Delia Ceruti is a circus performer from Italy. Andrew NG is a volunteer hospice manager in Singapore. Ruth Anzenberger studies psychology in Germany. Pavel Kalina is gymnast from Czech Republic. Vikram Kulkarni is a student on a gap year from United Kingdom. Faezeh Jalali comes from Iran. Three of France’s participants come from the same family – a mother and her two daughters.
There seems to be little to connect this diverse assortment of people from around the world.
Except, a pole that is eight and a half feet with a circumference of just 35 centimetres. Or a rope, hung 15 feet in the air.
These are few of the 120 competitors from 15 countries gathered under one roof in Mumbai for the first-ever Mallakhamb World Championship.
The inaugural tournament, held at Shivaji Park on 16 and 17 February, was the fruit of over three decades of efforts by Uday Deshpande, India’s foremost practitioner of mallakhamb. It is an ancient Indian sport that started as a complimentary exercise for wrestling. Often seen as “yoga but on a pole/rope”, this is the first time that it has been seen as a competitive sport at the international level.
“For the last three decades I have been going abroad to demonstrate and teach mallakhamb, starting from Japan to England, Germany and USA,” Deshpande, who started as a three years old in Mumbai under the founder of Samarth Vyayam Mandir PL Kale Guruji, told Scroll.in.
“After 30 years and 35 countries, bringing them on the same platform to exchange ideas that will help spread the game [is why we] organised this first one. In Mumbai there were hardly two-three centres, now there are over 100. In Maharashtra, only four districts had associations, now all 35 districts have it as well as all the states in India,” the Secretary of Mallakhamb Association of India added, describing how he travelled all over the country, training and forming associations.
But the first major step for mallakhamb been the formation of the Vishwa Mallakhamb Federation, with the US and Germany federations affiliated to it. In Mumbai, over the past weekend, athletes from Spain, Germany, Czech Republic,Italy, USA, Iran, Norway, England, France, Malaysia, Singapore, Japan, Vietnam, Bahrain, and hosts India participated.
Mallakhamb has a curious place in parlance – is it a sport, an art or science? It has been seen as a fitness workout, extension of yoga, a performing art, a martial art and there are people who consider it as a circus activity as well. But where does it fit in as competitive sport?
“We conduct competitions on all levels from district, state, national for decades and now this is the first international competition,” Deshpande said.
For 23-year-old Ruth Anzenberger, coach of the German mallakhamb team, it is a fun way for people to learn yoga with “marma” ( energy points) of Ayurveda. Andrew, 42, from Singapore picked it as an exercise to stay fit because of his sedentary lifestyle.
Yet, each competitor on the pole and rope was fighting it out by their fingertips and toes, playing their heart out as in any sporting championship. While the Indian team dominated, understandably, the international flavour and fervour was there for all to see. With the French flag-waving, cries of “India, India”, international participants with mehendi on their palms and bindis on their forehead, it seemed like a unique confluence.
“The skills of the Indians are jaw-dropping of course. But it is inspiring for me to see this and learn,” Ayuri of the Singapore team said. “It tests limits of human body as well as imagination, what a pole or a rope can do,” Andrew adds.
The Singapore team is coached by Sulakshana, a former mallakhamb champion from India who moved to the country later. Everyone is the team is virtually a beginner.
“We trained together for only two months, for around two hours twice a week. But Su teaches us very well, she made us these T-shirts too,” Andrew said.
Anzenberger, on the other hand, has been a part of the sport’s growth in Germany from the beginning. She was nine when Desphande first came to Germany in 2004 after her mother’s yoga teacher spread the word about mallakhamb in Munich,
With a German translator and a pole made from a tree, the Indian taught them the ropes of the sport which stayed with the young girl. “I was so happy and inspired by the sport after the workshop, my mom brought me a rope that we tied at home and I practised there. In the one year that sir came again I practised at home, taking photos and emailing them to him and he would coach me like that,” she said after her team demonstration.
She was 15 when she began coaching others and now runs her own classes. Her pupils, all young students, have taken a leave of absence from school and are in India with their supportive parents. One of the mothers was handing out information booklets on the German federation.
“Since 2017 there is Mallakhamb day on 15 June in Germany. We hang ropes in the park and every half an hour students of all ages give a demonstration on the pole and rope and in between others are coached,” she explained.
How did this indigenous sport, practised larger in Maharashtra, reach so far and wide to be recognised as an international sport federation? The internet, of course.
“Lots of people didn’t know about this so email and WhatsApp, Instagram are the media through which we communicated. Some participants from Vietnam don’t even understand a word of English but they have showed a lot of interest in learning. Ceruti, a 36-year-old from Italy, does aerial acts in circus and wrote to me that she wants to learn,” Deshpande explained.
But as important as the athletes are, a crucial part of conducting the first-ever championship was training the support staff.
“We conducted teacher’s training courses and judges training courses to lay the foundation. The first international judges’ certification course was conducted from August to November last year. We printed a new rule book for Mallakhamb called Code of Points. I contacted all my former students, sent them the rules and then conducted the workshop. About 28 people from all over the world appeared for the judges’ workshop done via video conference. We had exams and 22 passed. For Indians another exam was conducted with 20 passing. So all judges are of a certified international standard,” Deshpande, along with Krishna Kumar, the chief of VMF, elaborated.
But the event in Mumbai is just the start for the sport. The plan for the next World Championship is already in place, which will held be in USA in 2021 and on a bigger scale. But judging by the enthusiasm of the participants and the crowd in the air-conditioned enclosure at the iconic sport venue in Dadar, the start has been a successful one.