Kushti, or traditional mud wrestling is located at the intersection of sports, politics, culture, and economy in Western Maharashtra. While the wrestlers and their audiences are largely from rural Maharashtra, the culture of wrestling itself is very diverse. Large wrestling rural tournaments in Western Maharashtra are an international-cosmopolitan events. Top wrestlers from not just other Indian states but also Iran, Pakistan, Turkey and even some African nations have participated in them.
Lakhs of people attend the Jatras (fairs or festivals) where many tournaments are held. They are a part of travelling fairs, that also include folk theatre and music performances such as Tamasha and Lavani. In these fairs and yatras, the day begins with a visit to the local temple or sacred site, in the morning, a Dangal (wrestling bout) in the evening, and a Tamasha (a traditional Marathi folk theatre form) in the night. This age-old bond of 'Yatra, kusti ani tamasha' (pilgrimage, wrestling and theatre) offers a full package of comfort, entertainment, and distraction. The prize money at these tournaments can sometimes rise to a substantial Rs 100,000 per bout. The real force behind Dangal is the ‘people’. Mud wrestling is not an Olympic medal bout or a televised multi-million-rupee wrestling league. When a wrestler wins a Dangal, his village earns a lot of respect, and this is immensely valued by the people.
The wrestling season is linked to the farming calendar. Farmers use the extended breaks in farming activities to gain strength at pilgrimage sites. “Kushti, sugarcane fields and tamasha are closely linked,” says Kaka Pawar, owner of a wrestling arena in Pune, who is an Asiad, Commonwealth, and national medalist.
Changes in society and culture, the decline of smallholder farming, a recurring water crisis, environmental disasters, and state neglect have combined to undermine the most deeply rooted sport in rural India.
Kolhapur is the cultural center of Kushti in Maharashtra. Shahu Maharaj, ruler of the erstwhile princely state of Kolhapur, a great wrestling enthusiast, who brought grapplers from all over undivided India (pre-partition), many of them from Punjab to Kolhapur. He built wrestling arenas all over Kolhapur and organized wrestling tournaments. Wrestling schools in rural western Maharashtra are called Taleems, not akharas like Haryana and Uttar Pradesh; because of their strong cultural links with pre-partition Punjab.
Most Talimsare located in urban areas, but the majority of wrestlers are from the rural regions. Most of the wrestlers or ‘Pehelwans’ come from poverty-stricken families. The rest are children of landless laborers, carpenters, artisans, and working-class families. Very few come from the educated middle class. Kushti is a route out of poverty, for the rural populace. Amateur wrestlers can earn Rs. 50,000 in a season, while senior wrestlers earn as much as Rs. 20 lakhs.
Crop failure often leads to debt, and debt has led to an epidemic of suicide. Wrestling as an alternative economic activity provides a lifeline for farmer families that get into debt trouble.
Families aspire to send their children to the Taleems from an early age. When a ‘Pehelwan’completes his training, it brings high social status for the entire family. At the Taleems, Maharashtra’s wrestling gurus/instructors emphasize an ethical and moral code that blends the spiritual and the secular. Daily life at a Taleem is based on egalitarianism, strict discipline, healthy diet, strong morals, and ethical living.
The fees at most ‘Taleems’ are nominal, only a few hundred rupees a month. Many gurus will not demand coaching fees from extremely poor students, but the students still have to bear huge diet expenses themselves. The diet of students costs a lot. The older boys need 400 grams of almonds, four liters of pure milk, 500 gm of ghee, several eggs, fruit, and vegetables every day. Apart from mutton three times a week. This is a heavy investment for students coming from poor agricultural backgrounds.
Most ‘Pehelwans’ belong to families involved in the agricultural sector and their expenses depend on an adequate agricultural harvest. It is even possible that tournaments may get cancelled when farmers suffer from a bad harvest. Due to continuous agrarian crises in western Maharashtra, earnings out of wrestling are on a decline. The Prize money is continuously shrinking. The agrarian economy acts as a lifeline for the sustenance of wrestling in this region. More than 50% of the funds required for hosting rural tournaments comes from the average farmer. When a severe drought occurs in the region, many Pehelwans leave training and return home because their parents are agricultural laborers, who were unable to support them.
Ecological crises are impacting Kushti adversely. Western Maharashtra is prone to droughts, floods. Acute water shortages are affecting sugarcane cultivation. It is one of the major cash crops of the region. Major wrestling events are getting cancelled largely due to a water scarcity. It’s difficult to find an adequate water supply for the large turnout of audiences, which can exceed more than two lakhs. With the number of tournaments getting cancelled, young talented wrestlers are leaving the sport. In 2019, wrestlers and organizers faced a financial crisis due to the catastrophic floods in the Krishna and Varana rivers of Sangli district. The natural calamity brought wrestling activities to a standstill.
The introduction of mats has transformed the sport on a state and national level. The standard-size of the mat is 40 feet by 40 feet and it costs around Rs.7 lakh. This is far too expensive for tiny village ‘Taleems’ that cannot even afford smaller sized mats. If everyone switched to mats, most local tournaments might become non-existent. A bout on a mud-clay platform can go on for 25 minutes. Mat wrestling is much faster, and bouts are over in a couple of minutes. Wrestling on soil is all about stamina and strength because there is no time restriction. Wrestling on a mat is all about tactical prowess and speed because each round lasts only for a few minutes. The difference is dramatic and plays a massive role in the preparation of the participants.
Despite prominent political leaders leading their federations — the gurus of Kushtihave received minimal support from the government. The local people of western Maharashtra feel that the agrarian states of Punjab and Haryana treat wrestling far more seriously than the rapidly urbanizing Western Maharashtra.
The Covid pandemic disrupted two successive seasons. The arenas were closed down. Wrestlers lost their jobs and income. Their training suffered as a result of this. Wrestlers spend around Rs. 15,000 to 20,000 on their diet in a month. But since they received no income, the diet had been impacted. A wrestler shouldn’t lose weight as it can destroy their entire career.
India’s creative economy will have to involve all interconnected cultural-social practices. Kushti in western Maharashtra is at the intersection of sports, politics, culture, and economy. It is an international cosmopolitan event. It is in crises. Nourishing it may provide the link from a prospering creative economy to increasing India’s soft power.