Maharashtra’s wrestlers grapple with COVID and its aftermath

Wrestling is a popular sport among farmers in this part of the state, but the pandemic has closed down all the arenas and left the athletes struggle for survival

For a wrestler to win a big competition, he needs to spend anything between Rs 15,000 and Rs 20,000 a month on his diet and practice. Right now, most wrestlers are finding it difficult to earn their daily bread and butter.

For decades, the second week of March has marked the start of the popular traditional wrestling season, which attracts hundreds of participants and big audiences in the villages of western Maharashtra.

Held as a part of travelling fairs, that also include folk theatre and music performances such as tamasha and lavani, it is an event that farming communities look forward to with a lot of eagerness. Unfortunately, the fairs had to be cancelled for the second year in a row and the wrestling arenas in the region have remained shut as players themselves grapple with the deadly impact of COVID-19. Chincholi, Vita, Padli, Benapur and Khawaspur are the main towns in Sangli district where wrestling competitions are held regularly.

“The pandemic has disrupted two successive seasons. As a result, the wrestlers’ earnings have fallen significantly,” says Mauli, a wrestler from a rural family in Pandharpur (Solapur district), who has dedicated his life to the sport. The 26-year-old is a former winner of ‘Maharashtra Kesari’, a prestigious state-level wrestling title, and was trained at the century-old ‘Shri Shahu Vijayi Kushti Gangavesh Talim Akhara’, located in Kolhapur.

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Mauli said that for a wrestler to win any big competition, he needs to spend anything between Rs 15,000 and Rs 20,000 a month on his diet and practice. Right now, most wrestlers are finding it difficult to earn their daily bread and butter.

Traditional wrestling, which is played on red soil, attracts children from farming families of western Maharashtra, some of whom take up the sport as a career.

Before the pandemic hit in early 2020, Mauli and 150 athletes like him used to train every day from morning till late in the evening. They dreamt of making a name for themselves at the national and international levels. These days, however, there is an eerie silence at training centers across the region.

Some wrestlers have been practicing on their own, but the large number of training camps that used to operate in the region have disappeared. There are around sixty to seventy red soil grounds exclusively meant for wrestling in Sangli district alone, where no major event has been held for the past several months.

“The closure of wrestling grounds has caused immense stress to wrestlers. Their exercise and workout sessions have come to a standstill. Earlier, even in small villages more than a hundred children would turn up every year for training, but now there are none,” said Molly Jamade, the director and trainer of a wrestling competition in Kolhapur.

In the last year and a half, while incomes have gone down the cost of living has gone up. “Nothing is cheap. Grapplers need additional nutrition. While I don’t have to worry about milk since I have a buffalo at home, I cannot afford to buy other nutritious food products,” laments Bharat Patil, a wrestler from Shirod village. “I work in the fields of big landlords just to survive and get two square meals a day,” he adds.

Standing outside the wrestling arena, Mauli shares his pain as he recollects the days when he used to jostle with fellow wrestlers, swing heavy maces with hands, thrash and spar each other. Mauli says that in the last one year, fighters have become weak and even fallen sick due to lack of good food and regular training. “The most important thing for any wrestler is his physique, but without good diet and exercise for months, our bodies start breaking down,” he said.

Given the strenuous physical effort required, it is important for wrestlers to make a mark before they cross the age of thirty. Currently, many of them are sitting idle while some are even going through financial and social crises like never before. Their morale is down as they fail to show the same enthusiasm as before.

Wrestling, apart from being a popular sport, is also a source of livelihood for a large number of people here. Arun Bogarde, a grappler from Sangli and a leading contender for the ‘Maharashtra Kesari’ title this time, said that in a normal year, traditional wrestling has a turnover of Rs 150 million to Rs 200 million.

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In 2019 too wrestlers and organisers had to face a financial crisis due to the catastrophic floods in the Krishna and Varana rivers of Sangli district. The natural calamity brought wrestling activities to a standstill.

“Wrestling is popular mainly among children from poor families. Many of them have invested their lives in the sport and it will become exceedingly difficult for them if the competitions do not revive in the coming days,” says Appasaheb Kadam, also a former winner of the ‘Maharashtra Kesari’ title.

There are various economic calculations of both individual wrestlers and tournament organizers that drive the business of traditional wrestling in the Sangli-Kolhapur region. For example, wrestlers practice throughout the year, spending their own money, with the hope of winning a prestigious competition. Winning such titles helps them get new disciples and set up a good career as a reputed wrestling coach. Besides the winners, runner ups and defeated wrestlers too get some money, which they use to continue their practice.

The wrestling competitions held every year also generate enough money to set aside funds to organize the subsequent year’s events. The two-year break has depleted the ability of local organizers to resume the sport any time soon.

Mauli wants the Maharashtra government to provide financial help to wrestlers like him, as they prepare for the senior National Wrestling Championship, which will be held in November this year.

Says Mauli with a smile, “If I win, it will bring glory to all of Maharashtra!”

Shirish Khare has been associated with rural journalism for a long time and has been continuously reporting on the economic, social and health impacts of rural life during the COVID pandemic.

Courtesy: Covid Response Watch

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