage for the tradition of wrestling in Kolhapur bred a brotherhood between the north Indians who came to learn the sport at the local talims and the local Maharashtrians. This bhaichara, nurtured in the wrestling pits, could be one reason why the MNS’s anti-north Indian campaign left this city untouched. But with kushti in decline, and with growing tensions following globalisation over the last two decades, will the brotherhood survive?
I began the telephonic conversation in Hindi, introduced myself and the publication I work for, then briefly described the purpose of my intended visit and requested a convenient date and time for an interview from the man at the other end. “Ya ki kadibi, vaat bagto ki tumchi,” (Come anytime, I’ll be waiting for you), the response came in ‘assal Kolhapuri’ Marathi.
For the uninitiated, a sentence in ‘assal Kolhapuri’ begins with an obscenity and ends with the same, enough to turn anyone used to ‘cultured Puneri’ Marathi tomato-red. This I knew about Kolhapur and Kolhapuri, though I have never lived in this city of nearly half-a-million nestled in a lush corner of India’s sugar belt, approximately 425 km southeast of Mumbai in Maharashtra.
The man at the other end of the telephone was Dinanath Singh, one of India’s and Kolhapur’s legendary wrestlers. “Bhaiyya cha porga, jo Maharashtra Kesari jhala, aani Maharashtracha pachwa Hind Kesari jhala,” (A bhaiyya’s son who became Maharashtra Kesari, and later the fifth Hind Kesari from Maharashtra), is how he described himself when we met a few days later at Gangaves talim, a well-known traditional wrestling gymnasium in Kolhapur.
We were meeting at a peculiar time, early-November 2008. The Marathi-Bhaiyya divide in Mumbai had taken a violent turn on the streets of Maharashtra’s cities and towns, leaving many across the nation shocked. Can we ever hope to coexist, asked a national television anchor as the linguistic battles raged, the aftershocks being felt in Patna and New Delhi.
I was going to pose a similar question to Dinanath Singh. But, I cautioned myself, I would have to use words carefully.
Standing in front of me was a nearly six-foot tall, burly man with a swarthy, blunt-featured face. At 62, his broad shoulders, barrel chest, strong arms and pillar-like legs made me wonder what he must have looked like in his prime. In 1966, Dinanath became the state’s top wrestler by winning the Maharashtra Kesari and following it up with the national top honour -- the Hind Kesari -- in 1971. To achieve this, Dinanath Singh had wrestled with the best in the country, defeating the likes of Chamba Mutnal and Meher Din.
“I train even today,” he said with pride. But I was not as much interested in his achievements in the kushti akhada as I was in his post-retirement life in Kolhapur as an “outsider”. He was quick to realise this: “For the record, I was born in 1945 in Varanasi, in eastern Uttar Pradesh, into a family that used to sell milk on the streets of Mumbai. We owned a shed of cows and buffaloes, so typical of those days.”
Dinanath Singh could easily have ended up as yet another bhaiyya (north Indian) eking out a living on Mumbai’s crowded streets. But a chance meeting with then Maharashtra Chief Minister Vasantdada Patil in 1964 proved the turning point in his life. “Patil was impressed by my physique and asked if I would accompany him to his hometown Sangli to train as a wrestler. My family readily agreed. They felt that if I became a wrestler it would help in recovering dues from customers in Mumbai.”
The young Dinanath spent the initial couple of years in Sangli before shifting to neighbouring Kolhapur, which was famous for its old, indigenous institution called ‘talim’ dating back to the early-19th century tradition of nurturing the physical culture. “It is here that my tryst with the red clay mud began,” he recalled with nostalgia.
In those days it was not uncommon for young boys from all over India to join the talims of Kolhapur, where they would train, eat and sleep together in austere conditions. It is said that Kolhapur had more young aspiring wrestlers than Mumbai had budding cricketers until a few decades ago.
The 70-odd talims -- Gangaves, Motibaug, Shahupuri, Kala Imam and Math being the oldest -- continue to attract wannabe wrestlers from outside to the city to this day. It is easy to spot the wrestlers in nooks and corners of the city, during breaks in their early morning and evening training sessions. Typically, all the wrestlers have cauliflower ears, a result of being repeatedly clouted and grabbed roughly!
Every talim has a haud (wrestling pit) where matches are arranged between various gymnasiums in the city. The Dasera festival is a big event for the wrestling community because of the annual ‘challenge bouts’ held across villages and towns where the winners are honoured with a handsome prize -- a turban, a silver bracelet or mace, and cash awards.
For Dinanath Singh, the wrestling pit remains a place of worship. “Whatever I am today is because of this blessed mud. We have a tradition of adding lemon juice, turmeric powder, peanut oil, yoghurt and milk to the mud. This forms hard mud pellets, which are then broken by the wrestler’s body and sweat, caking the body in the process. It is believed that this has cleansing and curative properties, besides a calming effect on the aggressive wrestler,” Dinanath Singh explained.
But did he ever consider moving to his native soil after his wrestling days were over?
“Never! I had decided before I retired that this is where I would spend the rest of my life. After winning the Hind Kesari, I visited Varanasi. While travelling in a bus, I was accosted by a group of rowdy young men who wanted me to vacate the seat for them. They ridiculed my girth and the amount of space I occupied. I did not react, but decided there and then that the place of my birth was just not meant for me,” he said. His mother used to curse him saying: “Why do you want to die in an unknown place far away from the land of your birth?”
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