When the Delhi government allowed gyms to re-open across the city in September, the akharas in Delhi’s alleys and by-lanes resumed operations too. However, as the world adjusted to the pandemic, India’s traditional wrestling form of kushti remained stuck.

The pandemic has left the grounds of India’s dangal circuit, which usually attract thousands in a tangle of locks and limbs, barren. Since all the competitions on this circuit, which wrestlers rely for daily wage and food were cancelled in 2020, there has been a severe impact on the traditional way of life for the Indian pehelwan.

To find out how Delhi’s wrestlers are coping with the pandemic, Scroll.in visited several akharas and spoke with resident coaches and wrestlers.

Reluctant patronage for an ‘elephant’s’ diet

India’s next Olympic hopeful Divya Kakran, who won gold at the Asian Wrestling Championship in February 2020, spoke about her reliance on dangals before she went international.

“I lifted myself off the ground with dangals,” Kakran told Scroll.in over the phone. “The first dangal I fought was for Rs 15-Rs 20, then eventually for Rs 5,000 and Rs 15,000. In Himachal Pradesh I once fought a boy for half an hour non-stop and got Rs 30,000. I have even fought in the great Haryana dangals, where the winners get Rs 10,00,000.”

Divya Kakran. PTI

Even for champions like Kakran, who has won India’s prestigious Bharat Kesari dangal title eight times, these competitions were the only way to make a living, acquire new skills, toughen themselves for international careers, and maintain the large nutritional requirement of a wrestler.

“My diet and all my family’s expenses, I took care of these through dangals,” she said. When asked about the importance of a pehelwan’s diet she laughed and said, “Let’s just say it is four to five times that of a normal person’s.”

Vikram Sonker, Kakran’s coach in Delhi at Guru Premnath Akhara, agrees. “Rearing an elephant, rearing a pehelwan. This is the same task,” he said.

Heavier fighters make more money at dangals. Depending on their weight, a wrestler will eat copious amounts of ghee, almonds, milk, bananas, dal, rice, even chicken and protein shakes, and may spend Rs 500-Rs 1,000 or above every day. A cyclical relationship between food and money is fundamental to a pehelwan’s success: more money means there is more to eat, and eating more leads to better earnings on the dangal circuit.

But with the dangals gone, wrestlers are now hard-pressed to meet these standards to sustain themselves or perform well. Most wrestlers come from rural backgrounds or a farmer’s family, and in these cases, the result has been a reluctant patronage from home. For successful pehelwans like Sumit from Delhi’s famed Guru Hanuman Akhara, this is a reversal of the status quo. “In 2019, I made Rs 4.5 lakhs and supported my family,” he said. “This year I had to borrow money from home. I felt ashamed to put a strain on my parents.”

For others, there is now pressure to quit and look for other work. For many families, the allure and end of success in the sport is a secure government job after winning the Nationals. With the impact of the pandemic, many are now considering daily wage work or alternate professions.

A social-distancing paradox

Vikram Sonker’s Guru Premnath Akhara has gained renown for mostly training girls. Hailing from North Delhi, Kakran began her career in this akhara. Upon walking into the premises, many girls and boys can be seen digging the pit or practicing throws on the mat. There is no bio-bubble here.

“We reopened in September,” said Sonker. “During the lockdown, we tried to stay in touch and share home-workout videos on Whatsapp. But of course, that is not enough. Even after reopening, we could not wrestle. We just exercised here. We resumed wrestling only a month back. Now we have to continue.”

When asked about social distancing norms he said, “You cannot do that in a contact sport. We sanitise the mat frequently but that’s all we can do.”

In akharas such as Guru Premnath Akhara or Guru Hanuman Akhara, wrestling is being practiced against the prevailing circumstances. But just across the street from Sonker’s akhara is Dusu akhara, where the situation is worse.

“Many boys have not returned,” said Sushil Kumar, head coach at the akhara where only a few boys were jogging on the mat, and only one was digging the large pit outside. When asked why his students have not returned, he said, “Out of fear. The situation is bad. These are not my most talented students. Hopefully my best will return soon.”

Wrestlers who do not belong to Delhi returned to their home states during the lockdown. While Kumar’s akhara has an evident lack of activity, even Sonker said that he spent the last month just killing fear of the virus in his students’ minds. In fact, the head coach at Guru Hanuman Akhara, Maha Singh, also tested positive for the virus and was forced to quarantine on the premises. “It went smoothly,” Maha Singh said. “I did not have severe symptoms at all.”

Even Kakran’s mental state, Sonker said, was affected. She tested positive for Covid-19 just before the Individual World Cup in Belgrade, Serbia in December and was unable to participate.

“I was very much looking forward to the championship,” she said. “Now it is a month wasted, and a missed opportunity to see where I stand for the Olympics next year.” When asked if this affects her performance and hopes for the Olympics she declined and said, “Not at all. There are several other opportunities to test myself before the Olympics. I am preparing for the qualifiers now. I will give it everything I have.”

The spell of inactivity for wrestlers still relying on a domestic career, however, has been a staggering problem. Many wrestlers complained that their stamina was not the same, and that after months away from wrestling, they will now need months more to rebuild. Without competitions to participate in, their practice is being rendered aimless.

An anxious hope

The Wrestling Federation of India announced in November that they were postponing the nationals to late January through early February, 2021. The men’s freestyle, women’s freestyle, and Greco-Roman tournaments will be held in Noida, Agra, and Jalandar respectively, to reduce crowding in one area.

On January 10, an exhibition was organised at the Ghazipur border in support of the ongoing farmer’s protest. However, there have still been no new government directives for the resumption of dangals on a large scale.

Wrestlers across the city are anxiously waiting for normalcy to return and dangals to resume. The frustration of pehelwans in this pandemic was perhaps best articulated by wrestler Anshuman Tiwari at Dusu akhara. Weighing 97 kg, he scratched his head as he towered over this reporter and said with an ironic and painful smile, “Ab toh mere bhi khaaney ke laaley lagey hain.” Now even I am struggling for my food.

Farmers watch a wrestling match on January 10 as they protest on the Delhi border against the government's new agricultural laws. Credit: PTI