Vasantrao Shankar Patil mans one of the last thriving akhadas in the city. Rishi Majumder met the ustaad

Photographer: Rana Chakraborty

Patil's students at a training session

In a dark single tubelight lit hall off Curry Road, Kiran Patil and Santosh Gade grapple for a foothold. Santosh strains to get a hold of Kiran’s thigh and waist as the latter winds his arms around Santosh’s torso. “Back, throw!” screams Chatrapati Award winning kushti ustaad Vasantrao Shankar Patil. And Kiran turns over backwards, hauling Santosh upwards to let go. Santosh, a somersault later, crashes back first into a moist akhada mud.
Generations ago, wrestling was a sport for gods and kings: Krishna, Bheem, Zeus, Prometheus… even emperors of ancient Persia played the sport. “Today, of one thousand Mumbai akhadas that flourished 20 years ago, less than 10 remain,” rues ex-champion wrestler and secretary of Samarth Vyayam Mandir, Uday Deshpande. Yet, the 56-year-old Mahatma Phule Akhada thrives, with a record of three Chatrapati award holders, 15 national champions and a throng of regulars – between the age group of 12 to 35, all waiting to be crafted from mud to pe
halwaans, under the watchful eye of a large portrait of Lord Hanuman – predictably, the akhada’s only adornment.
“This used to be called Bina Pehalwaan Ka Akhada when I took over 30 years ago,” laughs Patil. So how did he build the enthusiasm? “Every boy in this akhada is from an extremely poor family,” he smiles tiredly. Meaning? “I had to network and repeatedly request police and security organisations to hire pehalwaans from the akhada.” Hence, for these boys with little scope for education, wrestling became the only shot at a career. That egged Patil on to put out a killing schedule that would beget his champions. This is the schedule: “Running and exercises with hundreds of push-ups in the morning for twoand-a-half hours. A warm-up in the afternoon, followed by the actual fighting. Then more dand baithaks and climbing the rope.”
Two teenagers break, mud covered, from their fight even as he speaks, and pelt out push-ups automatedly. Another is half way up the thick rope, each
climb “equal to a hundred push-ups”.
“Nikaal, patak,” screams Patil as one wrestler pulls the other towards him to twirl him mid-pull, landing his face on the ground. `Nikaal’ is not a cheer. It’s Patil’s favourite wrestling move. He adds: “There’s also Kala Jung. Both these are sure knock-outers.” There’s also Saltu, Dhobi, Bharandaj, Bangdi, Dhaal. But you’ll have to, in the ustad’s words, “get your hands dirty” to understand these terms.
“The government gives little grant to this sport. Schools are not too keen to make it a part of their syllabus,” Patil’s peeve, on why he can’t take the sport beyond, begins. “But worse, people don’t watch or practise it. There will never be a rich man’s son in the mud pit.”
So much for God’s sport. Did we mention that the Hanuman portrait looked faded?

Patil's students

Vasantrao Shankar Patil

This article originally appeared in Mumbai Mirror, Times Of India:


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