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7. Wrestling Tournaments and the Body’s Recreation

At Ravana’s face the vanar sprang,
Snatched from his head the kingly crown
And dashed it in his fury down
Straight at his foe the giant flew,
His mighty arms around him threw,
With strength restless swung him round
And dashed him panting to the ground,
Unharmed amid the storm of blows
Swift to his feet Sugriva arose.
Again in furious fight they met;
With streams of blood their arms were wet,
Each grasping his opponent’s waist.
Thus with their branches interlaced,
Which, crimson with the flowers of spring,
From side to side the breezes swing,
In furious wrestle you may see,
The Kinsuk and the Seemal tree.


Given the rich and textured quality of wrestling as a way of life and the fact that wrestlers are concerned with a dramatic presentation of self, I fully expected to find that wrestling tournaments would be, to paraphrase Geertz, an Indian reading of Indian experience: “a story they tell themselves about themselves” (1973: 448).

Anyone who writes about public sport performance does so in the shadow of Geertz’s seminal article on the cockfight, in which Geertz effectively reoriented the anthropological inquiry away from questions of social utility and function toward issues of contextual meaning. Taking this perspective while reflecting on the meaning of a wrestling dangal, one is led to ask not whose interests are being served or what social function fulfilled, but rather what story is being told through a staged contest of skill and strength.

Like the Balinese cockfight, Indian wrestling dangals may be read as texts. They are interpretive templates which provide a framework for making sense of cultural experience. However, while the cockfight is a studied microcosm of “things Balinese”—status, honor, propriety, hierarchy, masculinity and antibestiality—the dangal seems to defy any like characterization for the Indian scene. In Geertz’s reading, the cockfight seems to elaborate meaning through the operation of symbolic dramatization. Dangals, on the other hand, seem to strip meaning down to essentials, to first principles. Consequently, one of the most surprising things about dangals is that they are not ripe with symbolic significance—as is the case with Nag Panchami and the akhara—but are in fact thin where one would most expect to find elements for “thick” description. Building on this theme, I will here offer an interpretation of the dangal in order to explain what it says about wrestling in particular and also about Hindu Indian society in general.

Set against the textured aesthetic of the akhara, the intricate regime of day to day life, the charged relationship between patron, guru, and wrestler, and the symbolic world brought to life on Nag Panchami, the dangal is a one-dimensional, abbreviated event. This is not to say that it is insignificant or marginal in any sense. Wrestlers take tournaments very seriously. Moreover, for the majority of the non-wrestling public the dangal is synonymous with wrestling. It is the most visible and public aspect of the sport. The dangal is a focal point in the matrix of wrestling, for it is where a wrestler can make a name for himself as both a champion and as one who has lived up to the ideals of a rigorous way of life.

In the context of the akhara, the wrestler’s identity is subsumed within the larger rubric of wrestling. His individuality—his public identity and unique biography—is less important than the fact that he lives by a strict code and subscribes to certain values. As noted, the body of the wrestler is objectified and symbolically reified on the occasion of Nag Panchami in particular. This situation is reversed in the arena of the dangal. When in the competitive pit, a wrestler stands alone as the distilled essence of his way of life. He stands alone with his own background, his own unique history of success and failure, his own strength and skill, and his own style and technique.

The dangal is a synoptic outline of wrestling as a way of life. All of the important elements are encoded in the act of competition and tournament organization, but it is as though they appear in a shorthand version of their more vivid and poetic guise as elaborated in other contexts. In this respect, but certainly only as a metaphoric equivalent, the dangal functions much as a dream, for, as Freud has noted, dreams are charged with epic significance even though they are “brief, meager and laconic” (1967: 313). What I mean by this is that in the dangal the concept of brahmacharya, say, is reduced to a singular aspect of strength. In the larger akhara context it is the multivocal nexus of character elaborated through the symbolic significance of such things as ghi, snakes, and milk. Similarly, when the guru and the patron are present at a dangal they take a back seat to the wrestler who is, for the duration of the bout, dramatically at center stage. They are shown respect, but it is a pale reflection of the kind of respect that is idealized and ritualized in other situations. While considered pure, the earth of the dangal pit seems only to allude to the purer essence of the akhara as emblematic of Hanuman and mother earth, and saturated with energy and fertility.

This synoptic aspect of dangals goes hand in hand with the emblematic individuality of the competitive wrestler. In a short story about a fictional, famous Orissan wrestler, Mohanty describes the moment just preceding the bout: “At that moment, Jaga Palei became a symbol, the symbol of glory and the fulfillment of the hopes and aspirations of the Oriya People. A sea of people surged forward to greet him, to meet the heretofore unknown, unheard-of wrestler” (1979: 28). Mohanty’s story ends with Jaga Palei going down in ignominious defeat. He is forgotten even more quickly than his momentary fame had spread, and he returns in ignominy to his akhara to exercise, eat, and carry on with his way of life. For a brilliant moment he stands alone, only to fall back onto a regime which is as comfortably depersonalized as it is strictly disciplined.

A similar, though harsher, situation obtains in Ruskin Bond’s story “The Garland on his Brow.” Hassan, a young wrestler from Dehra Dun, is described by Bond as a godlike man with a chest as broad as the base of a pipal tree (1967: 151). Hassan achieves tremendous success in dangal competition. Basking in the heroic glory of his success he is first admired, then hired and finally seduced by a local princess. When the princess dies, Hassan is left with nothing but his slowly sagging body and the memories of his youthful past. Bond’s story begins well into Hassan’s demise, for we are first introduced to the wrestler not as a hero but as the decrepit beggar he had become. In the final scene Hassan is found dead in a gutter beneath a culvert with his body, once radiant with the aura of akhara earth, now covered with sores and mud.

Dangal heroics are treated in both of these stories with a high degree of ambivalence. These being the only two works of fiction I have been able to find on wrestling, it is remarkable that pathos, rather than some more straightforward emotion, is used to describe the wrestler’s life. Itis as if to say that magnified strength and divine virtue must ultimately succumb to banal, mortal terms. The conceit of physique cannot preempt the more basic form of a rudimentary biology; it cannot stand alone.

There is a subtle shift of orientation when the wrestler steps out of the akhara and into the dangal. In the akhara a wrestler’s individuality is subsumed within the larger ideology of his way of life: he is one disciple among many. In the dangal the ideology serves to bolster the individual identity of the wrestler if only through dissimilation. What I have in mind here is the symbolic logic which links, in the mind of all concerned, the moral virtue of devotion, for example, to the expression of concentration on all wrestler’s faces, and this, in turn, to the particular skill of the local champion: Jaga Palei, Gunga Pahalwan, Ram Sevak, or any other great wrestler. The dangal is able to effect an immediate and meaningful link between the general and the specific, between ideology and identity.

Clearly this is a matter of perspective rather than a reified dichotomy. There is a didactic tension between the general aura of ideology on the one hand and graphic heroic individuality on the other. In effect, the dangal stands in relation to wrestling ideology in a textualized formulation of Victor Turner’s structure/antistructure dialectic. The wrestler, and also those who watch the bout, slide through the experience of liminality—here the communitas of dangal experience—as a kind of social therapy of revitalization (1969: 129). Through juxtaposition and particularization, the dangal serves to reaffirm the efficacy of certain ideological points.

However, the dangal does not stand in relation to Hindu Indian culture in the same way that the cockfight does to Balinese culture. While the cockfight seems to be an allegory for a Balinese way of life, wrestling, to the Hindu, is a strange story indeed. Geertz’s argument is that the cockfight is a telling of a Balinese story about such primary concerns as status, hierarchy and poise. It is a telling, however, that depicts values and ethics as fragile constructs rather than pervasive cultural edifices (1973: 447). Even though one can see, “behind the thinnest disguise of an animal mask,” that jealousy lurks behind poise and envy casts its shadow on grace, the whole picture is nevertheless a picture of Balinese society. Its foibles and rationalizations are put on par with its equanimity and charm. In essence, then, the cockfight is Balinese through and through. As such it is a ratification; it makes sense.

In contrast, I suggest, the dangal is an anomaly in Hindu culture. One might say, to overstate the issue only slightly, that the story a dangal tells is a story against Hindu ideals and values. The dangal is not so much a ratification as it is a cultural critique, a lens through which one sees certain aspects of social integration and conformity thrown into sharp and disjointed relief. The focus of this lens is on the individuality of the wrestler as an anomaly in Hindu society.

Numerous authors have pointed out that Hindu culture is built on the irreducible fact of caste identity and that the salient principles of a Western ethic of individuality and freewill are not found in the Hindu worldview. Instead, hierarchy, built on the structuring principles of purity and pollution, defines a pervasive caste ethic. As Daniel (1984), Madan (1987), Marriott and Inden (1977), Moffatt (1979), Fruzzetti, Östör, and Barnett (1982), and Parry (1989), as well as earlier writers such as Diehl (1956), Dubois (1906), Dumont (1970), and Srinivas (1965) has each in his or her own way showed, the body is very much implicated in the cultural politics of propriety, auspiciousness, purity, pollution, health, transaction, ritual, and kinship. In this scheme, the individual body is the nexus of intersecting forces, and many have argued that a person’s identity is the mutable, animated product of these cultural codes. In any case, the condition of a person’s body is in many respects a measure of his or her place within the larger social whole, a social whole only partially circumscribed by caste rules and concern with rank and status. I contend that the dangal may be seen as an ideological commentary on the nature of this complex somatic identity.

The dangal, like the cockfight, is a “safe” situation in which to lay bare the very framework of society: fundamental questions and issues are raised, but nothing changes through a reading of these events. As with a dream, the fantasy is over when the waking day begins. When the dangal is all over everyone goes home, enriched, perhaps, but not overwhelmed by the implications of what has been witnessed. In his fictionalized account, Mohanty emphasizes the textuality of the wrestling dangal: though epic in its proportions and monumental in its seeming significance, in the end the wrestler is all but forgotten and a world turned momentarily upside down rights itself. There is critique here, but no real threat of sedition.

The Weekly Bout

Many cities, small towns and village clusters organize weekly dangals, the most basic example of tournament organization. Although they are not particularly elaborate, they capture the essence of all dangals small and large. I am most familiar with the weekly Sunday afternoon dangal held in Dehra Dun. The pattern is almost identical from one week to the next.

Walking along one of the many roads that lead from the area of the central clock tower towards the old cantonment parade ground on a Sunday afternoon, one is likely to hear the rhythmic beat of the dhol (double-sided drum) which announces the beginning of every dangal.

Earlier in the day, before anyone arrives, a hired laborer digs the tournament pit. It is inevitably hard-packed from a week of disuse, trampled under the feet of young neighborhood boys who play cricket nearby, and littered with the trash that all public grounds seem to attract.

Gradually, at about four in the afternoon, a crowd of people gathers around. Those who come early sit on the grass about fifteen meters from the edge of the pit. The dhol player walks around counterclockwise calling others to take their places. The mass of seated spectators expands to enclose the pit on all four sides. It then thickens to about ten people deep. A second band of standing spectators circles the seated group and expands outward as the dangal proceeds. Bicycles, scooters, motorcycles, and the odd truck park on the outer edges of the gathered crowd. From the time that the first bout is fought until the final contest the crowd builds from five hundred to over a thousand.

For the most part, working-class men and boys—rickshaw pullers, day laborers, semiskilled factory workers, railway porters, and vegetable hawkers—attend weekly bouts. Wrestling is also very popular among mechanics, truck drivers, and other such skilled professionals who have a self-image of physical prowess. A fair percentage of the spectators at a dangal own small businesses or work as clerks in the vast municipal bureaucracies, public offices, and district courts.

As the seated crowd expands around the pit and the drummer continues to beat the dhol, Sharma, one of the dangal organizers, enters the arena and begins to bless the pit. He lights a stick of incense on one side of the pit and, after circling it around a few times, plants it in the earth. While circumambulating the pit he takes handfuls of marigolds from his satchel and throws them onto the earth. His actions are perfunctory and distracted. While Sharma blesses and circles the pit, Bholu, a vegetable hawker who referees the bouts, enters the arena and breaks apart the larger clods of earth that the laborer has left in his haste. Both Sharma and Bholu stop occasionally to talk with friends, answer questions, and exchange jokes and jibes. The atmosphere is casual.

The contestants tend to arrive later than the spectators in order to make dramatic, staged entrances. Contestants usually arrive in groups. In Dehra Dun there are two main factions. One is lead by Yamin, a fairly well-to-do entrepreneur, and the other by “Lal Bal Wale” (the red-haired one) who promotes most of the wrestlers who are not in Yamin’s clique. Both Yamin and “Lal Bal Wale” are Muslims, though the wrestlers in their respective cliques are Hindu and Sikh as well as Muslim. A clique, in the sense used here, is an ad hoc alliance of friends, co-workers, and neighbors who come to the dangal together and support the same wrestlers. A wrestler does not have to be allied with any clique, but alliance does tend to enhance personal prestige.

Yamin’s clique is comprised of Muslim motorcycle mechanics, butchers, and fishmongers. The clique has supported numerous wrestlers over the years. During the summer of 1987 the focus of the group was exclusively on two Muslim wrestlers from Saharanpur, a district town to the southwest of Dehra Dun. The two wrestlers came by bus every Sunday and met Yamin and the rest of the group at a teashop near the motorcycle garages. As a group the clique would drive or walk to the parade ground. Along the way others who identified with Yamin would join the entourage. Led by Yamin, the clique would clear a path through the standing crowd and then purposefully make its way through the seated audience and unabashedly clear an area for themselves in the very front. Yamin would then sit down with the two wrestlers next to him and a clique of fifteen or so friends on either side.

The entrance of a clique into the arena is, to say the least, designed to draw attention to itself. As a body the clique comports itself with casual conceit and confident lack of interest. There is a definite quality of majestic pomp as the members of each clique (and to a lesser but still significant sense all members of the audience) affect an attitude of cocksure pride and self-confidence. There is something in the dangal that brings out the prince in everyone. Timing is a large part of this drama, and if a dangal is scheduled to start at, say, 4:30, a wrestler with any sort of reputation will not make an entrance before 5:00.

The cliques and individual wrestlers make their entrances with various degrees of drama. Yamin’s clique is on par with that of “Lal Bal Wale,” but there are others: three army wrestlers who form a small though highly regarded clique, a railway clique headed up by Kanta Pahalwan, and, occasionally, a small group of wrestlers from either Haridwar or Roorkee. There are also a number of regular “independent” wrestlers: Chiranji from Rampur, a local wrestler who is recognized because he has only one hand, and a few others from nearby towns and villages. Every so often a wrestler from as far away as Muzzafarnagar (150 km), Simla (200 km) or Chandigarh (125 km) will attend.

After he has blessed the pit, Sharma, a toothless seventy-year-old retired municipal-board clerk, calls on young wrestlers to come into the arena and accept challenges. Usually this appeal has no effect, and Sharma berates the crowd for wasting his and everyone else’s time. This usually has about as much effect as the initial appeal which prompts Sharma to give one of his long—though always tongue-in-cheek—lectures on respect and the lack thereof: the spinelessness of modern youth, the need for self-respect, and the value and moral duty of public service. Sharma has been doing this for so long that even if it was once meant seriously, it is now a burlesque self-parody with the tone of slapstick overstatement. The crowd loves it and shouts back retorts only just disguised in enough respect for Sharma’s age and status to prevent a real confrontation. While Sharma, acting the part of one mortally insulted, pretends to cancel the dangal for lack of interest, Bholu, a past-his-prime wrestler turned referee, enters the pit and starts exercising vigorously. The crowd’s attention turns to Bholu as he parodies a self-important wrestler showing off his strength and physique while slapping his thighs, beating his chest, preening, and promenading around the pit. Sharma rises to the occasion and points out that Bholu, a father of eight and purveyor of potatoes, is the picture of health and youth. Sharma and Bholu’s performance is a studied comic routine that belies the underlying seriousness of the dangal specifically, and, indeed, of wrestling in general.

While Bholu and Sharma are in charge of running the dangal, they represent a larger group of people who are responsible for the overall organization of the event. This group is known as the dangal panchayat and comprises three or four men in addition to Sharma and Bholu. In contrast to the comic aspect of Sharma and Bholu’s role, the pradhan (boss/chief) of the dangal panchayat is a dignified and affectedly elite figure. He often wears the uniform of post-Gandhian Indian politics: khadi churidar payjamas, black leather “country-style” shoes, and a white “Nehru” cap. The pradhan and two other members of the panchayat always carry briefcases, a clear mark of their status in an otherwise primarily proletarian arena.

The panchayat is responsible for getting permission from the municipal board for the use of the parade ground, and from the police for holding a public dangal. The panchayat must also pay the dhol player and the man who digs the pit. Beyond this, however, there is little organization or management required. The pradhan does not take an active part in running the dangal. He walks around the pit but rarely gets involved in arranging or deciding the outcome of a bout. As such, he stands as a benevolent symbol of beneficence: an authority without responsibility.

One of the points that wrestlers make is that dangals are the essence of what may be called a minimalist philosophy. In modern India, as elsewhere, people are pressured to acquire things in order to be regarded as successful and happy. The dangal, I was told, is directed against this kind of modern materialist mentality. All that one needs is open space, a person to referee, a drummer, and a crowd. Laughing, one man pointed out that unlike cricketers or hockey players a wrestler hardly needs more than his underwear (i.e., langot) in order to engage in a tournament. Any patch of earth is a potential arena. From this elemental base the dangal follows its own momentum. It can be staged—and many dangals are—but popular opinion has it that the dangal is a creature of its own volition, an event that emerges through the happenstance encounter of uncommon men in an ultramundane environment. In this formulation quality entertainment is not a factor of embellished pomp—colorful canopies, taped music, posters, and comfortable seats—but rather a function of the skill of particular wrestlers. The Dehra Dun dangal is not an elaborate event, but it is often both entertaining and meaningful because of its stark contrast to the complexity of the larger materialist world.

A dangal always begins with the youngest wrestlers coming out to the pit to extend or accept a challenge. Often a pair of eight- or ten-year-olds will be the first to fight. Although audiences tend to watch these bouts with desultory interest, many point out that these junior wrestlers must be encouraged if there is to be any wrestling in the future. Once the first two boys have wrestled, there is usually a surge of interest among others of a similar age who quickly take to the pit and try to match themselves with someone of equal age and stature.

Sharma and Bholu move these junior bouts along as quickly as possible. Sometimes more than one bout is fought at a time, and for pre-teenage wrestlers the time limit is never more than three minutes per bout.

While the junior contestants are wrestling, young teenage wrestlers come out to the pit. In Dehra Dun, in 1987, there were not many wrestlers of this age group. At other weekly dangals, however, there are usually numerous thirteen- to fifteen-year-olds eager to challenge someone and quick to accept any challenge offered. In any case, a wrestler only really begins to gain a reputation after adolescence, and becomes well known and accomplished when he is seventeen or eighteen. It is these and the more senior wrestlers whom the spectators have come to see. All else is preamble.

After the young teenage wrestlers have fought a few bouts, Sharma and Bholu gesture to Yamin and “Lal Bal Wale” to send out their best wrestlers. Inevitably Sharma’s first appeal is ignored. More often than not his more adamant second and third appeals are no more effective. Bholu is sent over to have a word with the two groups. Only when Yamin decides and gestures toward the pit with a casual though pointed shift of his eyes and head do his wrestlers take to the arena.

As with the entrance of the clique into the dangal, the entrance of a wrestler into the arena is a matter of dramatic timing and staged self-presentation. An account from the Times of March 2, 1928, captures the essence of this performance:

In most places each wrestler breathes a silent prayer, then touches the sand three times and lifts some of it to his brow, after which he leaps up and down in the open, slapping his thighs with resounding smacks. . . . The experts go through an immense amount of preliminaries, even after the formal shaking of hands. They do a press-up to improve their own muscles, and a squat or two to relax their legs, and smack their biceps before facing each other in a crouching position (Hornblower 1928: 65).

Only when the top-ranking wrestlers have taken to the arena does the dangal “heat up,” as one man put it. The heat is a function of the drama associated with a high rank contest. To illustrate the point we may take up the events of Sunday, September 21, 1987.

As the contest between two young wrestlers ended, Yamin leaned over to the two wrestlers from Saharanpur and indicated that it was time for them to “take a salami of the pit”—to go out and put forward a challenge. The two wrestlers stood up slowly. To the loud applause of the crowd and the resounding rhythm of the dhol they loped out into the arena and jogged across to the near corner of the pit. To perform a dand thonk, both leaned over, touched the earth with their right hands and then stood up straight while gently slapping the biceps of their crooked right arms with the flats of their left hands. Faces expressionless, they stood next to each other on one side of the pit.

Seeing this, and feeling the crowd’s energy surge forward with the wrestlers’, one had the impression that the dangal had been building to this climax all along, a crescendo anticipated by the very first beat of the dhol’s rhythm.

As the two wrestlers took to the arena, Sharma and Bholu began admonishing the crowd with renewed vigor, saying such things as, “Here are two fine wrestlers, who will challenge them? There must be someone from Dehra Dun who is up to this.” Finally, and with studied casualness, Kaliya, the top wrestler of the “Lal Bal Wale” clique, sauntered out into the arena. His entry brought another loud round of applause from the crowd. Kaliya saluted the earth and stood on the opposite side of the pit.

As Kaliya came into the arena, Yamin’s clique huddled together in conference as the two Saharanpur wrestlers stood and looked on. Finally, Kilo, a well-to-do butcher and vocal member of Yamin’s clique, stood up and indicated that the younger of the two Saharanpur wrestlers should extend his hand to Kaliya in challenge. After a short period of confusion wherein the two Saharanpur wrestlers tried to figure out which one of them should extend the challenge, the younger one, Said, again reached down and touched the earth. Slapping the inside of his right thigh with the flat of his right hand, he leaped into the pit and ran across to face Kaliya.

Without breaking stride Said reached down and, grabbing up a handful of earth, extended his hand to Kaliya. Kaliya reacted by not reacting. As the earth ran through the fingers of Said’s extended hand, punctuating, as it were, the pregnant moment of confrontation, Kaliya stood, as before, with his hands behind his back looking down at a clump of grass between his toes.

The crowd, which had to this point showed its mild enthusiasm through loud applause, all but exploded with one loud voice as Said leaped across the pit to challenge Kaliya. As he stood, hand extended, the crowd shouted out that Kaliya should take the challenge. Kaliya, however, looked over towards his clique, and reading there some sign, simply shook his head and began walking around the pit slowly. Said looked over to Yamin’s camp, shrugged, and, somewhat flustered, stepped out of the pit. Kilo dashed out into the arena and started talking with Sharma and Bholu to try to do something to persuade Kaliya to take the challenge. They all tried to get Kaliya to fight, but to no avail. Frustrated, Kilo returned to Yamin’s camp. The three wrestlers in the arena, now joined by four others, walked casually and with studied indifference around the pit.

Sharma and Bholu went over to the “Lal Bal Wale” camp and, judging from their gestures and the tone of their voices, told him in no uncertain terms that the match between the two wrestlers was fair and should proceed. Frustrated by a lack of immediate response from “Lal Bal Wale”—who, like any good clique leader, would not taint his poise by bowing to pressure—Sharma came over to Yamin’s camp along with the pradhan of the dangal to argue that it was getting late and that if a contest was to be held it had better be soon.

As Sharma walked away in close conference with the pradhan, Kilo stood up and announced in a loud, dramatic voice that a “purse” would be collected to place as a prize for the winner of the bout. With great flourish and public demonstration Kilo collected 5 rupees from almost everyone in Yamin’s clique and handed the 50-rupee purse to Bholu. Bholu danced out into the arena as the crowd shouted its approval. Holding the money over Said’s head, he announced that anyone who could beat this young man stood to win the whole purse. Still standing with studied distraction, Said basked in the glory of the crowd’s unchecked emotion, which seemed to counterpoise his own control.

Kaliya, who had returned to his camp while negotiations were going on, now came out to the pit again. After some hesitation, and loud encouragement from the crowd, Kaliya walked across the pit and shook hands with the young Saharanpur wrestler. Again the crowd shouted its approval as the dhol kept pace with the growing excitement.

Among Yamin’s clique there was a feeling of self-satisfaction tinged with a hint of cynical mirth. As those sitting around me put it, greed had proved the strongest arm in the dramatic pre-bout negotiations. Money, they said, breaks down many barriers.

After shaking hands both wrestlers retired to their respective camps: Kaliya with his characteristic casualness and understated style of self-presentation, and Said with sudden leaps and bounds of hardly restrained excitement. With great flourish, Said unwound his langot from around his waist as Kaliya, on the opposite side of the arena, carefully took off his pants and shirt and folded them in a neat pile. As both wrestlers began to undress, those in Yamin’s clique made a quick inspection of Said’s new janghiya (briefs). Comments were made about the strength of the material, its color and pattern—purple with yellow flowers—and the fit and quality of the stitching. The leg holes were checked for flexibility and comfort while the thin ropes sewn for strength into the hems were twisted straight and smooth. The janghiya were passed from hand to hand as each member of the clique demonstrated his knowledge of such things as the texture of the cloth, the quality of the workmanship, the aesthetic of design, and the importance of fit.

Both wrestlers tied on their wrestling langots, smoothed the cloth and tested the knots around their waists before squatting down to insure a comfortable fit. Before putting on his janghiya, Said jogged up and down in front of Yamin’s clique while limbering up his back, neck, and legs. Taking the janghiya and holding them by the waistband he lifted them three times to his forehead in a gesture of supplication, respect, and luck. After a few minutes Kilo helped Said into his briefs, which, in accordance with notions of correct fit, must be so tight that often more than one person must push, pull, and crimp them into place. Said shook hands with everyone in the clique and again loped into the arena and jogged slowly around the pit to keep himself warm while waiting for Kaliya to make himself ready.

Said was accompanied into the pit by Salim, the other wrestler from Saharanpur. As he stood by to offer encouragement, a local wrestler dashed across the arena and into the pit, picked up a handful of earth, and proffered it in challenge to the unsuspecting and unprepared Salim. Caught off guard, Salim backed away and refused to take the challenge. The challenger proclaimed in a loud voice that since Salim had entered the arena it was his right to extend a challenge and to have his challenge accepted. Recovering a degree of composure but losing an equal portion of patience, Salim walked to the center of the pit and announced that he had a cold and a bruised foot and would therefore subject himself to a bout only for a prize of 200 rupees. The challenger followed Salim around the pit with his hand extended and refused to listen to any excuses. This only prompted Salim to refuse more forcefully. Kilo ran into the pit and grabbed hold of Salim’s sleeve and pulled him back to Yamin’s camp as the crowd jeered loudly.

Having made himself ready, Kaliya sauntered into the pit and Sharma called both wrestlers to the center. Standing between them he grabbed their wrists, and holding up each wrestler’s arm, in turn announced their names and hometowns. Both wrestlers introduced, Sharma indicated that the bout was set for eight minutes. He released their wrists and stepped quickly back as the dhol player, silenced only briefly for the announcements, again set to beating his drum.

Both Kaliya and Said reached down and rubbed their hands in the earth. Having already broken a sweat, Kaliya submitted to being rubbed down and dried with earth. The wrestlers faced each other, locked hands, and the contest began as Sharma, Bholu, the pradhan, Kilo, and the drummer all walked around the pit.

In striking contrast to the pre-bout vocal enthusiasm of the crowd, once a contest has begun everyone becomes quiet and attentive. This is less a natural reaction than an issue of decorum. Silence serves to focus attention on the wrestlers, and the quality of a bout is said to be reflected in the degree to which skill and strength can leave one quite literally speechless. Periods of silence are counterpoised with eruptions of vocal empathy. But silence is the mark of true appreciation.

As everyone agreed, the fight itself was lackluster. Neither wrestler had even succeeded in knocking the other down, and so, after eight minutes, Sharma declared it a draw. In spite of the anticlimax, Kilo dashed out into the arena and lifted Said onto his shoulder to carry him partway back to his clique in a gesture of recognition and accomplishment. After retiring to their respective camps both wrestlers, accompanied by a member of their clique, walked around the arena to accept money prizes offered by people in the audience. Kilo, who accompanied Said on his “round,” admonished the crowd to show their appreciation by making a generous contribution. A number of people in the audience offered one or two rupees, and when Kilo and Said had completed their circuit they had collected about 100 rupees in all. This money was carefully counted and sorted into bills of like denomination. After the drummer was given two rupees (he collected that much, or a little less, from every wrestler), the rest was wrapped in a scarf and given to Yamin for safekeeping. This money was later given back to Said.

Sharma and Bholu then called on other wrestlers to compete. Soon two other bouts were arranged. However, these bouts were equally anticlimactic in both design and execution. The wrestlers were not affiliated with either of the two main cliques and were inexperienced and unskilled. During these bouts, Sharma and one of the other organizers walked through the crowd asking for contributions to ensure the dangal’s regular continuance. Many people were persuaded to give up their spare change.

As the last two wrestlers fought, the crowd’s interest faded with the light. Finally the smaller of the two managed to flip the other on his back. Bholu, distracted momentarily, failed to see this and Kilo dashed out shouting that the bout was over. This resulted in a degree of confusion as Bholu and the other organizers tried to figure out what had happened. The crowd, however, took this as a signal that the dangal was over and they left the parade ground en masse.

The panchayat gathered informally on the steps of a nearby building and discussed the day’s dangal. Those who had wrestled and felt they were entitled to some prize money approached Sharma to ask for their winnings. The money that had been collected for the main bout between Kaliya and Said was distributed equally between them both.

Dangal Organization and Sponsorship

The weekly Dehra Dun dangal described above serves as a template on which to construct a more complete picture of the dynamics and practice of wrestling tournaments in general. Dangals are held on many public religious holidays such as Janamashtami, Shivaratri, Holi, Diwali, Valmiki Jayanti, Nag Panchami, and, as D. N. Majumdar has noted (1958: 304), on Anant Chaudas, Kajali Tij, Shravani, and Har Chhat. Ishwaran writes that in a South Indian village, Muharram and Basava Jayanti are occasions for three-day-long dangals (1968: 145). In fact, any holiday is an appropriate occasion for a dangal. Similarly, dangals are often held in conjunction with regional fairs. Other dangals commemorate the death anniversaries of well-known local and national leaders.

Every dangal is organized by a committee and sponsoring institution. For instance, a dangal held in New Delhi, on Shivaratri, was organized by a prominent Shiva Temple Association in East of Kailash. The dangal was part of a much larger schedule of events which culminated in a public puja on the night of Shivaratri. Another dangal, held in Pontasaheb, was organized by the local chapter of the Panther’s Club—a group of young entrepreneurs and municipal leaders—to celebrate Valmiki’s birthday. This dangal was a large affair. Wrestlers came from Ambala, Simla, Kurukshetra, and Chandigarh, and there were over 150 bouts organized over a period of two days. The dangal was part of a much larger celebration which included a temple inauguration, folk dances, and a bicycle race. In Banaras a dangal was organized for Nag Panchami under the auspices of a local branch of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a right-wing nationalist organization. Another dangal in Banaras was organized by the Cart Driver’s Union—a labor organization of transport workers. A small dangal held in a village outside of Banaras was organized by local village leaders.

In sharp contrast to the weekly dangal, organizing a larger, special dangal can be an expensive proposition. For instance, there was a large dangal held across the river from Banaras in the small town of Arohra. The dangal was organized by a local group of grain merchants and mill owners. Although I do not know how much money was spent, one may imagine the capital outlay in the following list of expenses: printing of posters and newspaper announcements, transport of earth for the pit, labor for pit construction, renting and setting up the public-address system and the tent canopy over the wrestling pit, paying the salary of seven to ten policemen and the drummer’s wage, and supplying flower garlands, refreshments for guests, and prizes. The largest and most important expense, of which everyone spoke, was in the form of prize money for the dangal’s highest-ranking wrestlers.

At large dangals, where prizes are distributed, the younger wrestlers are awarded cash, T-shirts, drinking glasses, buckets, clocks, saphas, and various other items in accordance with their skill and status. These prizes are displayed on a large table in front of the dangal announcer and other members of the organizing committee.

A large dangal always has at least one major bout. A major bout is defined by the rank of the wrestlers scheduled to compete and the prize money offered. At a dangal held in New Delhi on November 19–24, 1986, Suresh, a national champion, was awarded a silver gada and 31,000 rupees. Jayprakash, the second place winner, won 15,000 rupees (Sahadev Singh 1987: 54). The large dangals in Maharashtra are said to offer purses of 100,000 rupees to the best-known wrestlers in India. In the past, national champions such as Denanath, Lal ji, Mehar Din, and Chandagi Ram have been awarded sums over 75,000 rupees. Dangals on this national scale do not take place very often. Far more common are local regional dangals to which one or two well-known wrestlers are invited. The prize money at these dangals ranges anywhere from 1,000 to 10,000 rupees. The amount is established prior to the bout and is a way of attracting well-known wrestlers.

There are various ways in which money is collected to hold a dangal. A common practice is to sell tickets, and the price of tickets varies depending on the size of the dangal and on the quality of the seats. At dangals where the prize money is under 15,000 rupees tickets sell for two to five rupees per seat.

So called “ticket” dangals are not well regarded and are sharply contrasted with khula (open) dangals, which are free to anyone who is interested. The main criticism of ticket dangals is that the organizers stand to make money for themselves. Ticket dangals are, in a pejorative sense, a form of business. Thekedars (contractors) who organize these dangals set up bouts for the explicit purpose of making money. These thekedars are not well regarded by many wrestlers who believe that their skill and status will be compromised to greed if they are required to fight nura or “fixed” bouts. Moreover, most wrestlers with whom I spoke said that the most reprehensible aspect of fixed bouts was that the audience would be duped and thus cheated.

Khula dangals are not tainted with the stigma of ticket-sale profits, exclusivity, ranked seating, or the possibility of graft. They are often sponsored by independent nonprofit groups—temple committees, village panchayats, municipal-board departments, block-development committees, and local clubs. These groups fund the dangal either through budgetary allotment or, as is more often the case, by asking members and community leaders to contribute to a public fund. For instance, a dangal sponsored by the Cart Driver’s Union of Banaras asked its membership to contribute a portion of their wage to build a purse big enough to attract a well-known Delhi wrestler. Often a few well-to-do businessmen contribute most of the money required for a dangal. These men are therefore seen as the dangal’s chief organizers. For example, a dangal held in Banaras under the auspices of the RSS was financially underwritten by a wealthy sweet-shop owner. Financial contributions are a way for public figures to make a name for themselves, to project themselves into the public eye.

There is always a cadre of men who are highly visible at a dangal. They are seated behind or near the announcer’s table next to the prizes, garlands, and pile of head cloths. Like the pradhan of the Dehra Dun dangal these men project an aura of authority without having any responsibility. One person from the sponsoring group—but never anyone of great status—is responsible for making announcements over the public-address system. Another low-ranking member of the cadre is usually responsible for the distribution of prizes. As in the Dehra Dun dangal there are usually two referees. At larger khula dangals the referees are not affiliated with the sponsoring group and a third person may serve as an arbitrating judge.

At a khula dangal most of the bouts are not prearranged, but are arranged in the same way as in the weekly dangal described above. Many khula dangals attract a large number of wrestlers who come and sit together with their akhara clique. These cliques sit as close to the pit as possible. Often there are more wrestlers who want to wrestle than can be accommodated. It is the referee’s responsibility to select a wrestler and establish him as the challenger for the next bout. Only those who shake hands in front of the referee are legitimate contestants. Despite efforts to control the number of wrestlers challenging and being challenged, there is often a great deal of confusion on the periphery of the pit as candidates for a bout converge on the referee at the end of each preceding contest.

One of the referees announces each wrestler’s name, his hometown, the name of his guru, the amount of cash or type of prize that will be given to the winner, and the length of the bout. The length of a bout increases with the age, size, and status of the wrestlers competing. Similarly, the greater the amount of the prize money, the longer the bout. A bout can be any length of time and is fought without breaks until one or the other wrestler’s shoulders touch the earth. Any bout worth more than 1,000 rupees is likely to be scheduled for about thirty minutes. Occasionally bouts will be scheduled for an hour, but ten to fifteen minutes is the average for a bout worth a hundred rupees. If a bout is not decided at the end of the scheduled time, the time is often simply extended. There are tales of bouts going on in this manner for hours, and even days at a time.


In between dangal bouts, short ceremonies are performed which recognize and give public acclaim to men of renown. These rituals are referred to as swagat (honorific welcome). To give swagat is an act of respect and to receive it a mark of honor and status.

The most common form of giving swagat is for one of the members of the dangal organizing committee to invite the person to be honored into the pit. This person salutes the pit and is introduced to the audience. He is garlanded and a sapha is tied around his head. Sometimes he is given a small sum of cash as a mark of respect. Depending on the circumstances, the honored person is sometimes asked to inaugurate a bout. This entails no more than standing between the two wrestlers who are about to compete and placing one’s hand over their hands as they shake to initiate a bout (see plate 9). If a photographer is present this ceremony is staged carefully and captured on film. The wrestlers who are about to compete touch the feet of the honored person, who leaves the pit and retakes his seat as the bout begins.

A wide range of people receive swagat at wrestling bouts. Although the organizers of a bout do not usually receive swagat themselves, close associates of the organizers are inevitably honored. Thus, at a dangal organized by a group of grain merchants a number of wealthy traders were honored. Similarly, at a dangal organized by a union, ranking union members were honored. And at a dangal organized by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, members of that organization who were not directly involved in the planning of the dangal were given swagat. At a dangal organized by a temple committee, one of the main benefactors was given swagat. Swagat is not restricted to members of the organizing group. Well-known gurus and retired wrestlers are also honored and introduced to the public. Similarly, religious leaders are accorded special status and are given swagat for gracing the dangal with their presence. Those who have been asked by the organizing committee to referee or judge the dangal are also given swagat.

At some dangals the organizing committee invites a chief guest to enhance the importance and pomp of the event. At a dangal organized by the police, for instance, the district superintendent was invited. He could not attend but sent his deputy instead. At other dangals local municipal politicians or departmental chiefs are often called upon to attend. For example, R. S. Toliya, the district magistrate of Banaras, was invited to the district jori/gada dangal of 1985. A member of the Legislative Assembly was invited to a dangal organized by Akhara Bara Ganesh. Kunwar Rajindar Singh Bedi, also a member of the Legislative Assembly of Firozpur district, Punjab, is a popular figure at local and regional dangals (Ali 1984). In Delhi, Yashpal Kapur, a Congress Party leader, was one of the luminaries at the Mahan Bharat Kesri Dangal of 1977. Village pradhans, block-development officers, and local advocates are often invited as chief guests to small rural dangals.

Many wrestlers point out that the best dangals of the past were those sponsored by rajas, maharajas, and powerful zamindars. It was on these occasions in particular that the king’s power was most clearly reflected in the body of his court wrestler.

The presence of a local luminary such as a rich merchant, respected mahant (abbot), or powerful politician serves to transpose the world of wrestling onto the larger world of business, institutionalized religion, politics, and rural development. In a figurative sense the ritual of swagat serves to link wrestling to power and prestige in other walks of life. More than anything else, however, the ritual of swagat highlights one of the most important aspects of dangal participation: honor, respect, and the public display of status expressed as nam kamana—to make a name for oneself.

Nam Kamana

Making a name for oneself is another manifestation of the general synoptic theme being traced here. It is specifically focused on the issue of public identity (see plate 10). What is striking about a dangal, in contrast to the akhara, is that identity is reduced to what appears to be mundane pride and a simple narcissistic concern for fame and social status. In the dangal pit it does not so much matter whether a wrestler is a true brahmachari, whether he is a vegetarian, whether he massages his guru’s feet and washes his clothes, or whether he is Hindu, Muslim, Jat, Yadav, Thakur, or Chamar. It matters only whether he wins or loses. One can certainly surmise that a winner probably has the character of a good wrestler, but in the drama of victory and defeat these concerns are subordinated to the immediacy of a simple dichotomy: success or failure. It is on this point that the dangal is dramatically different from the akhara regimen and ritual. While dangal preamble is cloaked in a mantle of pomp—swagat, prizes, dramatic pit entries, stylistic self-presentation—the contest itself strips away the larger dramatic context to reveal a simple confrontation.

A whole hierarchy of status and fame is based on this dichotomy. There are the wrestlers who earn a name for themselves by winning. They become well-known and respected champions, even though, like all wrestlers, they sometimes lose. One must not underemphasize the degree to which a wrestler benefits from fame, even though the benefits are not necessarily material in nature. To have a name is a primary end in itself: to be recognized while walking down the street, to be invited in for a glass of milk, to see one’s name in the newspaper, to be fawned over, to be talked about, to be allowed to move to the front of a line at the bank or post office, to be given free rides on public buses, and so forth.

A wrestler’s success reflects directly on his guru. Fame is directly translated. Similarly, a wrestler’s status reflects on his akhara. When he wins his akhara brothers also win, and when he loses all of the members of the akhara sink with him.

Less explicitly linked to the fact of winning or losing, but still implicated in the quality of each bout, is the status of the dangal organizers and their guests. A bout well fought reflects well on everyone associated with it. When I asked why people organized dangals, why people were given swagat, why people donated money to sponsor dangals, why people in the crowd gave money to successful wrestlers, and why wrestlers compete, the answer was, inevitably, for public recognition, “so that one’s name will be known.” Whether as king, court wrestler, or village pradhan, to “have a name” is to be firmly rooted in the larger world of social, political, and economic relations.

Except for a wrestler who is regularly successful, the dangal is not a way to make a name for oneself. The dangal is more a mode of expression than a functional device to gain recognition. It is not a medium through which to achieve status, but a context in which to express identity. The names of the organizers and chief guests are writ large on the dangal stage. However, a person must already be well known and respected to be accorded the honor of swagat. Even if an unknown person puts up thousands of rupees to organize a dangal, he will be overshadowed by someone who is already a respected, powerful person in the community.

Because of the stark dichotomy of success and failure played out again and again in every bout, there is an illusion that everyone’s status is at risk. In every victory there is the exhilarating possibility of unbounded fame and in every defeat the collective shudder of possible ignominy. However, the organizers and luminaries do not stand to lose status and respect any more than they can expect to achieve status and respect through a dangal. The dangal only tells a story of status by calling out a litany of names earned in other arenas.

In this drama the risk is vicarious for all but the wrestlers themselves. It is their very real success and failure which lends credence to the event as a whole and which makes the play of status and honor meaningful.

Intermediary Conclusions: From Thick to Thin

In beginning with a detailed description of a fairly commonplace, weekly dangal and moving, by stages and with progressive objectification, to a consideration of dangal types, organization, swagat, and nam kamana, I have made an effort to set the stage for what follows. In doing so I have not imposed my own categories of interpretation, but have tried to remain true to the wrestler’s own interpretive rubric.

The act of wrestling is the centerpiece of every dangal. As the nexus of the dangal, the wrestling event is what all other events are organized in relation to. As such, the art of wrestling—the skill involved—provides a definitive commentary on the affected preamble of dangal pomp, the ideology of wrestling as a way of life, and, by extension, on certain aspects of the Hindu ethos.

Where the pomp of the dangal builds the wrestler up to heroic proportions, the art of wrestling strips him down to the biomechanics of a singular geometry of movement. Outside of the dangal, and indeed as the wrestler affectedly enters the arena, one might say that a wrestler’s identity is pregnant with meaning. His body and its interpretations are a veritable poetics of strength and virtue. This condition is dramatically inverted when the wrestler actually begins to wrestle and the crowd falls silent. In a specific and temporary sense he is reduced, in the dangal, from texture to essence: from thick to thin.

In the following sections I will trace the biomechanics of this procedure.

The Art of Wrestling

The art of wrestling is composed of stance, paintra, and moves and countermoves, daw and pech. I have listened to many wrestlers describe at length the importance of a balanced stance, the positioning of arms, legs and head. A balanced stance puts one in position to apply a move or counter an attack. As Ratan Patodi points out, stance is a crucial aspect of the overall technique of wrestling. In his description one can see a concern for detail and precision.

Paintra is the fixing of the feet on the ground after having made a move or having countered an attack. It is the art of standing in the akhara. It is the point of entry into the act of wrestling and the prelude to every dangal. One’s stance puts one in a position to attack or retreat. . . . Every stance has an appropriate counterstance, and one must move in tandem with one’s opponent. Sometimes a strong wrestler’s stance will be so firm that his feet will be as fixed as Angad’s. [Angad was a great wrestler in Ram’s army.] All attempts to shake him will fail.

Eyes and stance move together. Stance brings color to the akhara. A wrestler who is as quick as a black hawk, can, with wisdom and vigilance, move from stance to stance and confuse his opponent. He jumps, ducks,sways, runs, lures and frightens his opponent. He may stand near or at a distance, straight or in a crouch. He may attack aggressively or retreat passively, drop down on all fours, move from side to side and turn around. All the time he has in mind the move he wants to apply and uses his stance to choreograph the attack.

In a stance, one’s forward leg should be in line with one’s bowed head so that the chin is straight above the knee, and one’s center of balance fixed. One should move one’s feet precisely and with purpose. If one’s stance is like a pillar then an attack will find its mark. One should be able to shift one’s weight from one leg to another so as to feint and attack without faltering.

When you set your stance, the forward leg is usually the stronger. Some people are equally strong in both legs. In any case, one must always keep one foot at least one and a quarter hand’s length ahead of the other. With the feet neither too far apart nor too close together, the angle between the feet should be between forty-five and fifty degrees. . . . One’s hands should neither be fully extended nor left limp at one’s side. They should be bent at the elbow and held firm . . . one should be bent at the waist with shoulders somewhat hunched and neck pulled in rather than extended. One’s feet and hands should be tensed so that one can be fast on the attack and firm in absorbing and turning a parry aside. With one’s right foot forward and body crouched there should be enough weight in the forward lean to make for a quick attack but not so much as will imbalance the body and make it fall out of control (Patodi 1973a: 39–40).

Patodi’s description of the paintra continues. He further elaborates the virtues of a firm stance and the positioning of the wrestler’s body. He draws an analogy between the firmness of stance in wrestling to like “stances” in business, war, life in general, and politics. He argues for the natural importance of stance by drawing an elaborate parallel between the innate balance of animals and the requisite balance of a wrestler in the pit. A wrestler with a balanced stance is like a hawk from whom no prey can escape (ibid: 42).

Others have spelled out the importance of stance in equal if not greater detail (cf. Atreya 1972b; K. P. Singh 1974; H. Singh 1981: 75–86; 1984a: 39–41, R. Gupta n.d.: 26). Along these lines a most embarrassing event occurred at a Banaras dangal in which a wrestler from Akhara Ram Singh was pitted against a well-known wrestler from Delhi. After about two minutes of grappling the Delhi wrestler managed to kick the feet out from underneath the Banaras wrestler with such force that his head and shoulder hit the earth while his legs flailed out of control. Having failed to apply this most basic of wrestling techniques, the Banaras wrestler was humiliated.

Although stance is of preeminent importance, the art of wrestling also entails the careful execution of moves and countermoves. It is of vital importance that a wrestler have a firm grasp of a particular move in all its ineffable intricacy. When I told wrestlers that I was writing a book on Indian wrestling they assumed that it would be a descriptive catalogue of daws and pechs, a litany of feints and parries. From their perspective this is what was needed: a step-by-step, blow-by-blow description of every possible move.

It would be simply impossible to do justice to the thousands of moves and countermoves which make up the art of Indian wrestling. In any case, H. Singh (1981, 1984b), R. Gupta (n.d.), Patodi (1973a), Ram (1982),and Mujumdar (1950) have provided synopses of many of the most common moves. Almost everyone, including the authors of many of these books, agrees that their descriptions are grossly inadequate: nothing can substitute for the real thing. In any case, my purpose here is not to give a descriptive account of wrestling moves or to undertake a formal classification of types of moves. I will restrict my comments to a discussion of how any one bout is envisioned: as a whole and choreographed sequence of moves. In doing so I hope to show how the body of the wrestler is broken down, as it were, into sequences of depersonalized movement.

From a skilled wrestler’s perspective every single move, glance, shift of weight and moment of motionlessness ought to be classifiable into some aspect of a paintra, daw, or pech. In a perfect encounter there should be no extraneous or arbitrary movements which do not proceed from or come as a result of some other purposeful action. A skilled wrestler is one who can read this pure grammar of movement most clearly, and who is able to take advantage of his opponent’s misreading: his carelessness. A good wrestler can interrupt a movement and translate it into something for which it was not intended. He must also be able to read ahead and anticipate his opponent’s moves by examining the geometry of his stance. The art of wrestling is to achieve an economy of effective motion. Because every move can be answered with a whole range of countermoves, no two bouts are ever the same. No move is predictable or established as inevitable given the configuration of previous moves; structured improvisation is the key. Wrestlers are taught moves and how to put moves together in chains of motion, but it is only through practice that one learns the art of improvisation.

Improvisation has an ineffable quality, and in order to capture it in words the bout must be broken down into distinct parts. Memory serves to amplify the ineffable by distorting the sequence into isolated events. After a dangal one can often hear groups of men recounting a particular bout and criticizing the wrestlers on the basis of the choices they made: “He moved back when he should have moved forward. His weight was on the wrong foot. All he had to do was stand up and it would have been all over. He should not have let go of the ankle.” Often these remarks center on particular moves: “He was in the perfect position for a dhak but he missed his chance and left his leg open. He didn’t have his weight far enough under to make the dhobi pat work. He was too far away to try a bhakuri.”

As they are so recounted, all moves are abstractions from what is in fact a chain of improvised motion. It is instructive, however, to understand how particular moves are conceptualized outside the framework of a competitive bout.

The multani is one of the most popular moves in Indian wrestling because it is difficult to execute correctly but spectacular when applied properly. Ratan Patodi describes five variations of the move. The most common one is as follows: “You are facing your opponent and both of you have one hand on each other’s neck. At this point grab your opponent’s other hand with your free hand. Jump forward and pivot on your rear foot while kicking up your front leg to catch your opponent’s rear leg” (1973a: 53).

Naturally this description is an abbreviation of what actually takes place: a shift of weight from one leg to the other, the twist and bend of the hips, a rotation of the shoulders, the corresponding forward pull of one’s opponent’s arm and neck, and the positioning of one’s body close enough to one’s opponent to enable the pivot foot to work as a fulcrum. There are a host of other minor but crucial aspects of the multani; for example, the correct way to grip and pull the hand and the most effective way to pull the neck forward and down.

The sakhi is another effective and popular move. You have shaken hands as the bout is beginning. If your opponent’s right leg is forward, grab his right wrist with your left hand. Circle your other arm over the upper part of his right arm and lock it straight. Insert your right leg between your opponent’s legs and hook it behind his right knee (ibid: 61).

Patodi completes the picture by referring to a photograph which shows a wrestler tripping his opponent with his hooked right leg while pulling down and pushing forward on the locked right arm.

The kalajangh is a common, effective, and relatively easy move to apply. As your opponent leans forward off balance, you grab his left arm above the elbow with your left hand. You drop onto your right knee and simultaneously duck under your opponent’s chest while sliding your right arm between his legs, grabbing hold of his right thigh. Rolling to your left, flip your opponent across your back so that he lands on his back with you on top of him.

Every dangal bout is read, retrospectively, as a series of moves and countermoves. However, not all of the moves are recalled. Only the most glaring mistakes, the near falls, the effective tricks, and the successful parries are remembered. Ratan Patodi recounts the following bout, for which the prize was 100,000 rupees, between Kartar, a disciple of Guru Hanuman, and Suresh, a disciple of India’s best-known wrestler, Chandagi Ram.

At exactly 4:45 P.M. the minister of sports introduced the wrestlers and inaugurated the dangal. Having defeated the excellent wrestler Jayprakash, Suresh stood taut, fit and with an expression of self-confidence on his face. Kartar, trained by Raj Singh and experienced in international competition, stood near by, his body radiant.

For twenty minutes the two wrestlers sized each other up and measured one another’s strength and skill. Both being fresh, neither of them wanted to make the first move. Both wrestlers fought defensively. Sometimes Kartar pushed forward and at other times Suresh would advance, but after twenty minutes it was impossible to tell who had the upper hand. There was a difference however. Kartar was pacing himself and not wasting his strength while Suresh was putting all of his energy into defensive tactics. He was getting more tired by the minute.

At 5:05 P.M. Kartar applied a very strong dhak and although Suresh was not quick enough to defend himself completely, he did manage to grab Kartar’s back. This unsettled Kartar who maneuvered his way out of the pit while freeing himself. The referee called both wrestlers back to the center of the pit and the bout continued. However, Kartar was off balance and after two minutes he halfheartedly tried to apply another dhak, but this time Suresh got a better grip of his waist and brought Kartar to his knees.

This moment was for Kartar a time to catch his breath while Suresh continued to expend his energy. Three times Suresh put his knee on Kartar’s neck and tried unsuccessfully to flip him over. Using his strong neck Kartar was easily able to rotate out of danger. Each time he foiled Suresh’s efforts the crowd in the stadium applauded such that the arena echoed their appreciation. All the while Kartar was recovering his strength for what was to be a bout that went on for an extra fifteen minutes.

Both wrestlers were tired after thirty minutes, but they remained cautious and wary of each other’s moves. . . . As the fans’ hearts beat faster and faster Kartar applied a bagal dubba in the eleventh minute and brought Suresh down with lightning speed (1986a: 81–83).

Any bout can be reduced to three basic principles: strength, stamina, and skill, with skill being a function of both experience and training. The grammar of a wrestler’s movement and the geometry of his stance are a direct representation of these basic factors. There is, I think, a transparent and ultramundane quality to this art that serves to root aspects of the wrestler’s identity in nature and the supernatural.

Naturalization and deification

In a dangal one is presented with the distilled essence of a whole way of life wherein the textured identity of the wrestler is flattened out and moored to gross “natural” factors of raw strength, instinctual courage, and reflex action. When two wrestlers meet in the pit it is a cultural drama of base nature. It is as though the thick, cultural construct of a wrestling way of life is suddenly—and only for the duration of the bout—made thinly transparent. Instead of a complex scheme of strength and energy based on diet, discipline and devotion, there is, in a dangal, a clear, uninhibited representation of brute force. Training, discipline and practice are momentarily subordinated to what appears to be instinct and natural ability.

This is generally true even for those who know how to wrestle, but it is particularly true for the masses of people who come to watch a wrestling tournament. As in many sports that entail aggressive, physical contest—boxing, ice hockey, American football, cockfighting—there is, in Indian wrestling, a strong undertone of barbaric violence. Here is a world where the controlling hand of cultural civility is figuratively, and very circumspectly, removed. At many of the dangals I witnessed there was a sense of nervous, almost fearful anticipation of what might happen if things got totally out of hand. In any case there is, I think, a sense in which the Indian wrestling audience feels a degree of vicarious empathy for the naked, aggressive wrestler.

The position of the epic poems, particularly the Ramayana and the more popular Tulasi Ramayana, must be recognized in this regard. In his epic vision of wrestling, Tulasi Das writes a poetics of nature into Hanuman’s fierce eyes, Angad’s tree-trunklike legs, and the mountainous proportions of Ravana’s warriors. Lightning, thunder, wild elephants, raging bulls, and swaying trees are all terms used to describe wrestling combat. Images such as these come to life as one watches a dangal.

In a concrete sense this distillation allows both wrestler and audience to experience the tangible essence of an elaborate cultural construct: to wallow, as it were, in the primordial clay from which the whole experience of wrestling emerges. The dangal is a peeling away of the layers of a way of life to reveal the raw material from which it is made. It is, of course, an elaborate cultural illusion to make a complex art look as though it were mere instinct, brute force, and natural talent. Through this operation the tenets of strength and virtue are more firmly grounded in what appears to be the irrefutable mandate of nature. They emerge not as programs of faith or mere conviction but as inevitable and taken for granted facts of life.

Let me put this another way. When a wrestler wrestles with such consummate skill that his strength and flawless technique appear as though they are a natural gift, this serves to ground the ideological aspects of wrestling in a world outside of culture, “in the blood of all Indians,” as Patodi puts it (1985: 45). Metaphoric parallels are drawn between the fixity of a wrestler’s stance and the sturdiness of a tree trunk, the bulk of a wrestler’s chest and the majesty of Himalayan peaks, the lightning speed of a wrestler’s twists and turns and the thunder of his slapping thighs. These parallels effectively superimpose a carefully crafted art, a most intricate cultural construct, onto a primordial extrahuman world imbued with supreme power.

This point is illustrated by Ratan Patodi in a vivid description of a 1926 wrestling bout between Gunga and Kallu Gama in Kolhapur. The natural skill and strength of the two wrestlers is demonstrated by means of an oscillating metaphor—Kallu and Gunga are at once animal and divine, natural and supernatural: “Hearing their names, Kallu and Gunga jumped up and stood firm. They were quivering with anticipation and appeared as two coiled snakes ready to strike. . . . The supporters of each wrestler danced as though lost in holy rapture at the sight of god” (1985: 45).

Wrestlers are often compared to animals: as fast as a leopard, eyes of a hawk, courage of a lion, and unleashed power of a rogue elephant. The divine metaphor is also quite common and is used to describe the radiance of victory and the complete, focused concentration of a wrestler in the pit. The great Gama was often referred to as “Krishna of the Kaliyug.” As Atreya writes in one of his articles, “the true wrestler is god” (1973a), and in virtually every akhara one can find an image of the founding guru—always a great wrestler himself—who is said to have been of divine proportions. It could not have been otherwise, I was told, since no mortal could have possibly lifted the heavy nals or swung the gigantic gadas which now gather dust in many akhara corners.

A wrestler is never just human any more than is wrestling just a cultural construct. Metaphor and analogy serve to underscore the gross aspects of dangal wrestling by writing an act of cultural performance back onto nature and by translating a wrestler’s “natural” ability into an act of god. In this formulation wrestling as a way of life emerges out of the pit, as it were, animated not just by the natural fact of instinct but by divine mandate as well.

The Dangal as Cultural Critique

A number of anthropologists have commented in passing that wrestling tournaments are anomalous cultural events because they are situations where caste concerns are explicitly laid aside (Beals 1964: 107; D. N. Majumdar 1958; Mandelbaum 1970: 182–183, 331–332; Orenstein 1965: 201, 232, 254). Majumdar writes: “No caste restrictions are observed in choosing the combatants. All feelings of superiority and inferiority are laid aside, and a Thakur can wrestle with a Chamar or Pasi” (1958: 304–305).

I was told a story of the Banaras wrestler Jharkhande Rai’s wrestling bout with Vijay Kumar, the national champion from Delhi. A group of men went with Jharkhande Rai from Banaras to Delhi where the bout was to be fought. There they looked into Vijay Kumar’s caste background and discovered that he was a low caste person and would not, therefore, have the necessary buddhi (wisdom) to wrestle with the twice-born Jharkhande Rai.

The bout began and before anyone realized what was happening Vijay Kumar grabbed Jharkhande Rai by his janghiya and in one smooth movement picked him up and threw him to the ground. At this point in the story the narrator laughed at his own conceit and explained that Vijay Kumar’s body seemed to swell and glow with a bright radiance “and we all looked toward heaven wondering from where his strength had come.” Undoubtedly it was rigorous self-discipline cast in the light of a transcendent supernatural ability which had enabled Vijay Kumar to overcome his “natural” caste-based inability.

Because of the staged caste confrontation that characterizes many bouts, I suggest that dangals are important commentaries on Indian social life. The commentary aspect of the dangal turns on the synoptic reification of the natural body as an icon of identity. In other words, the stark terms of success and failure in conjunction with a particularly somatic way of life suggest an alternative reading of Indian social organization. They suggest a critique of caste hierarchy through positing a body politics of almost barbaric self-determination.

In practical terms this is nothing more than the very real possibility that a Chamar wrestler may put his knee on the neck of a young Brahman and flip him onto his back and into ignominy. But the caste status of the particular wrestlers only adds a degree of irony and poignancy to this picture; who a wrestler is in terms of caste rank is, in fact, beside the point. In a world based on rigid caste ascription where the individual is subordinated to the social whole, and where much social interaction is guided by an implicit belief in the veracity of contagious impurity, fate, and auspiciousness, it is unnerving to see a person write his own destiny in terms other than those prescribed by social precedent and cultural mandate. For the spectator the question raised might be put something like this: If the body of the wrestler can be made to march so effectively—and with such heroic consequences—to the tune of a different drum, than what is to be made of the rest of culture? Where is there room for the subtle distinctions of civilization in a world where the rules are written in terms of muscles and morals rather than rank and status? Regardless of what category of person is in the pit, it is intriguing, challenging, and not a little frightening to see a person turn an established system on its head, even when everyone accepts the fact that it is just a game.

I am referring here to an ideological commentary on an ideological formulation. The dangal is not a form of sociopolitical protest, if by this one means a self-conscious project of radical change. It is, as I read it, a textual critique of an established worldview. This critique is based on the peeling away of the wrestler’s identity to reveal an essential man. In this sense, the wrestler stands as a naked caricature of individuality, a parody of asocial natural man stripped of all cultural trappings of any kind, and lauded for his personal and instinctive skill. In this formulation the emphasis placed on fame and making a name for oneself is particularly significant. In the drama of the dangal one can, for a moment, step out of the arena of ascribed status and risk a quick turn on the stage of pure individuality. For the wrestler and the audience alike, the dangal is a story of society in a different key. Where normally there is strict social hierarchy, the dangal suggests the possibility of individual achievement. In a world of strict rules of body purity wrestlers enact a ritual of physical contact saturated in sweat, mucus, and occasionally blood. It is not at all coincidental that there is an element of the horrific in this barbaric, anticaste drama.


Geertz argues that the cockfight is a Balinese reading of Balinese life, a way of making sense through explication and interpretive elaboration. In a way the dangal is similar to the cockfight, but it is also fundamentally different, for it systematically takes apart that which is so carefully maintained and preserved in other arenas. The dangal focuses attention on the ideological inverse of caste hierarchy by positing the individual as a social fact, and individuality as a moral—if somewhat uncivilized—value. It makes no difference that such a suggestion is, as some have argued, a conceptual impossibility given the Hindu worldview. The dangal, after all, is only really significant in the sense that dreams and other fantasies are. Its logic is not pragmatic, but cosmological in the Lévi-Straussian sense that dangals, like myths, are tools through which people think, templates for conceptual thought. The positing of a natural individual is, in this sense, just an unconscious inversion of the more protean way things normally are. In this primal dream is the intriguing possibility of another way of seeing the world.

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