Swift, malleable and rubber-band like, the bodies tie themselves to an apparatus to perform one flow after another – sometimes, standing straight up on top of the fixed pole, sometimes, hanging in a plank position with just the thighs wrapped around the pole.
In mallakhamb, these apparatus’ are a pole – fixed or hanging – or a rope. These flows are informally referred to as elements. A common notion is that while acrobatic in appearance, this indigenous sport is, in fact, literally wrestling with a pole more than it is gymnastics.
The sport is finding its footing in such a way that it is possible that we may see it become a demonstration sport in the Los Angeles Olympics in 2028. As this sport with Indian roots gains popularity across the globe, mallakhamb artists also assert that excelling in it also paves the way for progress and success in other sports.
So, what is so unique about the training to be good at mallakhamb?
“If a good mallakhamb artist dedicates their body to the sport for a year or two, they can progress very easily in any other sport then. Mallakhamb not only has wrestling, but also acrobatics, gymnastics along with yoga,” Dr Ashish Mehta told Scroll during the Khelo India University Games taking place in Lucknow. Mehta is a former international mallakhamb artist from Ujjain.
“To excel in any sport, flexibility, strength, stamina, power are all needed. And with mallakhamb, you are developing all of the above when you are focusing on moving around your own bodyweight,” he added.
Mumbai University’s Janhavi Jadhav, who is also the current all-round World Champion, puts in at least six hours of training and practice.
“The training depends on the capacity and the climate, to be honest but also from apparatus to apparatus,” Jadhav said. “For pole, we need more strength and muscle endurance and for rope, we need the flexibility and mobility. So, as a player of malkhamb, one needs to focus on all of these things along with stamina.”
Her team-mate Devanshi Mali also has an identical daily routine. However, before climbing up the rope or the pole, there are certain things she has to clear from the check list, come what may.
After all, not only are the mallakhamb artists setting themselves up for risky movements, but also some very-injury prone elements. “I focus on warming up and flexibility and stretching first then I incorporate a little bit of yoga,” Mali explained. “It is important to get that out of the way so you don’t start cramping when you are up on the pole or rope. So, we first figure out our routine on the floor and then on the apparatus.”
As is obvious in the enthralling, yet challenging elements, flexibility and mobility are key and it requires pushing your body beyond its limits. Mohanlal Bamboriya, coach with the Madhya Pradesh team said, “For somebody to pick up and develop in this sport, one is not really bound by age but because flexibility is such an important element in this, it is best suited for age groups 6-14 years because they possess that flexibility. Even if they don’t possess it, it can be developed much faster at that age.”
Most importantly, a strong core is essential to mallakhamb artists. It prevents injuries and improves lifting mechanics in general but also adds balance, stability, and posture, which are all requisites in this sport.
“Core strength is specifically important for pole and rope because you are competing against gravity,” explained Jadhav, who believes practicing on the pole is even more important now since women are allowed to compete in both the pole and rope apparatus.
Mumbai’s Kewal Patil further explained the technicalities behind the elements, saying: “Rope mallakhamb requires more core strength while in hanging you need more balance. Sometimes, when you don’t possess the core strength, you can work on your muscle memory. Multiple repetitions of the same element ensure that the act is ingrained.”
“For example, when you’re finessing a plank position, you ought to start at the top of the pole and practice it at least 10-15 times daily. After a point, your muscles will know when to stop your body. It will stop on the proper position each time after that,” he added.
The first-ever all-round World Champion in the sport, Deepak Shinde, who is representing Lovely Professional University at KIUG 2022, also believes that one must maintain an ideal body type to pull off these tricks. It is no coincidence that most athletes at the mallakhamb event in ongoing Games said that they preferred to avoid bulking and instead keep a body weight that is easy to maneuver.
“I think maintaining a lean body structure in mallakhamb is very important so we focus on light weight training,” Shinde told Scroll. “If you watch some of these difficult elements on display, it does require a lot of strength as compared to flexibility. From start to end, our grip, thighs and core are involved and we should be able to lift our body with these three parts.”
While Shinde believed that it all boils down to your body’s ability to strike a balance between control and strength, what eventually prevails is the mental aspect. Performing these movements and letting their body flow like that under pressure is tough as it is. But when there is a tinge of risk hovering at the back of your mind and when the performance pressure peaks, these artists need to be at their prime with their mental health to combat that, in order to let their bodies do their thing.
“To be able to perform on every apparatus for 90 seconds requires immense concentration so it is vital to stay psychologically fit,” Shinde said. “I personally work on that aspect by believing in myself. I read my performance once, close my eyes and tell myself that ‘Aaj mujhe ye karna hai toh karna hi hai. Wahin body aur mentally prepare ho jata hai’ (I have to pull this off anyhow. I get prepared physically and mentally prepared that very moment).”
Like Shinde, for most of these athletes, flexibility, strength and muscle endurance are all important but a mallakhamb artist truly stands out only when they are able to thrive mentally.