The biggest loss of Sushil Kumar’s fall from grace
The first wrestling match I watched in Delhi dates back almost two decades. It was not in a stadium, but not far from one. The fight took place on a field in Vijay Nagar and ended with the defeat of a promising young wrestler; he was defeated by a skillful movement from his opponent in the last moments.
He burst into tears, much to the astonishment of the crowd. The moment belied the robust framework and measured skills that had defined it so far. In a few minutes of mud-clay akhara kushti, his practiced agility and trained musculature were not prepared for the grief of loss.
As a tribute to great sport, the moment revealed the range of emotions at work in the placid climate and the fierce desire to win. I never knew the name of the wrestler, nor how he continued to play the sport.
Barely three kilometers above the ground is the Chhatrasal Stadium in the northwest model city of Delhi. It was here that two-time Olympic medalist Sushil Kumar began training at the age of 14, moving from mud fights to mat wrestling at the highest level of international events. Earlier this week, the criminal branch of Delhi Police brought Sushil to the stadium at the crime scene as part of their investigation into the murder of Sagar Kumar, a 23-year-old junior wrestler.
Along with his aides, Sushil is accused of being part of a group that beat Sagar to death in the parking lot outside the stadium premises. The investigation fought a turf battle for dominance in the wrestling circuit and the belly of a wrestler-gangster bond in the National Capital Region.
This may not be news to longtime observers of the wrestling scene in the capital. But it still touches a raw nerve because of its estrangement from the cultural imagination of struggle in the native milieu. Even with all the modern conveniences of mat practice and world-class coaching, Chhatrasal still blends traditional wrestling ethics with its modern form.
Akhara, for example, is still the preferred word for the training ground. The touch of the feet of senior wrestlers and coaches like gurus persist as ancestral mores. We even see it in the way iconic wrestlers like Sushil are approached.
“He’s something of an icon now, never called Sushil Kumar but with the honorific Sushil Pehelwan (wrestler) or just Pehelwanji, ”Like Jonathan Selvaraj .
Almost three decades ago, anthropologist Joseph Alter, who in his youth was also part of a Akhara in India, gave an ethnographic account of how in northern India a wrestler’s body could reflect identity and ideology. The training seeks to achieve goals of physical strength and skills as much as it seeks to nurture a moral personality.
Alter’s work, Wrestler’s body: identity and ideology in North India (1992), have shown that in certain cultural contexts, wrestling is destined to develop as a way of life: a way of seeking character through purity and self-discipline, even celibacy in certain cases. What’s more, even using modern dietary supplements, most wrestlers stick to traditional dietary practices and rural ideas of strength-enhancing foods. The work of sports journalist Rudraneil Sengupta Enter the Dangal: Journey Through India’s Wrestling Landscape (2016) has some glimpses of the model.
The ideas of reverence for a pehelwanThe latter’s training and conduct, and the resulting expectation of loyalty from young wrestlers, is anchored somewhere in its old-world charm, even more so in the Akhara ethos. The clear distinction between a demonstrative activity like weight training and a competitive sport like wrestling is not just technical. This could be attributed to how kushti had a philosophical life far beyond the arena. Alter’s work has given more reason to see this difference. The themes of character building and the values of guru-shishya traditions still find resonance in the current crop of prominent Indian wrestlers like Bajrang Punia.
In this context, the link between crime and wrestler and the struggle for fiefdoms seem much stranger. But in the nation’s capital, the connections between wrestlers and bullying activity run deep, as do perceptions. From gangsters and mafia barons to land grabbers to banks even in pursuit of loan collections, the massive presence of wrestlers has been used for different purposes. It has been normalized to the measure of a stereotype, much to the disadvantage of a number of wrestlers who have never been a part of this seedy world. It has also reinforced a rural-urban bias in the way wrestlers are viewed on city fitness circuits.
In Michiel Baas’s book, Muscular India: Muscularity, mobility and the new middle class (2020), a sociological study of the fitness industry in different Indian cities, this aspect was observed in Delhi gyms.
“In Delhi-based gyms, the wrestler’s body was rarely appreciated,” he writes. “The association with village origins, rural masculinities, and the potential to meet ‘these men’ as ‘rowdy types’ and ‘making a living as bouncers,’ distinguishes wrestlers from the coaches clients meet in the gym. These are men they trust to provide advice on workout routines and diets, and who are often even lifestyle coaches.