Kushti is an indigenous form of Indian wrestling tracing back three thousand years to the time of “malla-yuddha,” with Mughal refinements added in the 16th century. Kolkata is not a center for kushti like some north Indian towns such as Varanasi, Mathura and Allahabad. Yet, an early morning visit to the akharas behind Mullick Ghat on the banks of the Hooghly can be a novel and refreshing experience for a photographer in the “City of Joy.”
Following India’s independence in 1947, Kolkata and Delhi were the two primary economic hubs attracting migrants from northern and western India in search of better livelihood prospects. Jwala Kant Tiwari, a pehlwan from Gorakhpur is one such migrant, who came to Kolkata and setup an akhara (kushti pit) right next to the Mullick Ghat flower market. Others soon followed – Nandu Yadav from Azamgarh came here in 1965 and settled down – and the akhara establishments materialized.
These akharas now house generations of pehlwans, who start their daily rituals as early as 4:30am with a Hanuman prayer, followed by a series of exercises (mace, weights, ropes, bars, aerobics) culminating in multiple rounds of wrestling bouts and warming exercises in between rounds.
Kushti is a way of life at these akharas, for the mind, body and spirit. A pehlwan’s life involves strict routines, daily prayers, exercises, practice, diet and work. This is a dying (dormant at best) sport in India where sustaining pehlwani is increasingly difficult. There is little to no infrastructure or funding support from government or private agencies in a country dominated by Cricket and Bollywood so akhara operations are often makeshift and basic. Food, health and maintenance (specially the akhara clay) expenses mount up, making it increasingly difficult for youngsters to adopt pehlwani. Yet, in Kolkata, there are three or four akharas that are working hard to keep the centuries old North Indian tradition alive.
Sometimes, pehlwans request (even insist) a fee to photograph them in their surroundings. Language can be a barrier as well, so photographers not from India are advised to go with a friend or a local to make the experience easier. All said and done, watching and capturing kushti in Kolkata is a visual delight, in part because it is unexpected in the City of Joy, more known for its literary, cultural, market and culinary experiences.