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4. The Patron and the Wrestler

As institutionalized support for wrestling, public patronage is an integral feature of akhara life. It is, however, a knotty and elusive issue, because it can mean two radically different things. On the one hand is what may be called the patronage of financial support, which is fairly straightforward. A patron may build an akhara, pay his wrestlers a weekly stipend, and award them prizes for their success. On the other hand patronage requires an attitude of moral and ethical support; a kind of ideological underwriting of the wrestler’s way of life. From this perspective the nature of patronage is quite different. It is neither wholly institutionalized in a particular person or office nor is it necessary that tangible material support be provided. On this level patronage is regarded more as an attitude than anything else. It remains patronage, however, to the extent that it is an attitude of explicit support for a unique way of life. In terms of levels of abstraction, patronage of this kind is akin to the disembodied persona of the guru.

On a practical level patronage fulfills a very specific function. Because wrestlers must commit their lives to training and exercise they cannot support themselves financially. Patrons take financial responsibility for a wrestler’s training by providing milk, ghi, and almonds as well as some clothes and other incidentals. The patron also provides the akhara facilities: earth for the pit, ropes, buckets, cement, and bricks, as well as the land on which the pavilion is built.

Even when a patron’s role is clearly defined in terms of financial responsibilities, the relationship he has with his wrestlers is not strictly utilitarian. In fact, the material aspect of the relationship between wrestler and patron is regarded as mundane almost to the point of insignificance. Far more important are the issues of status and esteem. Patrons acquire status through the success of their wrestlers, and wrestlers gain esteem through the status of their patrons. It is a mutually beneficial relationship.

Patrons are responsible for the public image of their wrestlers. It is as though the wrestler, concerned as he is with the rigors of a daily regime, can only stand for, and not elaborate, the way of life he represents. He is a mute symbol: a stark register of coded meaning which requires public interpretation. Without patronage, a wrestler can, in the language of structuralism, only signify—his body stands for morality and chastity—but he is powerless and unable to convey the story of his way of life to a larger audience. The patron gives meaning to what a wrestler simply stands for. He reads a series of elaborate themes, plots and subplots into the coded meanings of his wrestler’s body.

The wrestler is an empty vessel which the guru must fill with knowledge, skill, and virtue. The patron takes this and gives it public meaning and significance. In a sense, then, the patron is sponsor, publicist, and biographer, and in all of these capacities he is the author who takes the private discipline of a wrestling way of life and makes it intelligible to a larger audience.

While what it means to be a wrestler is given public interpretation through patronage, wrestlers are not silent partners to an illegitimate (if laudatory) reading of their way of life. In the akhara, and within the world of wrestling, the symbolic components of the body convey a set of standardized meanings on which any wrestler can build and from which he can elaborate and interpret various situations. When the point of reference is changed from an exclusively wrestling context to a larger and more overtly political arena, however, then the reading of these symbols changes somewhat. In the akhara wrestlers speak their own cultural language of somaticity—the body of one color as a product of self-discipline. Patrons appropriate this language, rephrase it, manipulate its poetry, and make it their own. Nevertheless, the voices that speak from behind the patron are still those of the wrestlers themselves.

Royal Patronage

Royal courts and princely estates have sponsored wrestlers probably since the time of Kansa, Krishna, Ravana, and the Pandava brothers. However, there is no detailed historical record of this and no way of telling whether wrestling patronage has changed over time. In all likelihood, the formal aspect of patronage has not changed significantly (cf. Rai 1984: 221–247). Kings have kept wrestlers because the physical strength of the wrestler symbolizes the political might of the king.

In the epic poems, and in some of the Puranas, wrestlers are portrayed as warriors who not only symbolize power and prestige but also effect it as their patron’s martial arm. In his many wrestling battles Hanuman may be seen as both a symbol of Ram’s power and as a warrior/agent in the war on Lanka. This is also clearly the case in the Harivamsa story where Krishna and Balarama defeat Kansa’s court wrestlers.

Krishna, thus playing with Chanura for a while, adopted his own form as a chastiser of the wicked, and then the earth shook and the jewels on the diadem of Kansa fell on the ground. Krishna pressed down Chanura, and placing his knees on his breast he struck a fierce blow with his fist on his head (Harivamsa, chap. 86, Bose n.d.).

Krishna then proceeds to move from a symbolic to a literal victory over Kansa:

He jumped on the royal platform, and caught hold of Kansa by the hair. This sudden attack completely overwhelmed the king. Garlands, earrings and other ornaments fell from his body. Krishna tied his neck by his cloth and dragged him down to the ground. Then he killed him (ibid).

One of the best early accounts of wrestling patronage is found in the western Chaulukya king Somesvara’s (1124–1138) Manasollasa(Srigondekar 1959). The chapter entitled “Malla Vinod” describes the classification of wrestlers into types by age, size, and strength. It also outlines how the wrestlers were to exercise and what they were to eat. In particular the king was responsible for providing the wrestlers with pulses, meat, milk, sugar, and “high-class” sweets. The wrestlers were kept isolated from the women of the court and were expected to devote themselves to building their bodies (Mujumdar 1950: 11).

According to a number of sources (Khedkar 1959; R. B. Pandey n.d.; Suryavanshi 1962; Verma 1970; K. C. Yadav 1957; Yadavkumar 1982) the Yadava kings and nobles of the early to middle medieval period were avid wrestlers and sponsored numerous tournaments. However, few details are known beyond the fact that many of the kings who ruled the great Vijayanagar Deccan kingdom (1336–1565) practiced wrestling along with other martial arts (Mujumdar 1950: 15). Krishnadevraj is said to have drunk about a pound and a half of sesame oil every morning.

The symbolic equation between physical strength and political might is also found in more contemporary historical accounts. In a number of the Mogul court records references are found which indicate that wrestlers were part of a ruler’s estate. Indications are that wrestlers were paid a regular stipend and were also given provisions for maintaining themselves (Beveridge 1921: 656, 660, 683; Blochmann 1873–1948: 253; Mujumdar 1950: 16; T. N. Roy 1939). In turn they were called upon to entertain the royal court. Bouts were organized with wrestlers from other courts.

According to Mujumdar, the great Maratha leader Shivaji established numerous akharas throughout Maharashtra at the behest of his guru Samrath Ramdas (1950: 18). During the Maratha period, Maharaja Daulatarao Shinde is said to have kept a wrestler on a daily allowance of twenty pounds of milk and a sheep (ibid: 20). The best account of a royal akhara for this period is that of Nanasaheb Peshwa. According to Mujumdar his akhara was equipped with twenty-four different pieces of exercise equipment (ibid: 21). Bajirao II also built and maintained a fully equipped akhara and established Balambhaat Dada Deodhar as the guru of this facility. Later Deodhar and his disciples moved to Banaras where they established an akhara now known as Kon Bhatt Akhara in the Bibihatia neighborhood. Although the evidence is scant it would be a fair to say that court wrestlers during the Mogul and Maratha periods were kept as entertainers and as symbols of royal power. The same is true for princely states of the more modern period of British imperialism.

In an interview on the subject of princely patronage Shri Ram Sharma ji recounts his experiences to Banarsi Das Chaturvedi:

I had the opportunity to stay with King Rukmangad Singh and I can say with complete honesty that the government of Uttar Pradesh has not done half of what this king has done for the art of wrestling. There is a small princely state in the district of Hardowi where Raja Rukmangad Singh received a privy purse from the government in the amount of 400,000 rupees. The king would sit down with about thirty wrestlers and give them instruction every day. Each day he would spend between 150 and 200 rupees on them. . . . Every wrestler in India knew the Raja and thought of him as his guardian (Banarsi Das Chaturvedi 1961: 102).

One of Maharaja Holkar of Indor’s wrestlers, Kasam Ali, is said to have broken the leg of a camel that kicked him. His wrestling janghiya briefs were so big that a normal man could fit his whole body through one leg hole. Tukojirao Holkar’s wrestler, Shiva Pahalwan, broke up a fight between two raging bulls. As the story goes he “sent one flying north and one flying south.” Many remember when Shivajirao Holkar arranged a bout between Paridatta, the father of Gulam Kadar Pahalwan, and Ahamed Mir Khan Pathan. After three hours of wrestling the bout was still tied and the Maharaja called a draw. After the fight the wrestler’s legs were so swollen that their janghiya briefs had to be cut from their thighs. There are countless other such anecdotes which are told and retold. At each telling the power of the king is remembered as a political manifestation of his wrestlers’ pugilistic valor.

A similar situation obtains when the diet and exercise regime of a wrestler is considered. The quantity, quality, and richness of a wrestler’s diet reflects directly on the status of the king. A wrestler’s appetite was often said to be equal to that of an elephant, and the king’s strength was as great as his wrestlers’ appetites. The same holds true for exercise. A court wrestler who could drink five liters of milk and do thousands of dands and bethaks in a day was symbolically demonstrating the extent of his king’s power. Gama, the great wrestler of the first quarter of this century, championed the position of Maharaja Jaswant Singh of Jodhpur by doing more deep knee bends than any other wrestler from a field of four hundred—and this when he was only ten years old (Ali 1984: 101). Later, when in the court of Maharaja Bhawani Singh, Gama was provided with a daily diet of about ten liters of milk, half a liter of ghi, a liter and a half of butter, and two kilograms of fruit.

The body of the wrestler is held up by the king as an emblem of his rule. As the following examples clearly indicate, the wrestler embodies the king’s temporal power.

Kasam Ali, the ninety-five-year-old disciple of Abji Ustad, was a courtier of Maharaja Tukojirao. Even at this age he was tall and light skinned. He had a pleasant disposition and never stooped. I looked at him and the breath left my mouth: “If these were the ruins of an old man, then the tower was as strong as ever.” . . . Wrestlers were the glory of their king. (Patodi 1986b: 71)

Brij Lal ustad, a lifelong brahmachari, a man of his word and a man with faith in god, asked his king, Shivaji, to permit him to wrestle a Punjabi wrestler who many other wrestlers had declined to take on. Surprised, the king asked Brij Lal, “Are you really going to wrestle this champion?” Without batting an eye Brij Lal replied, “Lord, who am I to wrestle, it is I in your name who challenge this man.” With that the king gave his permission for the bout to be fought (Patodi 1986c: 65–66).

Even though wrestlers were in some instances kept in other capacities (as was Kasam Ali, who worked in the king’s munitions department), they were never called upon to work per se. As indicated by Ratan Patodi, wrestlers were symbols in a strict sense of the word.

Wrestlers had self-respect when India was a colonized country. The independent princes never called upon their wrestlers to do any thing which would undercut their self-respect. And along with self-respect, courtesy and modesty was ingrained in them. Wrestlers considered it their duty to be honest and to shun any kind of doubletalk (1973b: 11).

It was precisely because wrestlers already “stood for” the ideological principles of a disciplined way of life—physical strength, moral virtue, honesty, respect, duty, and integrity—that they served so well as political emblems. Kings co-opted the terms of this ideology and glorified themselves by implicitly advocating a wrestling way of life. Wrestling became the language of royal pomp and power. Whatever else patronage was, it served as a public dramatization of wrestling as a way of life. The king who bestowed a prize on his champion wrestler—gold and silver, jeweled necklaces, crowns, cash, elephants, titles, and many other things—implicitly advocated chastity and the attendant system of disciplined action which was part of the whole regime.

The wrestler became the archetypal citizen of the royal state. This aspect of patronage is perhaps best exemplified by Bhawanrao Pant, the raja of Aundh. Inspired by Balasaheb Mirajkar, raja of Miraj, Bhawanrao popularized and codified surya namaskar, a system of exercise which synthesizes many aspects of the wrestling ethos. The raja made surya namaskar exercises mandatory in the schools under his control (Mujumdar 1950: iii). He thus symbolically transposed his power onto the physique of his subjects. Conversely, he saw his estate as drawing power from the collective health of his people. Although there is very little information to go on, it seems that earlier kings of the medieval period—the Yadavas and Somesvara, in particular—also felt compelled to turn their subjects into disciplined wrestlers. In establishing hundreds of gymnasia throughout Maharashtra it seems that Shivaji was also using wrestling patronage as a model for the public administration of a broad-based program of physical education.

The rajas of Aundh and Miraj were not the only royal patrons of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The Maharaja of Baroda, raja of Kolhapur, a number of the rajas of Indor, and the rajas of Patiala, Jodhpur, and Datiya were all strong supporters of wrestling as a way of life. They are regarded by contemporary wrestlers as the guardians of an honored tradition.

According to contemporary wrestlers, the art of wrestling would have died out completely had it not been for royal patronage. What they mean by this is not so much that wrestling needed royal financing, but that it needed public royal acclaim. It needed to be drawn out of the village akhara and writ large on the royal stage. Left to its own devices, one might say, wrestling would have flourished only as a popular sport and as a marginalized and somewhat esoteric way of life. Royal patronage served to turn a popular sport into a political discourse with nascent nationalistic undertones. Although the precise history of this development has not yet been fully researched, its implications for contemporary nationalism will be examined in a later chapter.

One context in which wrestling became associated with nationalistic ideals was during the struggle for independence in the early part of this century. The story of Gama is a dramatic case in point. In 1910, two years before he became the court wrestler of the maharaja of Patiala, and as India’s struggle against British imperialism gained momentum, Gama was sent to London to fight in the John Bull World Championship Competition. Gama and his brother, along with two other wrestlers, were sponsored by Sarat Kumar Mitra, a Bengali millionaire. Unfortunately, Gama was too short to gain official status as a contestant. However, a local theater offered Gama 250 pounds sterling a week to take part in some sideshow bouts. From this unofficial venue Gama challenged any of the world-class London wrestlers to a bout. To whomever could last five minutes Gama promised to pay five pounds. On the first day Gama dispatched three English challengers in short order. The next day he took on another twelve with equal success. He thus gained access to the official tournament where he was pitted against the world champion Zbyszko. Though much smaller in size, Gama fought Zbyszko for three hours and clearly had the upper hand when the contest ended for the day. Zbyszko failed to show up the following day to continue the bout and Gama was declared the world champion. The symbolic implications of Gama’s rout of England’s best wrestlers in the very seat of imperial power were not lost on the subjugated Indian public. Popular accounts have it that there was not a single newspaper in Hindi or Urdu that did not herald the news of India’s triumph.

In 1928, after sixteen years in the maharaja of Patiala’s court, Gama again challenged Zbyszko. This bout was fought in Patiala at the height of the nationalist struggle. Though Zbyszko was not British, the bout was nevertheless a symbolic reenactment of Gama’s first victory. Zbyszko was defeated in two and a half seconds in front of a crowd of over forty thousand spectators who had come from all over the country to witness the fight. Ratan Patodi recounts that the arena erupted in one voice, shouting “India has won! India has won!”

After the victory the maharaja embraced Gama, took the pearl necklace he was wearing, and placed it around the champion’s neck. A parade was arranged and Gama rode on the king’s elephant holding in his arms a silver mace made specially for the occasion. So that Gama’s regal achievement would not be forgotten, the king gave him a whole village and an annual stipend of 6,000 rupees (Patodi 1984: 35). One can well imagine the prestige that the maharaja of Patiala derived from this contest. As the wrestling euphemism for defeat goes, the maharaja had “shown the world the sky” by pinning down an emblem of imperialism. Gama and his patron the maharaja came to symbolize the possibility of self-determination and independence.

While it is true that a wrestler reflects the power of his patron king, it is also true that a king must be equal to the status of his wrestlers. In this regard a popular adage is apropos: “A subject is only as good as his king.” Wrestlers sometimes reacted against their patron if they thought he was compromising their own status.

Once while watching a wrestling bout, Maharaja Tukojirao Holkar decided that he wanted to pit his wrestler Bare Bhaiya against Kyam Pahalwan of Lahore. This was arranged, and Bare Bhaiya came into the arena shouting the praise of his sponsor and patron the Maharaja. Entering the pit he applied a “jhar” move on Kyam who fell flat on his back. Bowing to the Maharaja and the people who had come to watch, Bare Bhaiya left the arena.

Kyam returned to Lahore and his patron Maharaja was not pleased with his performance and told him to go and fight Bare Bhaiya again. Kyam, a wrestler of self-respect, answered his king saying: “I am a wrestler not a cock that can be fought at will.” The king took offense and ordered that Kyam’s stipend be stopped.

Hearing this Kyam replied: “Rescind it if you wish, for it is a miserly amount upon which no one can wrestle. Wrestling runs on a silver grind stone and on the amount you give me I can only feed grain to the pigeons.”

In the end Kyam did not have to fight again and his stipend was renewed (Patodi 1973b: 11–12).

There is a degree of tension in the relationship between a wrestler and his royal patron. Each has a great deal riding on the image the other projects. Moreover, there is the issue of power and control. As the above examples have shown, wrestlers put a great deal of stress on self-respect. Among other things, self-respect means self-determination and an unwillingness to subject oneself to any authority. Patronage requires a degree of subjugation. Wrestlers are uncomfortable with the obligations which ensue from sponsorship. For their part, kings are threatened by the persona of a powerful wrestler. Physical strength, self-respect, honesty, faith, and moral uprightness manifest in a wrestler can sometimes outshine the king’s glory. The emblem can become too perfect, and, in a sense, surpass that which it is meant to represent. A king whose power and authority does not match up to his wrestlers’ standards becomes a parody of his own pomp. In fact, a king is never in complete control of the image his wrestlers project. For although a wrestler stands for the king, a wrestler also stands for himself. The king and wrestler compete for control over the meaning of such things as strength and morality. Does the king’s authority serve to advance the wrestler’s status or does the wrestler’s status serve to reflect the king’s power? This drama is played out in the following story.

Before independence there were numerous small princely states. Under the patronage of the kings and princes of these states, Indian wrestling flourished. Wherever the kings were skilled in matters of state they were also concerned with fitness and were often no less skilled than many of their wrestlers.

During the reign of Maharaja Khanderao in the princely state of Baroda, there were some three hundred wrestlers in the royal court. Most of these wrestlers were Punjabis, Chaubes, or Jethis.

One day Maharaja Khanderao called a special darbar [assembly] of his court. The reason for calling the darbar was Ramju Pahalwan’s uncontested success in the Indian wrestling akharas. Ramju was a Punjabi wrestler under the patronage of Khanderao and had been defeating one wrestler after another.

Maharaja Khanderao, being a patron of Indian wrestling, was concerned that there did not seem to be any counter moves to apply against Ramju’s technique. This was the issue for which the darbar had been called, and all of the court wrestlers were present. The Maharaja himself was seated on a high throne and appeared as a great sage of wrestling. His strong body and rippling muscles could be seen beneath his silken robes. As the darbar came to order, the Maharaja had only to think about Ramju and the wrestler leapt like a leopard onto the dais and stood humbly beside the throne of his patron.

The Maharaja said to him, “Ramju, you have been undefeated in every akhara where you have wrestled and many of those you have defeated have renounced wrestling on your account. Many have been subdued by self-doubt. For those wrestlers who have, on your account, removed their langot and janghiya [i.e., given up wrestling] I say, ‘It is easier for you, Ramju, to defeat a wrestler of equal strength and skill than it is for a wrestler obsessed with sexual passion to lose.’ This is true, and to prove it I challenge you to a wrestling match.”

Hearing this announcement the whole court was surprised. In order to protect the King’s honor many of the court wrestlers said, “let me fight first with Ramju, my lord.”

But the king said, “It will take you a long time to be worthy and skilled enough to fight Ramju.”

Hearing all of this Ramju spoke, “my lord, I am your humble servant. You are my patron. What means do I, a poor man, have that I can match my skill with yours?”

In reply to this the Maharaja said, as one versed and experienced in athletics, “wrestling is an art, and it has nothing to do with wealth and status. The bout will be held one month from now. Practice hard and spare no expense.”

The Maharaja instructed the accountant to spend as much as necessary on Ramju’s training and diet.

Exactly one month later the Maharaja and Ramju, surrounded by courtiers and advisors, took their places in the arena which was bedecked with rose petals and scented with perfume. Both wrestlers set upon one another like two rogue elephants bent on destruction. The Maharaja was matching Ramju’s technique with his own well-crafted skill. Every move was broken quickly and with great flourish.

After one hour neither wrestler had the upper hand. The Maharaja then began to have doubts as to whether Ramju was giving his full effort and asked him to swear by god and the milk he had drunk from his mother’s breast that he was putting out 100 percent.

Hearing this, Ramju felt a surge of energy, applied a “bagal-dubba,” and forced the king down on his knees. But the king again stood up and the match went on like this for another hour.

The Maharaja then said, “Ramju, we could go on like this for three days and you could still not pin me, but now I can no longer tolerate the smell of your sweat. Let me go and I will call you the winner.”

So Ramju let the Maharaja go and stood up, bowing slightly and folding his hands before the king, saying, “Lord, I am your servant. I am the one who has lost. Who am I to think that I was a match for you. I only followed your instructions.”

In reply the Maharaja said, “Ask whatever you wish as a prize. What you have given me is priceless and what you have taught me today is beyond compare. What you have given me is greater even than my family can give.”

Now, who could argue with a king? Ramju had been given an order, and there was nothing for it but to name his prize.

“Whatever is your wish,” cried Ramju, “but if you insist, it is your humble servant’s request that if you grant me the crown you are wearing I would be most honored.”

Hardly had Ramju finished speaking when the king removed his crown and some 25,000 rupees worth of jewels and gave them to his court wrestler.

About the rest of Ramju’s life it is only necessary to know one thing. When Ramju was at the zenith of his career he went one day to the Maharaja and said, “Lord, my body is splitting because I can no longer wrestle enough to get tired.”

Hearing this, the Maharaja ordered that two glass mirrors in the shape of hands be fixed into the wall of the akhara. He told Ramju, “After your daily practice and exercise regime place your hands on the glass mirrors and push until you are tired.” Ramju did as he was told (Patodi 1986b: 53–56).

Ratan Patodi concludes his account of this story as follows:

Swami Baldev Misra told me that he went to Lal Akhara in Baroda and saw for himself the glass mirror hands. With his great strength Ramju had turned the mirror hands upside down (ibid).

There are a number of interesting points which this story brings to light. The contest between the king and his court wrestler is a metaphor for the struggle between royal patronage and a wrestler’s own self-definition. The struggle is not of epic proportions. It is a subtle issue of identity: of who represents whom. In the contest the struggle is not definitively resolved; the king gives up. There is a symbolic resolution, however, insofar as Ramju is invested with political power manifest in the king’s crown. Conversely, the king himself is recognized as an accomplished wrestler. Their roles are reversed and thus the tension between physical and political strength is depicted in sharp relief through juxtaposition.

One reading of this story would be that the king felt threatened by Ramju’s success. He felt it necessary to put Ramju in his proper place. Having not actually defeated the king, Ramju nevertheless comes out the winner. Thus he may keep the crown as a votive symbol of status without power. The bout thus serves to enhance and underscore Ramju’s purely symbolic role.

In the symbolism of the glass-mirror hands, Ramju must, in effect, wrestle with his own reflection. While in the akhara he is purely a self-referential figure, a symbol of himself, a sign of pure strength and skill that mirrors a way of life turned in on itself. By fixing the mirrors into the akhara wall, the king is able to harness an ideology of physical, moral, and psychological strength. In the akhara Ramju’s incomparable strength is spent, impotently, on itself. Only the king can translate this energized conundrum into a reflection of political prestige. Ramju’s way of life becomes glorified only in the radiance of his patron’s royal status.

As a way of life wrestling does not necessarily require royal patronage, but it does require translation and interpretation. Restricted to the isolated world of the akhara, symbols of strength and virtue only refer back to a restricted and restricting set of values—chastity, devotion, and moral duty. In this self-referential arena the wrestler can only be a good wrestler and not a hero of royal proportions. From the akhara a wrestler speaks to a small audience. From beside his patron’s throne, the size of his thigh and all that it is known to mean, for instance, take on regal dimensions.

At issue in the relationship between wrestler and patron is control over public identity. By and large, the public image of the wrestler belongs to the king. This is made clear in the following example where the story is told of one wrestler who sought to reappropriate his own body and public self-image.

An artist always follows his own mind, and Ramlal Pahalwan suffered from being particularly independent and strong willed. Maharaja Tukojirao was constantly upset with him. Why was this? It was his manner. God had out done himself when he made Ramlal. To the last detail he was a tall and beautiful youth. Everyday he would wear a clean, freshly washed head cloth and dhoti [loincloth]. It was his habit to decorate his hands and feet with mehandi [vegetable dye] and place on his forehead a small, neat bindi [auspicious mark]. He always went out with a pan in his mouth. He never came out into his house compound unannounced; but if called upon by guests, he would put on perfume and come out with affected drama and pomp. The Maharaja was certainly concerned that Ramlal account for himself. But Ramlal never felt that his actions needed justification (Patodi 1986c: 64).

Being strong-willed, Ramlal wanted to stand for himself. Through his body he sought to give his own public interpretation of his identity as a wrestler. Although Ramlal epitomizes the tensions between patron and wrestler, his personality is anomalous and out of character with most other wrestlers. The majority of wrestlers, like Ramju of Baroda and Gama of Patiala, were willing simply to stand for power and prestige rather than affect it themselves.

The passing of royal patrons is lamented by every wrestler with whom I spoke. They were seen as the guardians of a way of life that would otherwise have died out as a mute and marginalized victim of modernism. The financial backing that rajas and maharajas provided is significant. However, patrons are remembered more for having cast wrestling in a positive light by giving it public and prestigious acclaim. As heir to the legacy of royal patronage the current national government is criticized by many wrestlers on precisely this point. In the court of kings, wrestling was a royal art; under the current government it is not accorded a comparable national status.

Government Patronage

Whereas royal patronage is glorified and its passing lamented, current government sponsorship of wrestling is loudly and publicly criticized for being inadequate. I asked Atma Ram of Akhara Ram Singh about government support, and he voiced the general consensus saying, “Yes, the government supports us; and with its support we are dying.” A large number of the articles on wrestling which appear in the Indian press chastise the government for having done nothing to support akharas (Deshmukh 1979: 1; Kaushik 1979: 4; Maheshwar 1981: 9; K. P. Roy 1967; D. Singh 1988; Statesman 1970: 3; Swarajya 1973: 30).

What wrestlers are critical of, however, is not necessarily the institutionalized structure of patronage and support in modern India. Many wrestlers contrast government sponsorship of Western sports—particularly cricket—with the general lack of support given to Indian wrestling. To be fair, however, it should be noted that there is an Indian Style Wrestling Association based in Delhi (Ali 1984: 12–13), and an annual Indian Style National Championship, Bharat Kesri, is sponsored by the Indian Wrestling Federation. The state government of Maharashtra, through the auspices of the Maharashtra Wrestling Association, has established at least two permanent akharas in the Kolhapur area (Bhalekar 1978: 10). Nevertheless, the prevailing attitude among wrestlers in Delhi, Roorkee, Dehra Dun, and Banaras is that the government has turned its back on their way of life. Wrestlers are dissatisfied with the apathetic attitude and outright ignorance of the government regarding what they feel is most significant about wrestling, namely its ethical ideals and moral virtues, its character and the pride and self-respect it fosters. Wrestlers are also critical of the extent to which the sport has been corrupted by political influence. In fact there is a whole “genre” of essay in the popular literature which examines and criticizes the government’s intrusive and destructive role in wrestling (Koshal 1972–1973; Munna 1979, 1982; Patodi 1972; Sangar 1982; K. P. Singh 1983).

Government support for wrestling is seen from two perspectives. On the one hand is the formal institutionalized structure of patronage. Government departments and nationalized services have a “sports quota” in their employment roster and are required to hire a percentage of qualified athletes to fill these positions. The national government, along with state administrations, has established a number of “sports hostels” where qualified young wrestlers can, with the right connections, go for three years of training and education. In the state of Uttar Pradesh, the Meerut and Bareilly hostels are particularly well known for their curricular focus on wrestling.

Western-style competitive wrestling is organized under the authority of the Delhi-based Indian Wrestling Federation, made up of representatives from a network of sixteen state branches. All national and international tournaments are organized through the aegis of this body. Patronage from the Indian Wrestling Federation is directed toward wrestlers qualified for national and international competition. The emphasis is on Western freestyle wrestling done on mats, and not Indian-style wrestling per se. Nevertheless, there is some overlap between the two forms insofar as Western-style wrestlers usually have a reputation as Indian-style champions as well. The Indian/Western style distinction is more a matter of formal contrast than an exclusive dichotomy as such. In any case, I will restrict my comments to the type of institutionalized government patronage which Indian style wrestlers actually receive or feel they should receive. I am not interested in questions concerning the nationalization and internationalization of wrestling as a sport.

Nationalized Services and Government Boards

Many of the basic services in India are nationalized and organized as separate departments with regional and municipal jurisdiction. The post and telegraph, water, and electricity boards are the largest of these departments. The National Railway is a similar institution and provides employment for tens of thousands of people. The armed services are organized on a large, national scale and are, of course, directly affiliated with government. Each state of the republic has a police force. The PAC (Police Armed Constabulary) is organized on a national level. The State Bank of India is the largest of the nationalized financial institutions and has a network of offices throughout the country. All of these institutions are monolithic in size and provide employment for hundreds of thousands of people.

Each division or subdivision of these branches recruits and hires athletes to fill their “sports quota.” As a result local railway offices, police precincts, banks, and post offices hire wrestlers as checking clerks, constables, filing clerks, and postmen. In some cases branch offices build akharas for their locally hired wrestlers, but more often than not wrestlers who work for a branch of the government exercise and train in their own guru’s personal akhara.

Wrestlers compare these government institutions to the kings and princes of pre-independence India. The railway and police in particular, but also the water and electricity boards and State Bank of India, sponsor a number of wrestlers who have proven themselves in national competition. In Banaras, for instance, Sita Ram Yadav, Banarsi Pande, Bishambar Singh, Jharkhande Rai, Krishna Kumar Singh, and Ashok have all been national champions in their weight class and work for the Diesel Locomotive Works or other railway offices. Sita Ram Yadav and Bishambar have wrestled in international competitions, and Banarsi Pande has taken part as an international referee. Bhaiya Lal, a national-level wrestler, is sponsored by the State Bank of India, where he works as a clerk. The well-known and respected Govardan Das Malhotra, one-time national referee, is also employed by the state bank. In many ways he personifies the role of the bank as patron.

Although the government boards and the nationalized services are concerned with sponsoring wrestlers, they are not particularly interested in wrestling as a way of life. On account of this it is not surprising that many of the wrestlers who are employed by the railway board or state bank do not feel any great affinity towards their sponsors. The relationship is regarded in a very utilitarian light. Wrestlers feel no great pride in being wards of the state, but they are glad to have an income and a secure status. They turn to their guru and akhara, however, when identifying themselves as Indian wrestlers.

The patronage of the state varies in significant ways from the patronage of kings and princes. Primarily, wrestlers are not kept strictly as symbols. They are employed and are required to work. In the armed services this arrangement is compatible since a recruit has no assigned task other than what he is ordered to do. He is, in effect, recruited as a wrestler. In the railway and state bank, however, wrestlers must work as clerks, baggage inspectors, and draftsman. In the post and telegraph office they must sort mail or learn some other skill. Wrestlers in the police force are expected to direct traffic or patrol their assigned post.

Many of the wrestlers with whom I spoke did not take their work very seriously, for it conflicted with their vocation of wrestling. Sita Ram Yadav pointed out the paradox, saying that wrestlers are recruited to win championships but then are told to work seven or eight hours a day. It is impossible to practice and train given such a situation. Another well-known wrestler complained that he spent his time sitting behind a desk when, as he put it, “I was born to live in the akhara.” Senior wrestlers take a cavalier attitude towards their sponsoring institutions. Whether or not they actually do what they say is not clear, but many claim that they go to work only if they feel so inclined.

The railway and the armed services arrange annual training camps, and wrestlers often take an extended leave of absence from their work to attend. The camps provide effective training for national competitions and for international tours, but they do not foster ideals and values essential to wrestling as a way of life. One wrestler expressed concern over the increasing number of men who were now bringing their wives and families to the training camps. To his way of thinking this was antithetical to the mind set required of a self-controlled wrestler.

Generally speaking, the railway board and the other service branches see wrestling as just another sport. As such it is a sport cut in a very Western mold. Wrestlers are hired for their individual prowess rather than for the ideals they represent. For the most part an Indian wrestler who is hired by the railway or state bank is stripped of his unique identity and reclothed as a skilled but otherwise regular employee of the state. In this guise wrestlers no longer stand for a way of life but for a nationalized sport. To be sure, kings wanted the best wrestlers to be in their service, but they embraced the whole regime and did not extract the wrestler, as a mere athlete, from the important context of his whole way of life.

Although wrestlers glorify royal patronage, they recognize that in many instances old wrestlers were unceremoniously put to pasture. The unfortunate example of the great Gama is a case in point. Still the “world champion,” he died an all-but-forgotten, poor, sick man (Rajput 1960). In some cases rajas and maharajas gave their retiring wrestlers small land grants and stipends, but for the most part there was no established precedent for giving a pension to a retired wrestler. A wrestler’s career is short lived. By the time he is thirty-five, or forty at the very latest, he is no longer competitive. Severance is an important consideration for someone who has spent his whole life wrestling. Government service is very good in this respect and the senior wrestlers who no longer compete are comfortable and secure in their tenured status.

The number of wrestlers who are sponsored by the various branches of government service is insignificant when compared to the total number of wrestlers in India who have no formal sponsorship at all. It is unlikely, however, that even the rajas, maharajas, and wealthy landlords sponsored a majority of all wrestlers. One had to be good to be a court wrestler, and most practitioners of the art never earned a rank of this order. Significantly, even those without sponsorship idealize the relationship of a patron and his wrestler. Sponsorship is, therefore, more important as a symbolic relationship than as a financial and economic one. The fact that Govardan Das Malhotra was able to negotiate a state stipend of 150 rupees per month for two old Banaras wrestlers is paltry on a financial scale, and characteristic, wrestlers tell me, of the bureaucratic somersaults which have to be performed in order to squeeze out a bare minimum of prestige. Still, the stipend was a powerful, if muted, message of validation.

On the whole, government sponsorship is not charged with the same significance as royal patronage. The railway and state bank do not have tangible prestige or political power in the same way as did wealthy kings. In state institutions there is no figurehead, no pomp, and there are few if any rituals of status for the wrestler to emblazon with his character. What made wrestlers and kings compatible was the symbolic parallel between royal power and physical-cum-moral strength. There is no such parallel between wrestlers and the modern state apparatus. The nationalized services are vast bureaucracies with which wrestlers cannot identify. On the state roster a wrestler is a grappler and an athlete. Nothing more and nothing less. Contrast the biographical profile of a state wrestler with that of a court wrestler like Ramju.

Randhawa Singh (Punjab), featherweight: Born on February 2, 1945, Randhawa hails from Lachara village, District Muzzafarnagar, and is at present a Sub-Inspector of Police in Punjab.

His first big achievement was the National Championships in 1965 in Kolhapur, when he was declared champion of his weight class. He repeated his performance in 1966 (D. P. Chand 1980).

The story is the same for other well-known champions such as Bishambar of the railway and Bhim Singh of the armed services. Their lives are a litany of bouts and awards, and their bodies are reduced to the stark numbers of dates and weight-class identification. Their only identity is their success. Epic, apocryphal tales of great strength and superhuman achievement are strikingly absent from the state wrestler’s portrait.

Although most government sponsorship is utilitarian and deals with wrestling strictly as a sport and with wrestlers as simply athletes, there are some notable exceptions. Individuals within the state apparatus who have a personal interest in wrestling as a way of life have succeeded in taking on the role of moral patron.

Govardan Das Malhotra received his training as a wrestling referee from the National Institute of Sports in Patiala in 1963. Since then he had coached international teams and managed tournaments in Kabul and Teheran. Malhotra is active in the state bank trying to recruit young wrestlers for sponsorship. He has also helped organize local bouts in the Banaras area. Three things mark Malhotra from other modern patrons of wrestling. First, he is conscious of the need to preserve interest and provide support for Indian wrestling as a way of life. Second, he has written numerous short life sketches of famous wrestlers so as to illustrate the value of Indian wrestling as an important national heritage (Malhotra 1981: 17–96). Third, he has consciously removed himself from what he refers to as the gross politics of modern wrestling where influence is everything and skill, ability, and character count for very little.

Like Malhotra, Gupteshwar Misra has worked to preserve the tradition of Indian wrestling. Though a national level freestyle wrestler himself, and trained as a referee in Paris, Misra has remained committed to the training methods and lifestyle principles of Indian wrestling. Misra is directly responsible for the national success of most Banaras district wrestlers. He has inspired many through example. In his prime he would regularly do 2,500 bethaks and 2,000 dands, run four miles, and wrestle for an hour every day. He would then drink a liter of milk and a quarter-liter of ghi and eat half a kilo of almonds and a dozen oranges. Misra has helped organize teams for the railway, the police, and Banaras Hindu University.

Malhotra, Misra and a number of others of equal stature—Parasnath Sharma, Ram Narian Sarien, and Bishambar Singh, to name but three—are important patrons of Indian wrestling. Their best intentions are, however, not fully realized. Whatever effort these men make to hold up wrestling as a symbol of the state, they do not, by themselves, have a public image of powerful patronage. They cannot quite pull it off. In his capacity as a relatively high-rank employee, Malhotra certainly represents the stature of the state bank. But he does not represent the bank’s financial power in the same way that a raja represented absolute authority and temporal power. He does not embody the government’s intangible power any more than does Bishambar Singh personify the power behind the railway bureaucracy. Neither man is able to effect royal pomp and circumstance. Unlike kings, modern state officials are unable to decorate akharas with palm fronds, flowers, and rose petals, or saturate the earth of wrestling pits with buckets of oil and turmeric paste. Neither can they sprinkle their wrestler’s bodies with expensive perfume. They are unable properly to champion the cause of wrestling, for they do not represent the right kind of power, wealth or authority.

The Birla Mill Vyayamshala in Old Delhi, under the tutelage of Guru Hanuman, is perhaps the only wrestling akhara in India today that has the kind of sponsorship which royal patrons provided. While the circumstances of this akhara are unique, it is representative of the kind of patronage which wrestlers envision for their way of life.

The Birlas are, in effect, kings of free enterprise in the republic of India. They are one of the wealthiest and most powerful families in the country. Jugal Kishor Birla, a contemporary of Mahatma Gandhi and financial backer of the Freedom Movement, donated money for the construction of an akhara in 1928 and established Guru Hanuman as its manager. The akhara is affiliated with one of the Birla cloth mills from which it takes its name. There is no clear indication of the financial arrangement between Birla Enterprises and the akhara. Some people have told me that all of the wrestlers there—numbering in the hundreds, but the exact figure is vague—are paid a regular monthly stipend. Room and board is available at the akhara for some wrestlers, but many others come for practice and live outside the complex. Through the person of Murlighar Dalmiya, Birla Enterprises pay for the akhara’s upkeep and for new construction and improvements. There is an earthen pit as well as a Western-style “rubber” mat purchased in 1979. It is likely that the Birlas also pay for the travel and training expenses of the akhara’s many national and international wrestling champions.

A story is told which exemplifies the relationship between the akhara, Guru Hanuman, and Birla Enterprises. A young wrestler had come to Delhi from Maharashtra in order to take part in a wrestling tournament. Unfortunately he ran out of money and was unable to purchase a railway ticket for the return journey. Knowing one of the wrestlers at the Birla Mill Vyayamshala, he went there to seek help. At the akhara he was well taken care of. Guru Hanuman had one of his wards prepare a glass of almond tonic for the Maharashtrian wrestler. He then wrote a note which authorized the withdrawal of fifty rupees from the mill’s accounting office. This he gave to the Maharashtrian wrestler, who was put up for the night by one of the mill wrestlers with whom he was acquainted. The part of the story which is particularly emotive for most wrestlers is Guru Hanuman’s apparent ability to draw freely from the ample coffers of his industrial patron.

While the financial outlay for the akhara is, no doubt, considerable—200,000 rupees were spent on a foreign wrestling mat—there is much more to Birla patronage than money. Guru Hanuman and his wards—Suresh, Ashok, Satpal, Ved Prakash, and many others—bask in the light of an industrial giant. Their success matches the financial success of Birla free enterprise. Physical strength and skill reflects well on wealth and prestige, and wealth gives stature to a “traditional” way of life in modern India. Guru Hanuman and the numerous national champions that he has produced are more than just successful wrestlers, for they stand for something larger than themselves and on the shoulders of the likes of Ghaneshyamdas Birla, who was not only one of the wealthiest men in India in the first half of this century but was also a man who awoke three hours before dawn, exercised, ate a vegetarian diet, and religiously read the scriptures and had faith in god (Ramakrishnan 1986). Like many of the best-known royal patrons, Ghaneshyamdas Birla was himself a practitioner of what he patronized.

By sponsoring an akhara, the Birlas are not just filling a sports quota, they are making a public statement about specific ideals and values. For them the Birla Mill Vyayamshala is as much a statement about independence and national identity as was their support for Gandhi and the freedom struggle. Just as kings invited the public to see in their wrestlers an image of royal authority and power, so the Birlas invite the public to see in the person of Guru Hanuman and his akhara the benevolence of an industrial giant supporting the hope of the nation.

Although the Birla Mill Vyayamshala is a powerful example in its own right, it is unique. Of all the akharas in India it is the only one with a powerful patron who is, ironically, a private industrialist. It is held up as a model for others to follow and as a vision of what the state ought to provide so that the wrestlers can get on with the task of disciplining their bodies.

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