Sport, Interrupted: Kolhapur's famous wrestling pits hit a muddy patch

Wrestling isn't merely a sport, it's a part of life in Maharashtra. Here two men are seen practising at a taleem in Kolhapur. Ami Vitale/Getty Images

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought the sporting economy to a shuddering halt. In India, the lockdown and its longer-term implications threaten the future of clubs, academies, leagues, support staff, all the people who help move the wheels of sport. In this series, ESPN looks across the country's sporting ecosystem, from the big clubs to the neighbourhood academies, to see how they've been affected.

It's the time of year the Gangavesh wrestling school in Kolhapur, Maharashtra is bustling with anywhere between 100 and 120 wrestlers. The arrival of the monsoon coincides with the beginning of the off-season, as wrestlers begin indoor training and get much-needed rest after a packed season. This year, Gangavesh is nearly empty. It has been closed since just before the first nationwide lockdown was imposed on March 24.

March through May is traditionally the busiest part of Maharashtra's wrestling season, covering the biggest paydays for thousands of wrestlers in Kolhapur and its surrounding districts. This year, these three months have seen almost no wrestling. For traditional wrestlers across the state that has meant that their income has come to a full stop. In Kolhapur city alone, 75-odd active wrestling schools or taleems have been shut since the first lockdown, affecting the livelihood of nearly 2,000 wrestlers.

Gangavesh, built during the reign of Shahu Maharaj (1874-1922), the former ruler of Kolhapur and an avid fan of the sport, is one of the oldest and most prestigious taleems in western Maharashtra. It's one of several training centres Shahu built in the heart of the city, establishing it as the state's wrestling capital.

These residential schools accommodate anywhere between 50 and 150 students -- with a few dorm-like rooms for the senior wrestlers and a common hall for the juniors to sleep in. While the wrestlers pay for their own food with the money earned during the season, the schools survive on donations from private businesses, descendants of the Shahu family, former students and the general public.

Among the handful who have stayed back at Gangavesh to look after the taleem is Mauli Jamdade, one of the most successful wrestlers in the Kolhapur kushti circles. He struggles to find words to describe how he feels about the extended gap in training and competition.

"It just feels strange. Like a part of our life has been taken away," he says. His discomfort is understandable. Wrestlers at these taleems live a monk-like life: Wake up at 4 am, train for four hours, eat breakfast, prepare lunch, eat lunch, clean up, run chores, afternoon rest, train again in the evening, prepare dinner, eat dinner, clean up and off to bed at 9. That routine has been disrupted.

Financially, it has been a big blow.

Top wrestlers like Jamdade can earn somewhere around Rs 30-40 lakh in this season. But even the small, lesser-known wrestlers walk away with around Rs 10 lakh.

"It's non-stop competition between March and May. During this period, you may even see ten dangals taking place in different locations on a given day. There are probably 20 to 25 senior wrestlers like me in the state, and [given this lockdown] we can still sustain a bit longer. But those from weaker economic backgrounds might actually consider quitting," Jamdade says.

"The big wrestlers spend around Rs 15,000-20,000 on food every month. Those who have family backing can still manage to spend that kind of money during these times, but there are wrestlers whose families actually depend on them. They send a big chunk of their earnings home and use the rest for food and to sustain them during the off-season. Now that most of their family businesses back home are also bleeding, it's like there's no way out," he says.

Most wrestlers who train in Kolhapur's taleems are from poorer, farming backgrounds from villages nearby. Many of them get their daily or weekly supply of milk, groceries etc. sent to them from their family farms so they don't have to spend too much on it in the city.

"On average, students between the ages 10 and 13 need around Rs 6,000-8,000 per month, the slightly older ones (ages 14-22) will need around Rs 10,000 and the older, top wrestlers need anything between Rs 15,000-20,000 for diet and other expenses like training kits, massages etc.," says Ram Sarang, former CWG gold medallist and a trainer at the Commonwealth Wrestling Centre in Kolhapur.

He and other senior coaches say the biggest impact of the loss of income is on the wrestlers' khuraak (diet). "Being a clay wrestler is not easy anymore. Everything is expensive. Almonds, milk, and meat... Without that competition money, they're struggling to get their khuraak. By my estimate, in the city of Kolhapur alone, there are at least 2,000 wrestlers generally at any given point. All of them are affected," says Krishnanth Patil, the vastaad (coach) at Kolhapur's Motibagh taleem.

'Yatra, kusti ani tamasha'

Wrestling -- especially on clay surfaces -- is big in Maharashtra, though it's tough to get an idea of just how big, because it isn't merely a sport, it's a part of life here. The wrestling season, for example, is linked to the farming calendar; farmers use the extended breaks in farming activities to gather in strength at pilgrimage sites. A typical day there begins with a visit to the temple in the morning, a dangal in the evening and a tamasha (Marathi folk theatre) in the night. This age-old bond of 'Yatra, kusti ani tamasha' (pilgrimage, wrestling and theatre) offers a full package of comfort, entertainment and distraction.

"It's hard to find an exact number because we can't really define who we can call a proper wrestler," says Sarjerao Shinde, vice-president of the Maharashtra State Wrestling Association (of which Sharad Pawar is president). "I'd say you'd have 50 or so people practising wrestling in one form or another in a town with a population of 5,000. Obviously the concentration is bigger in Western Maharashtra, especially in Pune, Kolhapur etc. Now you have more women wrestlers as well. By my estimate, there are about 25,000 women wrestlers in Maharashtra right now."

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The big tournaments are the Maharashtra Kesari and Hind Kesari competitions, which decide the state and national champions. They generally take place post-monsoon at different venues every year and attract the biggest names, including north Indian and foreign participants. The last Maharashtra Kesari tournament was held in January, with over 900 participants. There was a big-name sponsor (Citi Corporation) and every weight category had a cash prize.

If Kolhapur is the capital, the annual dangal at Kundal (roughly 65km northeast of Kolhapur) has acquired iconic status.

It takes place in early September, as the monsoons recede, and attracts an average of two lakh spectators. With more than 1,000 wrestlers competing, the total prize money ranges between Rs 25 lakh and 30 lakh, with prize money for the top bout billed at somewhere around Rs 5 lakh. Some of the state's, and the country's, greatest traditional wrestlers have fought memorable bouts in its now-famous pit.

That pit, though, hasn't been touched in over 18 months. While last year's event was cancelled following devastating floods, the Covid-19 lockdown has put a question mark over this year's event.

It takes about 500 people -- paid employees and volunteers running around for a month or so -- to put together the event every year. Or as organiser Arun Lad puts it, "It takes a village."

It is not an exaggeration.

The event is affiliated to the Ganesh festivities in Kundal village, and the entire village gets involved. "They're not in it for the money, it's an integral part of the celebration. Everyone contributes in any way they can. Some donate money, some offer physical labour, others bring food on the day, and then there are parents who just want to see their kid compete in that pit -- even if it's for a quick two-minute bout -- and line up for selection trials the day before."

Lad works in Kundal's Kranti Sugar Factory, the event's chief sponsors. The factory also runs a wrestling academy in town, providing free training and accommodation for around 150 wrestlers. The wrestlers, mostly from rural parts of Sangli district, and a few from Satara and Kolhapur, get an allowance of Rs 1,000 every month. The seniors get slightly more, but once they become successful, they become self-sufficient. Most of them return the favour by donating to the trust, and helping out younger, poorer wrestlers.

Like the taleems in Kolhapur, all the wrestlers in Kundal's wrestling academy were also sent home in March. No one has received an allowance for three months.

While big-ticket events like those at Kundal and nearby Warananagar offer bigger rewards, the prize money at the other smaller dangals depends on the size and status of the event, ranging anywhere between Rs 1,000 and Rs 1,00,000.

None of these have taken place.

"Wrestling will live on"

What does the immediate future look like? Training is unlikely to resume soon and, even then, it will be a while before fitness returns to a hundred percent for the wrestlers. Coach Sarang says whenever the wrestlers return to training, it'll take at least 45-60 days for them to be back in shape and regain match fitness. "It's hard to stay motivated when you're alone. The exercises we do one day, don't repeat for the next six or seven days. The biggest challenge would be to make up for the time lost," he says.

Jamdade says that this is the longest in his career he has gone without proper training with the group. "January is probably the last time I had a competitive bout, at a dangal in Karnataka. Three months of sitting at home, and now probably more, is definitely going to damage our chances in upcoming competitions," he says.

Even the smallest events require a few basics like referees, commentators and musicians. Permanent venues like Kolhapur's famous Khasbaugh Stadium come with the basic set-up, but at the independent events associated with religious pilgrimages, you need to create an arena from scratch, a makeshift stage and seating for spectators. Most of these events take place on open grounds, where it takes more people to put it together -- clay providers, decorators, food and water suppliers, seating and tent builders, and so on.

Despite the difficulties, Deenanath Singh, a former Hind Kesari and father figure among the wrestling gurus in the city, remains hopeful. Originally from Benaras, Singh came to Kolhapur as a teenager in the early sixties, and made Gangavesh taleem his second home.

"In my five decades in Kolhapur, I've never seen training suspended for so long. But the red clay is the nursery of traditional wrestling, and I'm certain it will survive," he says. "Our scriptures say Lord Hanuman is immortal. As long as our mentor is around, wrestling will live on."