Akharas and Bodybuilding Clubs
Wrestling akharas stand in sharp contrast to bodybuilding clubs in Banaras. Bodybuilding clubs are a fairly recent phenomenon in India, dating perhaps to the early part of the twentieth century, when Ram Murti Naidu, among others, established institutes for physical training and exercise. In Banaras today bodybuilding is modeled on a Western aesthetic and on Western notions of strength and fitness. Wrestlers and bodybuilders sharply juxtapose their respective activities. Each defines himself against the negative backdrop of the other, self-definition through a “we-are-not-like-them” formulation. As with any such formulation there are enough parallels between the two activities to generate a dialectic rather than to create a situation of total rejection and disregard. In the interest of summarizing what an akhara is in terms of aesthetic appeal, health nexus, and demographic composition, it is useful to reflect the akhara, as a whole, against its more modern analog.
The Mazdoor Health Improvement Association, established in 1931 to foster ideals of physical fitness and national self-determination among mazdurs (wage laborers), is located down a small gali in Madanpura. The association is almost entirely Muslim, and most of the members come from the immediate neighborhood of Al ’lu ka Masjid. Many current members work in the area as weavers, traders, transporters, or tailors of silk and other fabrics. The gali is narrow, dark, and, as with other such galis in Banaras, littered with refuse and piles of rubble. Open doors look in on huge looms sunk into the floors of family houses, where young children sit and weave the silk saris for which Banaras is famous.
The gym is open only at night. At about 6:00 P.M. the first member to arrive picks up the key from Masoom’s pan shop just across the road from the gali entrance. A sign above the gym door announces the name of the organization in English and in Urdu and Devanagari script.
The gym is a small room, six meters square, crowded with dumbbells, weightlifting bars, weights of all sizes and shapes, a set of parallel bars, and a chin-up bar hung on old rusted chains suspended from a sagging central beam. In one corner is a broken pulley and bicycle-chain contraption used to lift a stack of iron-plate weights. Next to the parallel bars is an improvised bench-press board, and in front of that, set into the hard-packed earth floor, a set of wooden stumps on which to do push-ups. Pegs are set into the lime-washed bricks on each wall. Members hold on to these and stand on polished wooden boards while doing squats and deep knee bends. The boards keep the floor dry, for otherwise sweat would quickly turn the earth to slippery mud.
The central column, decorated with mirrors, supports a ceiling sagged under the weight of three upper floors. Other mirrors decorate three of the walls. Between the mirrors and the iron-barred windows which look out narrowly onto a small dusty garden, old black and white portraits of local champions palely reflect the technicolor aura of pin-ups from American bodybuilding magazines.
A raised area two and a half meters square is set apart in the small room and on it are four large chairs and a carpet. A small ceiling fan turns above this area, cooling the club manager and others who come to watch the regular members exercise. Between two of the chairs and one wall is a two by one-half meter area used for changing. Clothes are hung on pegs above the chairs and the parallel bars. On the wall above the platform are old photos of the founding association. A few plaques, commemorating long since forgotten functions, recall a time when the club had a larger membership. A penned poster, set on a shallow ledge above a covered bucket of tap water, states the club rules in Urdu script.
If there is one word which characterizes the Mazdoor Health Improvement Association, it is compact; there is a certain aesthetic appeal to the close-fitting, womblike character of the place. Contrary to what one might expect, the air in the gym is a quite pleasant combination of musty earth, mustard oil and sweat. Exercise is done with mechanical efficiency. A person doing push-ups makes way for a person doing squats who is just beyond the arch of another person swinging on the parallel bars. No more than thirteen people can exercise in the gym at any one time, and even with nine people working out, movement must be choreographed for efficiency and safety.
The contrast with wrestling akharas is obvious. While both are clearly bounded arenas, the bodybuilding club is closed and confined while the akhara is open. Earth, water, wind, and trees have no place in the confines of the closed, covered, mechanized space of the gym.
If there is a dramatic difference in the relative aesthetic appeal of clubs and akharas, there is an even more significant difference concerning management and organization. Wrestling akharas are the essence of informality. There are few if any set duties, offices, or responsibilities. The guru is nominally in charge of all akhara facilities and activities, but in fact an ad hoc committee of elder members often serves as a decision-making body. The English term “committee” is used by akhara members to refer to any group of two or more who come to a decision on any subject; for example, taking up a collection for a new bucket and rope for the akhara well, buying fresh lime-wash for repainting the akhara buildings, negotiating for a truckload of earth for the pit, or persuading someone to paint new designs on the akhara walls. In any akhara, as in many other social contexts, there are those who take charge of situations and are able to motivate people and implement their own ideas. There are also inevitable conflicts of interest and points of view. But there is no codified structure to this kind of management and organization.
In the akhara there is an informal pecking order which ensures that things get done. At the top of the pecking order is the guru and his cohort of senior members: a very loosely defined group at best. If the guru makes a demand of some sort it is acted on immediately and without comment. The guru’s age cohort, known as dadas, can order anyone who is a junior member to do such things as fetch incense for the morning pit benediction, get mustard oil from a nearby shop, pick up flower garlands, run various errands anywhere in town, draw water for a bath, deliver a message, sweep fallen leaves from the akhara compound, throw water on the earth to settle the dust, climb up a tree to break off a toothbrush, put equipment away, wash clothes, or chase a stray dog out of the pit.
Among the junior members beneath the dada cohort, seniority and age structure the pecking order. Older members may pass on responsibility to anyone younger and less aggressive than themselves. The ethic of respect for one’s elders is used as a moral lever. There is merit in being of service. However, the pecking order is characterized as much by acrimony as by smooth efficiency, as one dada discovered when he spent a whole morning cursing the laziness and disrespect of the younger generation while fishing with a large hook for a bucket lost at the bottom of the well.
While the pecking order is hierarchically multitiered in theory, in fact it is always the youngest members with whom the buck stops. During my stay at the akhara young Kailash was always going off to get something for someone, Airi was always called upon to perform his expert massage, and Govind was chasing stray dogs and cows; unless someone younger has come along, Rajindar may still be drawing water from the well. In any case, water gets drawn and the grounds are kept clean, but often to the tune of half-meant threats, disgruntled retorts, and a great deal of joking.
The akhara is characterized by a lack of bureaucracy and by ad hoc management. By way of contrast, the following is an index of the offices of the Banaras School of Physical Culture, a bodybuilding club in Jangambari: Chief Patron, Mr. Dalip Kumar (IAS), district officer and president of the association for the advancement of physical education; Patron, Mr. N. G. Bhattacharya, regional sports officer and secretary of the association for the advancement of physical education; Physical Director, Dr. Uma Shankar Rai Chaudhuri; President, Mr. Raj Kumar; Vice-President, Mr. Ajay Sharma. The list continues with such titles as chief officer, deputy officer, secretary, chief in charge of the club, and treasurer. In addition to these permanent officers, a chief advisor was appointed to organize the club’s annual bodybuilding competition. In this capacity he was supported by seven deputy advisors, an organizer, deputy organizer, organizing committee, committee in charge of the competition, and a committee in charge of prizes.
Where akharas are ad hoc, clubs seem to be obsessive about a strict division of administrative labor. I have no idea how responsibility was distributed through the administrative hierarchy of the Jangambari club, or how decisions were made at any one level. A similar hierarchy of management appears on the letterhead of the Bhelupura Vyayamshala, another bodybuilding club, which also sponsors an annual competition.
The Bhelupura Vyayamshala also illustrates another striking contrast between akharas and clubs. Stepping into many bodybuilding clubs, the first thing that strikes the eye is a prominently posted list of rules and regulations. At Bhelupura Vyayamshala the rules are as follows:
- Non-members are not allowed in without permission.
- Members may not bring friends with them into the club.
- Every member must pay a 2 rupee membership fee by the fifteenth of each month.
- The gym will be open from 5–8 AM and from 5–11 PM.
- The gym will be closed every Sunday.
- No one is allowed to enter the “exercise temple” wearing their shoes.
- No smoking or chewing tobacco in the gym.
- No spitting anywhere in the compound.
- Everyone must be careful and watch out that others are exercising safely.
- If someone breaks any piece of equipment he is responsible for its replacement.
- Members should park their bicycles where they won’t get in the way.
While bodybuilding clubs follow the Western calendar and take Sunday off, akharas break their weekly routine on Wednesday. Unlike the clubs, akharas are not closed on their “day off.” Wednesday is a day for massage in the akhara and is thus integral to the weekly regime.
In the akhara, spitting, flatulence, and nose blowing are restricted to the border area of the compound where they do not threaten the purity of the sacred space. In the club, spitting is more an issue of generic hygiene than of moral, somatic health. In the akhara purity rather than civic-mindedness is as much if not more of an issue. In the club, spitting must be stipulated against, while in the akhara the same restraint is inspired by ideological conviction and is therefore a point of common sense.
Membership is another crucial point of difference between the club and the akhara. Every exercise club I visited charged a monthly membership fee. On the other hand, akhara members consider fees to be anathema. None of the akharas I visited charged fees of any kind. Moreover, clubs often keep careful record of who has and has not paid, thus sharply defining membership. Akhara membership, as we have seen, is eminently flexible and variable. Whereas clubs are exclusive and private, wrestlers see the akhara as an inclusive, public arena.
Because of membership dues, bodybuilding clubs are able to finance building repairs, equipment improvement, and fairly lavish annual events. There are other expenses as well. The Mazdoor Health Improvement Association must pay rent on its small room and also cover the cost of electricity. In contrast to club dues, akharas draw all of their resources from chanda, public donations collected from members, neighborhood residents, and local businesses. Taking up chanda is an ad hoc activity. If a new rope is needed, a few of the akhara dadas get together and share the expense. Expenses are minimal. I have never known of a wrestling akhara on which rent was paid. Electricity is rarely needed, but for the occasional installation of a light or fan it is most often donated by a wealthy member. When there is a large expense, such as the annual Nag Panchami festival or construction of a new building, the chanda is more formal and structured. However, the money collected is almost always designated for a specific project. Contributing to a chanda is one way in which the larger akhara neighborhood can participate in wrestling activities. A person who contributes two thousand rupees towards a new akhara pit achieves status in proportion to his contribution. For their part, the akhara members receive public acclaim and prestige in proportion to the total amount collected. While chanda is a common way for many groups—temple associations, neighborhood committees, and union fundraisers—to raise money, it is characteristic of the akhara system of organization rather than of the bodybuilding club.
Monthly dues, though nominal, restrict membership. A few clubs, such as the well-furnished Health Improvement Association, charge a very exclusive one hundred rupees per month. Some clubs have a wealthier clientele than others. This is not the pattern in akharas, where the economic and social profile of the wrestling community is fairly eclectic. Rich and poor wrestlers meet on common ground. Although I have not collected a great deal of information on bodybuilding club membership, my general impression is that specific bodybuilding clubs restrict membership to particular groups. As noted, a large number of Muslims have become avid bodybuilders. Muslims aside, bodybuilding seems to be popular among many of the more “Westernized” urban youth. The aesthetic of the bodybuilder’s sleek physique is in keeping with other Western images of fast motorcycles, high-tech sound systems, digital watches, and so forth.
Some exercise clubs, like the Mazdoor Health Improvement Association, were established to target a particular class of people such as the urban labor force. The Banaras School of Physical Culture was established in 1943 for the benefit of “lower class children.” My impression is that many bodybuilding clubs were established by paternalistic upper-class patrons who felt some kind of commitment to better the health of India’s masses. In other words, initial impetus and funding for groups like the Mazdoor Health Improvement Association, Banaras School of Physical Culture, and Bhelupura Vyayamshala seems to have come from wealthy doctors, bankers, and industrialists. I was shown around one of these clubs by a young, wealthy accountant who said that his family had a long-standing role in maintaining exercise facilities for the poorer, disadvantaged youth of the city. By contrast, one does not find any kind of exclusive recruitment strategy or class-based paternalism in the akhara. No particular group is targeted. Akhara members make a general appeal for everyone to join an akhara, but this is inclusive rather than exclusive and is, as we shall see, part of a broader nationalistic rhetoric.
A final point of contrast between the akhara and the club concerns the place of formal religion in the organizational scheme of daily activities. Temples give akharas an atmosphere of religiosity, and every wrestler is enjoined to take Hanuman into his heart. In contrast, bodybuilding clubs are for the most part secular institutions.
Small Hanuman shrines are found at Bhelupura Vyayamshala, the Banaras School of Physical Culture, and, as the name might imply, Hanuman Vyayamshala. In every instance these shrines are small and marginal. The members are more concerned with the “cut” of their muscles and the trimness of their waists than they are with contemplating Hanuman’s service to Ram. Besides, Hanuman’s physique is not that of a bodybuilder, except as portrayed in some modern calendar art, but that of a wrestler. Bodybuilders defer to Hanuman, but they draw their strength almost exclusively from “pumping iron” and not from the devotional exercise of a daily regimen.
Wrestlers in Banaras point towards bodybuilders and criticize their “balloonlike bodies,” which have form but no substance. They smirk at narrow waists that would snap in two at the slightest touch, and grimace at protruding tendons wrapped tight by the work of an iron machine. One wrestler laughed at the picture of a bodybuilder, saying that he looked like separate pieces of meat slapped together in a random manner. Another, echoing a similar aesthetic critique, said that bodybuilders look as though they come in parts, each a gross protrusion disembodied from its larger corporeal context. While the bodybuilder is seen as bits and pieces of random flesh, the wrestler’s body is a smooth, integrated whole; as they say, ek rang ka sharir, a body of one color and uniform texture (see plate 2).
Wrestlers regard bodybuilding clubs as mere pale reflections of the akhara. For their part some club members see akharas as simply anachronistic institutions following the dictates of outmoded tradition. (In general exercise-club members are far more tolerant of akharas than the other way around.)
I have made a rather sharp distinction between the akhara and the bodybuilding club. In doing so some points of overlap between the two styles of physical culture have been deemphasized. But this, too, is in keeping with the perspective of both wrestlers and bodybuilders. Somewhat like closely allied and therefore antagonistic academic disciplines, both groups prefer to define their respective paths clearly and sharply rather than blur together formal and superficial similarities. Whether motivated by strong conviction or fear that the edifice of difference will crumble once assailed, the wrestler and the bodybuilder choose to narrow their respective visions while at the same time magnifying the significance of their singular predilections. Each defines itself against a negative backdrop of the other. In the case of wrestlers, this delineation serves to make the akhara more distinct and therefore more clearly defined as the locus of a specific way of life.