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    Covid-19 Crisis Puts Age-old Tradition of Kushti on the Mat as Wrestlers Grapple with Fund Cuts, Lack of Opportunities

    Courtesy: Guru Jasram Akhara in New Delhi

    Courtesy: Guru Jasram Akhara in New Delhi

    Akharas are slowly witnessing footfall, but there are fewer dangals which means many wrestlers and trainees don't even have enough money for a proper diet, and several big tournaments like the Senior National Wrestling Championship are either cancelled or in doubt because of the pandemic.


    Sagar Gupta

    Delhi, especially north Delhi, is the hub of a thousand-year-old Indian wrestling tradition called kushti or pehelwani. The akharas (arenas) took a big hit in the pandemic. But now, they are slowly witnessing footfall and there are hopes that kushti will gain momentum again.

    Neeraj Choudhary, 30, manages one of the oldest such wrestling schools in Delhi, Guru Jasram Akhara, which was established by his grandfather in 1975. "Things have improved," he said. "Students have started coming for practice but the fear hasn't gone away. 75 per cent of our students have started coming."

    Choudhary said wrestling was not just a sport but a spectacle: it was a display of emotions, grandiloquence and since there is no performance before the public which inspires young people to join the field, there is a lack of motivation among practising students. "Training and practice have started but not dangals (wrestling competitions). Students practice but there are no targets as dates for state championships or competitions have not been announced, so they are not as driven and motivated," he said.

    Traditional akharas do not charge the trainees. "Our akhara has given Arjuna awardees, Dhyan Chand awardees, Olympians, Commonwealth medallists. We would really like to see our students practice mud or mat wrestling," Choudhary added.

    Dangals have started but not as many as there used to be. The morale of wrestlers is down because they are not able to get enough money for their diet which is extremely important for pehelwani. For a wrestler, a hefty amount is spent on a diet which consists of vitamins, proteins and almonds. The diet of a pehelwan costs around Rs 500-600 per day.

    Nishant Rajput, 42, started kushti training at the age of 6 and won the prestigious title 'Hind Kesari' in 2019. He defeated a Pakistani wrestler in the Indo-Pak tournament in 2018 held in Dubai. "Since dangals have prize money, wrestlers depend on dangals for their income," he told News18. "We receive around Rs 50,000 to Rs 1 lakh for every big kushti. Where will we get money from if there are no dangals? I have to think twice before spending on my diet now because we don't have much income. Frankly speaking, many wrestlers are compromising on their diet which is affecting their health."

    News18 spoke to Vinod Tomar, assistant secretary, Wrestling Federation of India (WFI), who feels it would be difficult to hold the Senior National Wrestling Championship in December as the pandemic is still not over. "We are waiting for the guidelines. Unlike other games, in wrestling, one can not wear masks and it is a contact sport. During the competition, one wrestler may have to fight with 5-6 wrestlers at different intervals," he said. "Training has resumed but it's restricted. We have limited our focus to the Olympics and hence we are training under 18 weight categories as per Olympic rules and not on all 30 weight categories. It's also very difficult to get partners for Olympics-bound wrestlers because of the infectious coronavirus. Partners need to be approved, quarantined and tested for Covid-19. This takes time."

    Star Indian wrestlers Vinesh Phogat, Bajrang Punia, Deepak Punia and Ravi Dahiya have sealed Olympic berths.

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