Grappling with inflation, mud wrestlers of Unnao lose appetite for the gameWritten By Sumit Yadav | Published on Updated: Oct 20, 2022, 13:15 IST | 1666251922062Unnao, Uttar Pradesh: The akharas of villages in Unnao district spring to life at the crack of dawn, the zest to succeed quite palpable in the air. Bathed in mud, men clad in loincloths struggle to keep up their balance, the single most important factor that decides the transformation of the ordinary into exceptional, a commoner into a warrior.
Once a popular rural entertainment where sports and tradition entwine, kushti (wrestling) is on the wane. The pahalwans (wrestlers), whose heroics spiced up the evening conversations at village squares, are now engaged in getting a grip on their finances, which keeps their ‘appetite’ for the game in control.
Being a full-body combat sport, kushti demands tremendous stamina. Though grapplers need to enhance their strength, the rising prices of essentials have pinched their pockets. “Milk now costs Rs 50 per litre against the Rs 8 or 10 twenty years ago. Ghee is priced at Rs 800 per kg, and almonds at Rs 1,000. How can anyone run the family if the sport demands so much expense?” Surendra Kumar (36), a wrestler and father of two from Lakha Pur in Sikandarpur Karan block, told 101Reporters.
Kumar learnt the sport from his father Bindapal from the age of 10, and started participating in matches at 16. “Wrestling bouts have been a key part of my life for the last 20 years. Three hours of exercise is a must, both in the morning and evening. I drink two litres of milk daily. Apart from ghee and almonds, copious amounts of chana (gram) and fruits should be part of the diet,” he explained.
Only a few takers
Kushti demands a regimented life, but the returns are nominal in today’s world. In 2004, Kumar bagged the title of ‘Zila Kesari', the district dangal, of Unnao district. The prize money at that time was Rs 2,100. “Even today, for big matches, the maximum cash reward can go up to Rs 11,000. However, dietary needs for a single day cost people like me Rs 500 to 700,” Kumar said.
He linked poor rewards to the falling popularity of the game. “Watching wrestling bouts was a hobby, if not a way of life, for people in villages. Today’s youth have no interest in it — either to watch or to play. They mostly watch cricket.”
“People now have neither time for leisure nor any hobby,” echoed Kamlesh Kumar (48), who has not watched any wrestling match in his native Durjan Khera in Bichhiya block in the last 10 years.
This explains why wrestling matches, which used to be organised throughout the year, have been confined to four months (from Nagpanchami to Diwali). A wrestler has to earn for the whole year from those four months and since the game demands a particular physique to be maintained, he cannot take up other jobs in his free time.
According to Kumar, the number of wrestlers in Unnao district has seen a sharp drop from 50 to 60 in 2004 to just seven or eight nowadays. “I have had around 12 disciples to date. However, only three or four are fighting in matches. A poor man cannot feed his child milk and ghee when the family’s burden increases. So, they try to make optimal use of resources by educating their children. Most of my disciples have taken up jobs or are into business,” Kumar said.
He said a platform to conduct matches was constructed outside the village limits after he made several attempts in this regard. However, due to lack of patronage, the area is now covered with bushes.
Ankush Yadav (21) of Durjan Khera wants to join the Indian Army. “Wrestling? It is such an old-fashioned game. And what is a career in wrestling? Some 2,000 to 3,000 rupees in village bouts,” he said when asked if he was interested in the game.
Ankit Kumar (20) gives company to Ankush during his routine morning exercise. “I do this to keep my body fit. My baba (grandfather) was a wrestler. All he could earn was a little name, not money. Now, after such hard work, if you do not get money, then why do such work?”
A seasoned wrestler, Bhupendra Yadav (26) of Bangarmau town pointed to the lack of facilities for those aspiring to pursue the game. Village-level wrestling can take one nowhere. Those who are used to the mud pits find it difficult to compete on the mat, and vice versa.
“There is no facility to train rural children on the mat. There is no wrestling coach in the only stadium in Unnao city, where that facility is available in the district. If you want to make a career out of wrestling, you have to go to other districts. Lack of money does not allow it in most cases,” said Bhupendra, who took a liking to the arena after seeing his father Kanhaiya Lal Yadav’s performances.
If a modern arena with coaching facilities is established at the district level, Unnao will give birth to many talented wrestlers, he believed.
Bhupendra won Unnao district ‘Zila Kesari' title in 2017, which came with a reward of Rs 10,000. “From other matches, you can make a total of Rs 3,000 to 5,000 normally. I pursue it as a hobby. In any case, we cannot cover expenses for the whole year by participating in wrestling bouts.”
A resident of Naugawa in Bichhiya block, Anuj Yadav (34) organises riots in the village grounds for Dussehra every year. “My father used to organise it earlier. After his death in 2016, I took up the responsibility. We get donations from locals to run the show, but contributions have come down drastically. A decade ago, we could organise a bout for Rs 5,000 to 7,000. But today, it requires around Rs 30,000,” he said.
Only tradition keeps the bouts running. Anuj said this year’s finals carried a cash reward of Rs 5,100, which used to be only Rs 1,100 a decade ago.
District Sports Officer RD Paul acknowledged the fact that no special measures have been taken to promote wrestling. “However, along with other sports, trials for wrestling are organised from time to time. Those who qualify can compete at the state level,” he claimed.
No wrestling association is present in the district. “We are trying to form one soon by including all wrestlers present in the district. The needs of players should be fulfilled so that they can make a career out of wrestling. We have held a meeting with all the people concerned seeking suggestions to improve the scope of wrestling, besides urging the district magistrate to make facilities available to players,” he said.
Uttar Pradesh Wrestling Association secretary Prem Kumar Mishra claimed they organise interstate competitions from time to time. Those who win such matches receive better training and other facilities, he added.
Edited by Rekha Pulinnoli
Cover image of Wrestler Surendra Kumar shaking hands with a rival wrestler in a dangal. Images sourced by Sumit Yadav.