By Joseph S. Alter
For those of us who follow the sport of wrestling in India, the recent victory on the mats of the Commonwealth Games has been a long time coming, but is also an echo of the past. The victory of our champion pahalwans is a reminder that the history of the sport is long and runs deep into the soil of
South Asia. Ravinder, Anil and Sanjay stand as champions on the shoulders of giants.
The sport of wrestling in India, as elsewhere in the world, has been modernised, standardised and is highly refined in terms of training regimens, coaching, the development of skills and techniques. No small part of the success of our wrestlers and other athletes is a function of the development of world-class facilities and expertise at all levels of the state-sport complex. To twist an adage concerning the devil, and knowing the devil’s language: to beat the best in the world, one must play by their rules.
For those of us who have a historical perspective on sport in India, success on the world stage must also be understood in a slightly different way.
Few will remember that exactly a century ago, in the era of colonial rule, a young boy from a very small town near Datiya in Madhya Pradesh wrestled his way to the heart of the empire and became world champion by defeating one world-class wrestler after another in London, 1910. Gama’s remarkable story is worth remembering at this point in time, and not simply because the CWG invoke the legacy of imperialism. Gama’s story draws attention to the history of a sport that has a complicated and conflicted relationship with modernity and nationalism. In this sense it is allegorical of other histories.
Gama’s early 20th century victory in London opens up a perspective on a world of wrestling in the villages, small towns and city neighbourhoods of South Asia. Most people know almost nothing about this world. One tangent of its history, however, can be traced back to the epic era, and in relation to this tangent it is not surprising that a powerful, tireless, lightning fast young Muslim boy from near Gwalior came to be called “Krishna of the Kaliyuga” on account of the way in which he seemed to embody supernatural power and was able to vanquish giants. Merging with this tangent of history is a form of wrestling that involved the earliest manifestation of a “Greco-Indian” style that developed when the soldiers in Sikandar’s army grappled with their challengers on the banks of the Indus. Elements of this style have percolated down from generation to generation of pahalwans supported through the patronage of kings and princes, including the ruler of Datiya who established an akhara and recruited a stable of champion wrestlers among whom was young Gama.
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