Kolkata is on a ‘Dangal’ high as can be noticed by the unavailability of seats in every theatre in town. When we watched the movie, we felt the characters. We were down when they were sad, we were elated when they were happy and were in the peak of our emotions as we walked out of the movie hall.
Sadly though however deeply the movie touched us, the idea of wrestling and Akhadas seemed very far-fetched on our way home from the theatre on the busy streets of Kolkata.
But what if we told you that we have Akhadas right here in Kolkata!
Not one, not two, but three Akhadas! Yes, you read that right. How’s that for a surprise!
Here’s the story of Akhadas in Kolkata and their everyday Dangal to exist.
Not Just Hit or Miss
These Akhadas in Kolkata have been around for over a century and a half as traditional Indian wrestling is an ancient subculture that is sadly dwindling with the advent of modern gyms.
Timeless & Hidden
Among few of the Akhadas in Kolkata, the well-known ones are those on Cotton Street (Barabazaar), Mullick Ghat and Bhowanipore.
While the Akhada at Mullick Ghat is approximately 35 years old, the one on Cotton Street is 151 years old.
The Hard Cotton – Akhada at Cotton Street
This Akhada is situated at the end of a narrow lane in 126 Cotton Street, Barabazaar, Kolkata.
It has the traditional soil pit and they follow the traditional way of wrestling.
Established way back in 1865 it is 151 years old now and is presently run by Swami Yoganand Puri Math Trust headed by Shri Ashok Agrawal. Shri Manoj Sonkar and Shri Dhanilal Sonkar are other important members of the trust.
Shri Vindeshwari Prasad Shukla was the first guru under whom many famous pahalwans were trained. He is famed to have fought with Dara Singh in 1957 in Howrah maidan.
It is said that the match lasted for many rounds and ended in a tie.
Mr Shukla died at the age of 82 in 1972. His son Shri Narsingh Prasad Shukla was the next guru popularly known as Chauthi Guru. He continued with the legacy of his father and trained many more pahalwans.
Bhagwandas Kewat, who is presently 72yrs of age, is one of the living gurus who actually trained under the first guru Vindeshwari Prasad Shukla. He is a repository of stories from the past and says that many famed independence fighters (Binoy, Badal, Dinesh, and Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose to name a few) used to frequent this akhada and at times took refuge against the British Empire.
Bhagwandas Kewat is a living legend who reminisces the past glory and is lovingly called ‘Dadu’ by one and all in the Akhada. Since the age of 16 he has been frequenting this Akhada for the past 62 years. At the age of 78 he still walks to this Akhada every morning from his home in Howrah.
He has a coterie of other senior gurus who continue to train the next generation of pahalwans.
This Akhada used to be the hot bed for body building in Kolkata 40-50 years back says Om Prakash Shukla. With the advent of modern gym the crowd has thinned down. It is because of the 30 odd dedicated members that this Akhada has managed to survive. In return of their service they get lessons on kushti from their gurus. It’s their responsibility to pass on the techniques of kushti to the new generation of pahalwans.
These are no random sand pits where you just get in and start competing.
The Akhada used by wrestlers still have dirt floors to which water, red ochre, buttermilk and oil are added along with a special mix of various ingredients like sandal dust, ghee, Multani Mitti (fuller’s earth), Neem leaf, chandan powder, flower petals powder, Mustard oil and clay from the Ganges.
At present, Shri Om Prakash Shukla (Tulsi Guru), the grandson of Shri Vindeshwari Prasad Shukla (the first guru), runs the show at the cotton street Akhada. Every morning, he performs puja and sprinkles flower petals on the soil pit.
Every morning students practice rigorous free-hand exercises followed by weight lifting sessions before they hit the soil pit to practice kushti. The practice between two Pahalwans start with smearing of the face and body with the soil of the akhada, which is a part of the game. A massage sessions marks the end of practice.
The Dangal Life
The students here, train together and follow a very strict diet. They drink a lot of milk and have peanuts. They focus more on body weight, not body building. So you get to see huge well-built people who weigh about 120-130kgs yet have a lot of flexibility and strength. They aim to live a pure life, building strength and honing their wrestling skills.
They refrain from drinking liquor or smoking.
Shri Om Prakash Shukla says that whoever comes to this Akhada for Kushti are first trained for strength and flexibility through different physical exercises. Only then one is taught the techniques of kushti. Physical strength and endurance is the first step to learn this ancient art.
The flexibility and fitness that one acquires from a session at the Akhada are extremely long lasting compared to a gym. It is believed that one does not lose or gain weight even after quitting kushti. Working out with different equipment increases the stamina manifold.
Swinging a 30 kilo wooden gada (Indian club) is an ultimate test of endurance. A strict regimen of 500 push-ups, 500 sit-ups is followed by hours of practice in the soil pit.
The various techniques of close combat kushti like Dhak, Nikas, Dhobi Pachad or Kanpheri are specially designed to defeat the opponent in freehand combat.
Pal Babu, specialises in Kanpheri where he holds the opponent by the neck and swings him over the shoulder under his own body weight to finally land on his back.
Work V/S Passion?
Pehlwani is not their full-time occupation as it does not generate the desired income therefore, the pahalwans keep fit by practicing every morning after which they carry on the day with their own field of work.
The future Pahalwans:
At present there are about a dozen kids who are attending practice sessions in wrestling, to receive training from the senior members. They are the only hope to carry forward this ancient art form that is losing its importance with the advent of modernity. Building them for the future is an important task at hand.
They have wrestling matches twice a year.
There are no female wrestlers in Kolkata (they are not allowed)
Most wrestlers come from U.P, & Bihar.
Text and Picture credits: Sarasij Dasgupta. Kolkata will forever be indebted to this gentleman for digging out such a treasure