Mallakhamb vies for pole position... bottoms up
TSI | July 15, 2007 00:00
A dying art makes an unlikely comeback.
TSI explores the topsy-turvy world of Mallakhamb
Anybody who bothers to even casually surf the television would recall the kitschy, folksy strains of this Happydent White commercial, and even more vividly recall its visuals consisting of men in near-impossible acrobatic poses, smiling and shining in the dark. In that 85-second spot, Perfetti Van Melle not only grabbed eyeballs for its chewing gum, but even drew attention to an ancient Indian art called Mallakhamb.
Our interest piqued, when we sat in attendance to a show of this unique indigenous form of gymnastics, specially put up for TSI in Pune by the Maharashtra Mandal, we were, at once, both awed and proud. As the man – clad in essentials – wound his supple and powerful body around a bare pole driven into the ground, we were to consider ourselves lucky to witness the magnificence of what only comes up now in the rosters of dying arts.
As the name suggests, Mallakhamb is a form of wrestling that combines the ability and vigour of a wrestler (Malla) with the tenacity of a pole (Khamb). Its origins tracing to the time and place of the Peshwa rulers of Pune (Maharashtra) in the 17th century, it was devised by master wrestler in the court of the last Peshwa, Bajirao II – Shri Balambhatdada Deodhar.
The story goes that two champion wrestlers from the Nizam’s court came to Pune and challenged the local wrestlers of the Peshwa court. The two, having trounced all comers from all other princely states, were considered unconquerable. The Peshwa had reasons for concern. It was Balambhatdada who accepted the challenge, who, they believe, invoked the Goddess and, of course – the patron God of Wrestling – Lord Hanuman, to perfect his wrestling skills.
Observing the genius of the gymnasts of the wild – the monkeys – while meditating, he incorporated the wooden pole element into the wrestler’s regimen, thus creating Mallakhamb. And as one would conclude any heroic legend, he went on to defeat the challengers. His efforts at propounding the discipline bore fruit as his protégés took the sport, places.
However, with arrival of the British, most things changed including choice of sports. While the sovereign patrons supported these games to the extent of funding akharas (wresting compounds) with all facilities, their exit resulted in the subsequent erosion of many a skill and sport including the Mallakhamb.
Mallakhamb might have had its final bout a long time ago but for the foresight and enterprise of a few individuals who developed it as an independent sport-cum-body building practice. Notable among them was Maharashatra Mandal in Pune. Initially founded to encourage Indian sports, they soon accommodated Mallakhamb, finding it an ideal instrument for building the body for wrestling (and as an independent art) and added it to their curriculum. At the outset, 16 various types of Mallakhamb were developed to tone up the body in accordance with appropriate tactics of wrestling, but as an independent sport, only five to six types are used. But ask Satyajit Shinde, a Chhatrapati awardee (one of the highest honours in the sport) at the age of twenty, why Indian wrestlers falter in the international arena in spite of the rich tradition, and he says, “Indian wrestling had its traditional norms and regulations which are not quite in sync with the international styles. Consequently, it becomes difficult to catch up. Mallakhamb particularly did not have any place in those, and obviously the skills enhanced by Mallakhamb lost their significance.”
Indian wrestlers however have not yet given up on the unrecognised glory of Mallakhamb. For small consolation, the ‘Hind Kesari’, the highest award for wrestling in the country, is also shared by Mallakhamb.
“Nowadays, there are Mallakhamb associations in the major cities in Maharashtra,” says Dhananjay Damle, Director, Maharashtra Mandal, adding, “It is the Central Government that is to take cognizance of it.” Ironically the sport did not find place in the National Games of 1993 organised at Balewadi, near Pune. Deprived official entry, Mallakhamb was merely put up as an exotic
Discouraged by no means though, the Mandal continues to demonstrate the ‘body art’ in sporting events across the country and abroad. With queries concerning poles and other materials pouring in from various corners, it may not be a lost cause yet. Says Damle, “Look at Yoga. If its growing popularity is a cue, Mallakhamb can do the same with a little effort. We are taking the help of some Yoga specialists and physiotherapists in this regard who will explain scientifically how this sport is beneficial for overall strength and youthfulness.” Gawking on in stupefied admiration, the TSI team was definitely convinced!
Prasoon Joshi, National Creative Director of McCann Erickson – makers of the Happydent campaign – says, “For this ad, we were set to use trained professionals. Luckily, we had people who practiced Mallakhamb… I don’t know if an ad can revive an art form but it can surely contribute!” Here’s hoping the government too does its bit to help revive this potent and spectacular art.