10. Utopian Somatics and Nationalist Discourse
Up to this point we have been primarily concerned with the symbolic meanings and disciplinary techniques that structure the wrestler’s body and give corporeal form to an ideology of regimented self-control and expressive identity. In this chapter we shall look at the way in which this somatic ideology is translated into a nationalist discourse as the wrestler is cast in the role of perfect citizen.
I was invited to the wedding of one of the wrestlers from Akhara Ram Singh. It was about 5:30 in the evening, the height of rush hour in downtown Banaras. Bicycles, rickshaws, pedestrians, motorscooters, and hawkers crowded Chaitganj along Naisarak Road as the groom’s party—an entourage of over two hundred people, including two brass bands and a garland-bedecked Victorian carriage drawn by four horses—set off through the bustling city. Progress was slow, but more by design than because of the crowds.
As we walked along, one of the wrestlers shouted over the sound of the trumpets, drums, and exploding fireworks that one could easily tell that this was the barat (groom’s wedding party) of a wrestler. “Just look at all of those wrestlers at the front of the group,” he said as he threw back his head, stuck out his chest and drew his shoulders back while splaying his arms in the characteristic pose of a mast (invigorated) wrestler.
Leading the barat, the guru of the akhara sauntered through the crowds, flanked on either side by elders, senior members, and a host of young wards. Their gait, posture, and general aura was dramatic and self-conscious. Thick necks set on squared shoulders; straight, strong backs; twirled mustaches and short, oiled hair; eyes set in a benevolent, disinterested, yet proud and self-confident gaze: they sauntered through the crowd slowly, ignoring the bustle around them, the young men mingling in front of the local cinema waiting for the six o’clock show to begin, the gridlock of mopeds and cars at the Godaulia intersection, but conscious of the eyes that turned in recognition, admiration and, undoubtedly, not just a little annoyance as the wrestlers’ parade moved against the tide of the city’s ebb and flow.
A wrestler is always on stage, whether he is walking along a street, attending a wedding, praying at a temple, exercising at his akhara, or competing in a tournament. This is not to say that wrestlers are burlesque performers in a physical-cum-ethical sideshow. More in the manner of a morality play, their character is their virtue, and it permeates and shades all aspects of their lives. To get at the nature of the power matrix within which the wrestler’s body is so cast it is necessary to consider the larger context of modern India.
Wrestlers have a specific, overtly circumscribed interpretation of modernity. Throughout my research wrestlers often provided unsolicited critical commentaries on the state of the modern world. It became apparent that these were not the usual conservative and often anachronistically nostalgic retrospectives. In fact, a refined and critical evaluation of the current moral, economic, and political state of affairs in India is central to the practice of wrestling as a way of life. From the wrestler’s perspective an affliction of modernity assails the human body and thereby directly undermines the integrity of the modern state. A fairly elaborate discourse has developed that both delineates the precise nature of this affliction and offers a utopian alternative. The nature of this discourse is encoded in the body itself, but wrestlers are likely to elaborate on this somatic base with great rhetorical flourish and poetic force.
The Enemy Within
The modern world threatens to exercise control over individual human subjects through the agency of seduction. Many times wrestlers would point to specific artifacts thought to characterize the modern era—cinema halls and popular films; mopeds, scooters, and other two-wheeled, power-driven vehicles; synthetic fabrics; liquor stores—and speak of how contemporary youth have fallen prey to crass commercialism and the lure of gross, sensual satisfaction that these artifacts of culture represent. The world of the bazaar is regarded as a den of iniquity which is sharply contrasted to the wholesome world of the pristine akhara. While the modern world is regarded as highly unnatural and immoral, wrestlers feel that individuals are inherently weak and susceptible to the seductive sensuality of a debauched way of life. That is, given half a chance, young men will gravitate toward cinema halls, tea shops, and liquor stores. Wrestling’s implicit project is to throw up a moral and physical barrier to prevent this from happening.
Given the overt physicality of wrestling, it is not surprising to find that the most heinous modern afflictions are also cast in a particularly corporeal light. For instance, hairstyles are regarded as prime indicators of a person’s more general moral character. Wrestlers are concerned with hair as a symbol of self-control in particular and identity in general. They wear their hair short, groomed with mustard oil, and they provide various interpretations of why this is efficacious. Many argue that it keeps the head cool, thus allowing the mind to remain focused and concentrated on practice and moral propriety. Others point out that the scalp and hair follicles absorb the oil, thus preventing baldness, dandruff, or eczema.
Given these perspectives it is not surprising that modern “hippie-cut” hairstyles are regarded as unhealthy and sensuous. In many areas of urban India one can find numerous hairstyling salons which advertise the latest in Bombay “filmy fashion.” The stylists in these salons have developed haircutting to a very sophisticated and, indeed, sensuous art. Scented oils, facial creams, and aftershaves are available, as are warm facial cloth wraps, blow-dryer sculpting, tints, and dyes. A vocabulary has evolved that delineates, with considerable nuance, the difference between particular styles of haircuts, mustaches and beards. These salons are noteworthy in part for their ubiquity. They can be found at almost every turn in a crowded bazaar. But there is also the fact that they make a sophisticated, sensuous technology readily available to a broad-based consuming public. In the evening salons are often brightly lit, and shiny metal fixtures and large mirrors accentuate what is regarded as a quintessentially modern environment of plastic, vinyl, and glass. The biggest and brightest of these salons are often located near cinema halls, and crowds of young men can be seen preening in front of mirrors as they are attentively groomed to perfection.
It is precisely this sort of hedonistic self-indulgence that wrestlers criticize. What rankles many is the fact that grooming has become a narcissistic passion of meticulous precision. It is a form of self-indulgence which is expressly sensual and consciously physical. Hair length is but one dimension of this. In particular, talcs and scented aftershaves are regarded as grossly egregious insofar as they are artificial tonics that threaten to replace the natural ardor of akhara earth and well water. The wrestler’s body is said to radiate with a natural, healthful glow, and talcum powder and moisturizing creams inhibit this aura. These commercial toiletries offer an alternative image of refined, effete civility, which is, quite literally, only skin deep.
Another target of the wrestlers’ criticism is what might be called “public food” in the form of snacks sold at streetside stalls as well as meals served in more lavishly appointed establishments. Wrestlers are extraordinary eaters, and their diets are carefully managed. Therefore they are usually united in their vocal criticism of public food, which is, according to them, prepared in suspect circumstances by less than circumspect chefs and consumed in the chaotic environment of the market, railway station, bus stop, or cinema hall.
Although all cooked food available for immediate consumption is regarded with some trepidation, there are a few specific food items which are inherently worse than others. Chat—a salty, sour snack made from lentil cakes and a variety of spices and condiments—is regarded as the prototype of dangerous public food; it can throw one’s bodily humors into drastic imbalance. In so doing it can enrage passion, a fact which is further exacerbated by the inherently stimulating properties of salts and spices. As with any other type of public food, one is never certain of the circumstances under which chat has been prepared. Is the condiment sauce diluted, and if so, with what? What has been added to stretch the bulk of the lentil batter? Were clean pots and pans used for preparation? In addition to concerns with purity and hygiene, wrestlers are often suspicious of the fact that they might “catch” bad emotions through the consumption of public food. Emotions such as anger, frustration, lust, and anxiety are said to be contagious and are transmitted from one person to another through the agency of food.
As with haircutting salons, purveyors of chat and other snacks are commonplace in modern urban India. The public dimension of streetside stalls is important in this context, for a well-known chat vendor can attract a large crowd. Thus, casual consumption—which, from the wrestler’s critical perspective, is wholly gratuitous and unhealthy—takes on the character of a spectacle. Spectacles of such indiscriminate eating reach epic proportion as many young men congregate before and right after the showing of a popular film in a downtown cinema. In addition to the dubious dietary properties of public food, of which the wrestlers are obviously critical, public food is also maligned as leisure food eaten purely for pleasure. In this regard snacks like chat are seen as sensually self-indulgent junk food.
Tea, like chat, is vociferously criticized for a number of reasons. Because it is drunk in so many situations and in such large quantities in modern India, it is referred to sarcastically, and often in a tone of resignation, as kaliyug ki amrit—the elixir of the dark age. As a narcotic, tea is an artificial stimulant said to dull the senses over time. It inhibits one’s appetite and can have a number of other detrimental effects on the body. Equally significant is the fact that tea has become associated with leisurely self-indulgence. Tea shops abound in the urban environment where workers, travelers, truck drivers, and government bureaucrats indulge themselves often. Because it is drunk purely for pleasure, wrestlers reason that tea drinking is a sign of idleness. It replaces the purposeful single-minded consumption of pure water or pure milk with a kind of distracted revery of the palate that serves no purpose.
Another primary dimension of the wrestler’s critique of modern life has to do with clothes and sartorial fashion. Generally speaking, wrestlers feel that the healthy body is properly maintained when clothed in loose-fitting cotton garments. The rationale provided is that the body must breathe and therefore should not be artificially constricted. Some wrestlers say that a dhoti—a long, loosely bound loincloth—and kurta—a long, uncuffed shirt—are preferred apparel. However, only a minority of senior wrestlers wear this costume. Wrestlers in general wear a wide array of clothes, but for the most part they dress in a fairly conservative and unpretentious style. While it is difficult to generalize about what wrestlers wear, it is relatively easy to delineate those dimensions of fashion that they regard as particularly abhorrent. Tight-fitting tailored trousers and shirts made from synthetic, permanent-press materials are said to inhibit free movement and cause excessive perspiration as well as chafing. Bell-bottom and flared pants are regarded as self-indulgent, as are “bush shirts” with wide collars, snaps, frills, fringes, darts, and pleats. Clothes that are fashionably tight are criticized for drawing unnecessary (and usually unwarranted) attention to one’s physique.
As with haircuts and public food, wrestlers feel that young men have become obsessed with fashion. Tailors, like hair stylists, have refined their sartorial art into an elaborate mechanics of subtle precision by which means they are able to cater to the proclivities of modern taste. Clothes are, of course, closely associated with the individual body, and for this reason wrestlers are particularly perturbed by the extent to which consumer-oriented fashion threatens to cloak the disciplined body in a garish, artificial, and unhealthy costume.
Wrestlers criticize a number of aspects of modern life, but nothing is regarded as more hedonistically debauched than the modern Indian cinema. Films are synonymous with virtually everything which is wrong with the country. Popular film songs which can be heard, among other places, played through amplifiers from hair salons, tea shops and chat stalls, are regarded as obscene. Without wishing to cast aspersions on the genius of Indian cinema, it is necessary to emphasize the degree to which wrestlers feel that film and film fashion has undermined public morality. Larger-than-life technicolor film billboards are regarded as a blight on the moral landscape.
While many may be critical of the impact which popular film has had, the exact nature of the impact is of particular importance for the wrestler. It hits at the very heart of his identity: controlled sexuality. Films are thought to be vulgar and erotic and therefore the essence of seduction. Scantily clad heroines dance, tease, and otherwise entice young men who then follow the well-groomed hero’s lead and let themselves be seduced. All of which is a vicarious fantasy of course, but daydreams can lead directly to adolescent confusion, wrestlers argue, and impure thoughts directly presage a loss of semen.
While cinematic images impact the young man’s mind, wrestlers feel that erotic thoughts manifest themselves in certain somatic ways. An erotic mood is said to be most visible in the eyes and the face. The initial passionate flush is followed by a prolonged condition in which the eyes lose their brightness and become hollow. Skin becomes dull and lackluster while cheeks become sunken. The image, appropriately, is of someone who is drained of life.
From the critical, conservative wrestler’s perspective, the debauched everyman is a fairly two-dimensional figure whose thin physique and narcissistic fashion complement his immoral character. In addition to the primary points outlined above, such men are criticized for numerous other things as well—riding around on fast motorcycles, smoking cigarettes, drinking liquor, chewing tobacco, idly sitting around, or, alternatively, promenading in public with no other purpose than to show off their clothes. Wrestlers, as well as other less dogmatic critics, use the English term “loafer” to label anyone who affects this fashion. On this general subject Rajkumar “Hans,” writing the introduction to a wrestling manual, makes the following remarks:
It is a matter of grave concern that people in post-independence India are becoming less and less interested in exercise. When I consider the question of why this is so I am forced to conclude that it is because we are surrounded on all sides by a rotten environment. The young people who should be in the akhara, who should be turning the pit, who should be exercising, wrestling and swinging gadas . . . they are today popping “mandrix pills” [a common tonic which is said to bestow strength], taking drugs and drinking liquor. They sit around and read cheap novels or flip through pornographic magazines.
Who knows why this “cabaret-disco” mentality has returned to India? In the newspapers we read about murder, robbery and fraud. The reason for this is very clear: men do not practice self-control; they are afflicted with prejudice and mental tension (1983: 17).
The Body and Civic Duty
The wrestler’s somatic critique of hedonistic everyday life is not restricted to the “skin-deep” level of fashion. It is also directed toward larger issues of public, civic life. Wrestlers feel that physical health and fitness are directly related to one’s duty and ethical responsibility as a citizen. Consequently, it is argued, the weak, debauched everyman is not only undermining his own integrity but is, in effect, shirking his responsibility as a modern Indian.
Wrestlers, like many others, express cynical frustration with the hazards and alienation of modern life. In particular, they are vocally critical of those things which affect them personally. A ponderous, monolithic bureaucracy must be negotiated when seeking admission to schools. A formidable legal apparatus must be penetrated when applying for building permits, licenses, and interstate-transportation documents. Tension is inherent in dealing with police and other public officials. And one feels alienated by a pervading sense of powerlessness when performing everyday tasks such as buying rations at a state-run store, making reservations for a bus or train, or waiting for a shipment of building materials for the construction of a government-subsidized house. Accusations of corruption are legion, and many wrestlers with whom I spoke expressed a deep-seated distrust of police officers, railway booking clerks, local politicians, legal advocates, school administrators, bank managers, building contractors, and many others. Some wrestlers come from the ranks of these much-maligned public servants, and many wrestlers know people in high places. Despite this, however, the category of public servant, as opposed to those individuals who actually fill the role, is regarded with a great deal of suspicion and resentment. I often heard wrestlers talk of how they were unable to gain admission to school, take out a bank loan, or build an extension onto a house without first bribing someone involved; this did not solve the problem, it simply bought them access to a daunting, alienating bureaucratic maze.
While corruption is regarded as a public scourge that has penetrated almost every rung of public administration, state bureaucracy, and private enterprise, wrestlers are equally critical of a less administrative form of corruption: the practice of adulteration. Wrestlers are very suspicious of the quality of all commercial goods. Like many others, they doubt if the sugar they buy is in fact pure sugar. The same applies for flour, milk, salt, ghi, molasses, oil, or any other household commodity. Cement, coal, petrol, kerosene, and diesel fuel are all thought to be “cut” with some inferior product in order to increase profits by way of inflated volume. For wrestlers in particular, ghi and milk have become the symbols of once pure and pristine products which are now rendered less valuable through adulteration. I was told that it would be impossible for me to buy pure milk, and this from a wrestler whose family business was dairying. One of the elders at Akhara Ram Singh arranged for “pure” ghi to be made available to me through the aegis of a “reputable” dealer. Left to my own devices, he said, and others concurred, I would probably have ended up buying some half-and-half mixture adulterated with cheap vegetable shortening. One can only imagine the apoplectic effect this would have had on my digestive tract.
The inchoate world of suspicion, public distrust, and corruption shadows the parallel world of seductive self-indulgence. Thus, in the wrestler’s view, it is the young man who primps, preens, drinks tea, and watches films or television who is also most likely to take bribes and adulterate products. A satirical verse in a popular wrestling journal (Dwivedi 1974–1975: 33) captures this notion:
Immorality extends directly out from the unhealthy body to influence the ethics of public life. In part this equation is effected through a particular logic of responsibility and duty. Narcissism is manifest self-interest. As a person’s attention is drawn narrowly to himself, the degree of his responsibility to the common good diminishes. In this formula, corrupt power—whether it be the ability to influence ticket sales or building contracts—is concentrated in the individual and serves self-interest. It is significant that power, morality, and fitness are linked so closely in this logic. In a very real sense an individual is thought to be more susceptible to vice if his body is not fortified through exercise and disciplined training.
There is no product now which is not adulterated And no official will “move” unless well remunerated
Yes, we can live without the aid of television But without the mandate of T.V. is there a national mission?
The Rhetoric of Somatic Reform
The wrestler’s way of life may be seen as a form of protest against self-indulgence and public immorality. By disciplining his body the wrestler is seeking to implement ethical, national reform. This formal somatic ideology finds most powerful and explicit expression in the popular literature on wrestling. By way of the printed page this literature makes public an ideology which is otherwise strictly encoded in the regimen of akhara practice. Those who write about exercise, diet, and training seek to interpret the discipline of wrestling so as to make it intelligible and accessible to the lay person. Moreover, this literature is explicitly designed to thwart the affliction of modernity: to provide a medium by which means the degenerate everyman might find his own salvation. Essays, letters, and poems call on wrestlers to champion the cause of their way of life in order to bring about moral and physical reform.
A few right-wing organizations in India take a similarly dim view of, among other things, moral decay and cosmopolitan, secular modernism. While the ideology of such groups as the militant Hindu Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh is in some ways similar to various aspects of the wrestling ideology, there are significant differences (see appendix). Although some of the rhetoric may sound the same, the points of view are quite different.
Despite the overtly nationalistic and patriotic tone of many essays and poems, most of the literature on wrestling does not call for direct political action through group organization or formal advocacy. The literature on wrestling parallels the practice of wrestling itself by casting national reform in a specifically individualistic and somatic light. The ultimate goal of somatic discipline is a reformed collective consciousness of national morality and health. Consider the following passage, typical of many commentaries which contain both an exaggerated lament and a utopian prospective:
Another example of this powerful rhetoric is found in the preface to The Art of Wrestling by Rajesh Gupta. He articulates quite clearly both the nature of the problem as well as its possible solution:
Today independent India is blinded by its freedom. Wrestling, which once made India strong beyond compare and which made our soldiers the strongest in the world, is now practiced by only five or ten people. Guru Hanuman has a had a great deal to do with keeping the tradition of wrestling alive. But what can one Guru Hanuman do? We should have one Guru Hanuman born in every village in the nation; if not, then wrestling will no longer run in the blood of the Indian people. There are only a few villages which have akharas, and one can count on one’s fingers the number of city akharas. . . . There was a time when every village had an akhara. . . . This sport, which costs nothing, has made India great in terms of strength and fitness. . . . Not until every man in India has spent ten to twelve years in the earth of an akhara can we hope to regain our national strength. . . .
These days the strength of society—not only in the villages, but everywhere—is being spent on intoxicants of all kinds. Our energy should be spent building strength and wisdom. In this way we can prevent the wastage of our national wealth. The health of the nation will increase. The character of the nation will grow strong.
It is my prayer that the people of India send their children to the akharas. Send your children to learn the knowledge of wrestling. Without the people’s effort, no progress will be made. . . . Ninety percent of our problems can be solved through wrestling. We can rescue ourselves from the problems which face us. The true wrestler is god. He is a true person (Atreya 1973a: 21–24).
Here the appeal is emotional and general. There is no specific program to be followed other than that offered by the akhara regimen. The idea is that strong wrestlers are moral citizens who will produce strong, healthy children. Eventually, it is thought, the whole country will exercise and eat its way toward a civic utopia of propriety and public service.
Who does not know that the health of our people has fallen to a low ebb? These are our children with sunken cheeks, hollow eyes and wrinkled skin. Youth?—Yes! The very youth who will . . . build the future of the nation on the pattern of our cultural heritage. Can these thin, dry-boned youth protect the country, the race, our religion and our people? How can they when there is no light in their eyes and no life in their hearts? And why is this? . . . It is not laziness, it is the fact that no one follows the path of brahmacharya. . . .
Brothers! It is time for us to renounce our poisonous desires and follow the path of brahmacharya with a pure heart. We must make our bodies fit, strong, and radiant. We must set our minds on the rules and attitudes which will ensure that our bodies will be healthy, beautiful, taut, and invigorated so that we can do the work that we are called on to do (n.d.: 3–4).
In this rubric all that is artificial about the modern world is contrasted to the wholesome coordinates of the akhara environment. The earth of the akhara in particular is regarded as the most natural of natural substances. Wrestlers explain that close contact with the earth ensures good health. It is a potent symbol of national strength. An essay entitled “The ‘Earth’ Akhara is Heaven and the ‘Mat’ Akhara is Hell” (Atreya 1972b) sharply contrasts modern Olympic wrestling with traditional Indian wrestling. The author extols the virtues of earth as does H. B. Singh in his introduction to the journal Akhare ki Or(1972). Singhspeaks of modern Indians as those who no longer feel the fertile earth between their toes.
Patodi charts the various healing properties of akhara earth and concludes,
They do not even remember that their bodies are the product of the earth. We see that they are reticent to pick up their playful, dust-covered children, for fear of soiling their fancy, tight-fitting, mill-cloth clothes. And yet these same people blindly smother their children in powder and perfume. They do not realize that the wrestler who grapples in the earth, the farmer who plows the earth and the child who plays in the earth are all far healthier than those who are alienated from the soil (ibid: 2).
A number of poems quite forcefully express the general ideological attitude of personal responsibility. In the following poem by Ram Chandar “Kherawda” Kesriya entitled “We Will Advance the Glory of India” (1978: 25), wrestlers—the diamonds of the red earth—are enjoined to become moral reformers.
The earth will make you great. The Indian wrestler puts on his g-string and wrestling shorts and enters this earth. Upon doing so his body takes on a radiant aura. Can the office clerk—effete proclivities, flabby physique, white clothes and all—decked out in the very finest cloth milled in Bombay and Ahmadabad compare with this half-naked wrestler’s radiant magnificence? Never! Absolutely not! (1973a: 35)
Virtuous, we will teach the world true duty. As the diamonds of the red earth
we will build the Nation’s pride.
As the burning lamps of energy
we will teach peace.
Tearing asunder the veil of darkness
we will call forth a new day of brightness.
Weakness shall be removed from the earth. Strength and manhood will be fostered. The shadow of fraud, conceit and deceit
will be removed.
As the diamonds of the red earth
we will make the Nation proud.
We shall water the forest of bay trees with
Pearls of humility will grow from the earth. Ethics, fraternity and moral pleasure will be
There will be no more eroticism. The veil of illusion will be removed. And the lesson is: “The body is the vehicle of
As the diamonds of the red earth
we will advance the Nation’s pride.
We will worship the source of energy. The lesson of fitness will be taught. Through teaching the lesson of self-control
the troubles of the government will be solved.
Business will be profitable. Blemishes shall be removed from beauty. Society will be neither rich nor poor. With the power of the individual
we will make the nation great.
As the diamonds of the red earth
we will make the Nation proud.
Of particular interest is the fact that the individual, as a wrestler, is called upon to shoulder the burden of national pride. Reform is clearly situated in the body, as both agent for, and example of, reconstitution. When the claim is made that self-control can solve “government” problems, Kesriya is referring to overpopulation and the related scourges of poverty, unemployment, overcrowding, and pollution. To the wrestler’s way of thinking, rapid population growth can be curtailed, quite simply, through the practice of celibacy. Given the importance of celibacy within the wrestling ideology, it is not at all unreasonable to assume—from the wrestler’s perspective—that people will recognize the intrinsic value of self-control. A solution is found to a national problem, almost coincidentally, by making everyone think and act like a wrestler. Similarly, it is reasoned, poverty will fall before an inspired work ethic fueled by the natural energy of the wrestler’s good health. Grain will be abundantly available once it is not used to distill liquor and ferment beer. Pollution will be eradicated when wrestlers realize that they need clean air to breathe, clean water to bathe in, and clean earth upon which to exercise. However fantastic and visionary this logic may seem, many wrestlers feel that their way of life would set in motion a chain of events extending out from each individual body and gradually bringing into line all aspects of public policy.
Government Patronage: The State as King of Kings
At least in part the government is held responsible for the weak moral and physical character of Indian youth. It has failed in its paternal, moralistic duty. As such, many wrestlers feel that the state must take a leadership role in championing the cause of civic reform. “What can the government do?” asks K. P. Singh.
In many ways wrestlers see in the government the possibility of quintessential royal patronage: the government as king of kings, with unlimited resources and unbounded stature. The utopian government imagined by such writers as K. P. Singh, S. P. Atreya, and R. Patodi is not the bureaucratic and impersonal leviathan of the modern state; it is a paternalistic institution of almost divine proportions, an enlightened body of good works and moral purpose. In Banaras I would often hear wrestlers talking of how they wished the government would provide them with food, clothes, and akhara facilities, thus enabling them to concentrate single-mindedly on the immediate task at hand. If the government would only take care of mundane concerns, the citizen wrestler would be that much less encumbered by obligations, responsibilities and temptations of the material world. If the government were to give each village a “fitness account” of 100 rupees, writes K. P. Singh, then “[H]earts which have been still will burst with life, and the villages will revive. The rural masses will be reinstated as the real citizens of the nation. A fresh breeze will animate the country. . . . The youth of India will be flooded with pride in their bodies. They will be united with the government and the government’s popularity will grow” (1972c: 41).
For its own sake it can do much. It can be the leader. It can organize and provide encouragement. The government has shakti; it has resources. What can it do? It can do anything and everything (1972c: 40).
The government was quick to uproot the rajas and landlords who were the guardians and sponsors of wrestling. It should be as quick to take over responsibility for this art and do as well, if not better, than did the patrons of the past. If the government demands school diplomas from its youth—the same youth who look to public service for status, money and respect—then it stands to reason that along with these high standards the government must also require strength and physical fitness (1986: 27–28).
The utopian government of which the wrestler speaks is dramatically different from the government that sets “sports quotas” but does not otherwise take an interest in the wrestler’s way of life. The line between government responsibility toward wrestlers becomes blurred with the wrestler’s responsibility toward the nation. As the wrestling ideal expands, national leaders will be drawn into the ranks of the wrestling citizenry. National concerns are wrestling concerns, and the perfect leader is the perfect everyman who is the perfect wrestler. There is a sense here in which the perspective on polity and responsibility changes as wrestlers move from a minority position to a majority status. Paternalism shades into communal self-help. As such the need for patronage is preempted; or rather, the citizen wrestler is his own patron. Patronage and governance dissolve into civic responsibility, a kind of romantic, bucolic anarchy of the collectively fit.
The Utopian Vision
Utopia is a corollary to ideology, and the ethical nationalism of wrestling presages an anachronistic image of India as a country of villages and akharas populated by men of great physical strength and moral stature. The image is as pure as it is necessarily vague and visionary. While there are obviously elements of nostalgia built into this utopia—the golden age of past perfection—it is for the most part an image of progressive change. The utopia which the wrestler/writers herald is sharply juxtaposed to the dystopia of modernity. Akharas replace tea shops and cinema halls, milk replaces tea as the drink of choice, earth replaces facial cream, mustard oil replaces scented hair tonic, and the tight langot replaces all that is vulgar in the world of sensual, sartorial fashion.
From the perspective of someone who does not appreciate the wrestler’s view of the body, such an image of progressive change would seem shallow and misguided. It does not deal with the larger issues of policy, planning, and economic development, which is to say that it seems more fanciful than functional. The wrestler’s utopian vision does not contain a formula for revolutionary changes in social structure or civic organization. Having become disciplined wrestlers, it is argued, people will otherwise go about their lives in a normal fashion. The citizen wrestler is called upon to change his attitude and way of living rather than the type of work he does or the practical goals he envisions for himself and his children. Subtle subversion is regarded as the means by which immorality and deceit are to be leached from the national fabric. Thus, a wrestling politician will be less susceptible to corruption and will work for the common good; a wrestling police officer will sacrifice his personal gain to the end of greater social justice; a wrestling dairy farmer will not dilute the milk he sells, thus insuring the better health of all concerned; and so on, through the ranks of all occupations, roles, and institutions.
The utopian future is, admittedly, a two-dimensional place conceived of by wrestlers in primarily somatic terms. They almost wholly ignore questions of economic growth, political power, and development, as well as other national concerns. Theirs is a circumscribed utopia, but not one bounded by ideals of communal living and isolated simplicity. The future is cast in terms of picturesque rural beauty: fertile fields, fresh air, shade trees, and cool streams. Although pro-rural, the utopian future is not expressly anti-urban. In fact, given the poetic and visionary nature of wrestling rhetoric, it is fairly easy to cast urban life in rural terms. Airy, cool, earthy urban akharas are in many ways rural microcosms. In keeping with the image of rural simplicity, wrestlers speak of the future as a time when good, pure food will be available to everyone. As one wrestler put it, “There will be enough milk and almonds for everyone to eat.” Self-sufficiency is an aspect of this gastro-utopia, for in the best possible world each hard-working family group would own enough cows and buffalos to have an unlimited supply of milk and ghi.
In order to bring about the utopia envisioned and presaged by the ideology of wrestling, it is the moral duty of every wrestler to convert others to his chosen life path.
A number of poems glorify the nature of the wrestler’s nationalistic duty. One entitled “Duty” by Ram Chandar “Kherawda” Kesriya (1973: 25) is typical:
If every wrestler were to train two wrestlers every five years, then every fifth year the number of wrestlers would at least double. . . .
It can be said that a wrestler is not a wrestler unless he makes others into wrestlers. The wicked and the corrupt are quick to swell their ranks with converts, while the pure and honest sit back quietly. Is goodness cowardly and shy? Is it selfish? It is essential that we put our lives behind goodness. Today! Now! . . .
A wrestler must have a missionary spirit. He must be obsessed with the advancement of wrestling. He must get excited about his art. He must be interested in spreading the word throughout the nation. He must make wrestling contagious; not as a disease, but as a way of life (K. P. Singh 1972–1973: 11–12).
It is incumbent on every wrestler to read the poetics of this nationalism into the particular situation of his own life. What this means is to be able to translate personal strength into national integrity, personal health into national well-being and self-control into national discipline.
Shantilal Chajherd, another wrestling poet, has written a number of poems. In one, entitled “We Will Make it Heaven,” he admonishes India’s youth to throw off the veil of darkness, light the lamps of national pride, lovingly embrace spirituality, and turn away from passion so that “there will be no more hunger and no more thirst; and so that all people will have understanding” (1973: 30). In a song entitled “Vital Life” (1972: 77) the same poet laments the passing of wrestling champions and criticizes an attitude of complacency which characterizes the modern scene:
Duty calls, stand up oh youth of India. Lift up the nation’s name today, oh youth.
It is lost, oh listen youth of India. Go and find the wrestling which is lost,
With the strength of shakti Krishna lifted up the mountain. With the strength of shakti Bali defeated Ravana.
Only by worshiping shakti
was Ram able to pull Shiva’s bow.
Steadfast duty enabled these three
to have shakti.
Duty is one of God’s voices. It is the law of manhood.
Duty is behind all courageous achievements. Behind all manifest power is the hand of duty.
It is the call of duty, awaken oh youth of India. Rekindle the lamp of youth.
Recognize the strength of shakti,
oh youth of India.
It is the time, raise up oh youth of India.
Another poet, who calls himself “Dwivedi,” has written a long serial poem entitled “The Cow Shed.” Six new stanzas of the poem appear in each successive edition of the journal Bharatiya Kushti. The poem elaborates on the theme of cow protection—a powerful symbol of Hindu religiosity—and uses the symbol of the cow shed (goshala) as a metaphor for all that is good and moral about the traditional Indian polity. Dwivedi laments the way in which the goshala has been undermined by corrupt politics (1972–1973: 33; stanza 146); how the cow shed metaphorically stumbles at the sight of young men in foreign suits and ties (ibid: stanza 148); how temples, masjids and churches have undermined the integrity of the cow shed (1973: 19; stanza 153); how taverns and liquor stores have pitted brother against brother (1971: 19; stanza 112); and how drinking has been the downfall of fathers, husbands and sons (1972–1973: 33; stanza 145). Each set of six stanzas usually ends with an appeal for young men to uphold the values the cow shed represents. Often the correlation between the cow shed and the akhara is made explicit. One set (1973: 19; stanza 156) ends with the following verse.
Some say, “What are you doing friend?” “Why exercise and stop eating chat?”
We eat like indiscriminate animals, and are sick. By the thousands in hospitals we rot.
In June there is again to be a tournament in Delhi. Let us watch to see who will win— Who will carry away the prize.
In a tournament one must show— The jewels of one’s strength, courage and brilliance It is for this reason that the wrestler— Must remember the cow shed.
Ascetic Wrestlers: Agents of Utopian Reform
In wrestling rhetoric the sannyasi provides a model for the duty-bound missionary wrestler. As K. P. Singh writes,
As the sannyasi stands apart from the world yet is integrated into life as a spiritual teacher, so the wrestler is integrated into social life as an ethical reformer.
Practice self-denial. Go to the villages. Be an ascetic for your work. Spread the word and do it with missionary zeal. If a wrestler only gives a fraction of himself and goes to the villages, thousands of young people will crowd around him and dig an akhara. The roots will then run deep and it will not take long to build up a tower of moral and physical strength (1972c: 47).
Perhaps the single most important aspect of the sannyasi’s character is his detachment from worldly concerns. As such, he is the mirror opposite of the debauched everyman whose obsession with commodities, fashion, and sensual gratification is so expressly worldly in a gross, modern way. In this regard the sannyasi-like wrestler heralds in a new era of somatic ethics. Just as the hedonistic everyman embodies the affliction of modernity as personal narcissism, the sannyasi-like wrestler embodies reform in terms of manifestly individualistic ideals. As an eminently individualistic persona, the sannyasi-like wrestler is a perfect citizen of the utopian future.
It is not sufficient for a wrestler to be just a wrestler. If he does not give a portion of his strength back to society will he benefit from his selfishness? What fruit will his effort bear? Even the sannyasi who has retreated from society to the forest has given us learning in the form of scriptures (K. P. Singh 1972–1973: 12).
Given the preponderance of “evils” in modern India and the very conservative interpretation of what poses a moral threat to society, the only effective response is to put the burden of responsibility on the shoulders of each individual. A community of wrestlers cannot hope to censure every film and magazine or shut down every liquor store, tea shop or chat stall. Nor could they realistically hope to organize a campaign against prostitution or shut down the mills which produce synthetic cloth. The nature of the conservatism is too diffuse and the objectionable sources of debauchery too powerful and entrenched. Following the model of the sannyasi, the wrestlers advocate a retreat from the world. Each person must turn into himself as he turns his back on what Rajkumar “Hans” has called the “rotten environment” of an afflicted nation. The idea is not to combat depravity through direct political action but to replant the seeds of reform, as it were, in the body of each person. R. K. Sharma captures this ascetic ideal when he calls on the citizens of India to return to the akharas:
In the utopian vision, wrestling remains a world turned in on itself where character and strength are a feature of personal identity. But as all of the people turn in upon themselves—exercising, praying, eating, drinking milk, and following the mandate of their respective guru—the nation itself becomes an akhara.
Brothers! If we are to revive our true and natural condition. If we are to shatter our naivete; if we are to champion the people’s concern for ethical reform and establish programs for morality in everyday life; if we are to reestablish the primacy of the race through the revival of religious and moral values; if, more than anything else, we are to protect our national freedom, then the most important and crucial task which is before us is to banish once and for all every vestige of carnal sensuality which we secret within us. To do this we must begin immediately to champion the cause of our own fidelity; and to do this we must not rely on the agency of our thoughts alone but on the reconstitution of our bodies as not only healthy, but strong, quick, beautiful and radiant enough to take on the difficult task of ethical reform (n.d.: 4–5).
However abstract and romantic this ideal may seem, it is, in fact, put into practice by some wrestlers. Many wrestlers with whom I spoke emphasized the role they must play in drawing young boys into akharas. The future of the nation is dependent on the degree to which they are able to pass the heritage of wrestling ideals from one generation to the next. They must do this both through active recruitment as well as by straightforward example. It was always with great pride and a sense of deep satisfaction that senior wrestlers—themselves cut in a somewhat ascetic/teacher mold—would show me a group of eight- to ten-year-olds wrestling their way to a better India.