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I Was The Only Woman In A 10,000-Strong Crowd, But Pehelwan Deepak Was The Real Outsider

I Was The Only Woman In A 10,000-Strong Crowd, But Pehelwan Deepak Was The Real Outsider

A village kushti tournament in Narayangaon was a ring of muscle and disappointment.

Boys and men of all ages were hurling each other into the mud as I sat with a camera cradled in my lap. I clicked furiously, dancing out of their reach, as four pairs of pehelwans wrestled together and the bouts ended in the blink of an eye.

Kushti is a popular sport in rural MaharashtraKushti is a popular sport in rural Maharashtra

I had jumped at the opportunity to watch a village kushti tournament in Narayangaon, 70 km from Pune in Maharashtra. The event was part of a local jatra (fair), that I had come to write about. The prize money went above Rs 1 lakh. The prospect of watching raw, live action could not be missed.

The Rules
Each time a match started, the wrestler looked into the opponent's eyes sizing up the competition. He clapped his biceps and thighs in a show of strength. They shook hands with a fistful of mud they were about to roll in, and the brawl began. Two men with percussion instruments circled the fighters, raising the tempo to a crescendo every time a pehelwan seemed close to scoring. To win, the pehelwan had to pin his opponent’s shoulder and hips simultaneously. Each pehelwan could contest only once. As I watched, I realised weight wasn’t the winning criteria; the little ones with quick feet upended their hefty partners easily.

The halgi (percussion instrument) player gives a lively background scoreThe halgi (percussion instrument) player gives a lively background score

The Pehelwan and I
I had never seen this sport live. The men with rippling muscles in bright red underwear held my attention before I turned my camera to two little girls wrestling for a mere 30 seconds before the ring was flooded with men again. Only men, in the audience too. The evening light was fading fast and the 100-foot circle had shrunk to 60 feet as eager spectators pushed from behind and plonked themselves in front of the seated ones.

”Here is Deepak Kumar! The international fighter all the way from Delhi for the big match of the night!”

My head snapped up at the announcement.

Delhi? Did I hear right? I am no Delhiite, but three years in even the most polluted city in India can make you long for the pace, the people and the gorgeous monuments. This was where I had earned my first salary, set up my first home and begun learning my trade as a journalist. Despite being `location independent’ as a travelling journalist, I immediately felt a strong kinship for this wrestler.

Now the mud and muscles mattered. Which red underwear was he?

It wouldn’t be a tournament without a kid’s roundIt wouldn’t be a tournament without a kid’s round

Deepak Kumar
I didn’t have to wait long. The compere quickly caught up with a young man jogging inside the crowded ring, grabbed his hand and paraded him around, repeating the prize money for Deepak Kumar’s fight: Rs 21,000.

I caught up with Deepak later and learnt that the solid Haryanvi is only 19 years old. After starting his training under the influence of friends in his hometown Rohtak at the age of 13, he now lived and trained in Delhi’s Chhatrasal Stadium. There he watches the likes of Sushil Kumar, Yogeshwar Dutt and Amit Kumar (bhaiyya, as he referred to them). Deepak knows that he wants to follow in their footsteps, and had already played his first national tournament in 2016.

Kushti lies at the “intersection of sports, politics, culture and economy in the rural regions of this State”. Possibly the world’s oldest sport, it is strongly influenced by the success or failure of agriculture. Big tournaments in western Maharashtra feature wrestlers from Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, and even some African nations. So Deepak Kumar’s presence here was not unusual.

Deepak Kumar waits for his turnDeepak Kumar waits for his turn

Before the Fight
By the time Deepak’s match was announced, the summer night had spread across the shrinking ring. The men were excited. Enough of these small fry already! The compere’s repeated announcements of the important tussles had brought everyone, and by default me, closer to the grapplers. The innumerable men pressing in from all sides had put me on alert. It is common to get groped in such crowded situations on the metro or the road in the city. But some mixed sentiments kept me safe and `untouched’ during my travels through rural India.

I suppose one explanation is that men don’t know what to make of a female journalist. I can read the confusion in their voice and eyes. The second explanation, which an activist friend offered when we were travelling through rural Rajasthan, is patriarchy. Women like us make men take on the role of a protector. But let’s not be cynical. The third simple explanation is that they are just letting another human get on with her work. #notallmen?

So I made myself as comfortable as I could on the dirt floor, but remained prepared to spring up and out of the way in case the grapplers tumbled into my lap or the spectators spilled over from behind. The ring was a mere ten feet, made more crowded by all the officials circling the contestants. The previous match, for Rs 11,000 had been sponsored by the police and gone through without a glitch. Some of the prize money was sponsored by wrestling enthusiasts, while the rest was sponsored by the organising temple trust.

And finally, it was Deepak’s turn. His opponent was from Bhosari, a suburb in Pune. Though Pune is my hometown, I was rooting for the north Indian. Because here, in the small town of rural Maharashtra, he was a challenge, an outsider. Just like me.

The audience closes inThe audience closes in

The match started with the accompanying rituals, but within a minute I sensed the disadvantage for Deepak. His every move was under intense scrutiny. There were men yelling at him from two feet away, contesting his actions. The two boys were stopped repeatedly. There were too many `officials’ circling them. Meanwhile, the percussionists were raising the tempo with a fast beat.

In another minute, Deepak and the Pune boy were flailing on the edges of what remained of the ring. Just as the referee shouted at them to pull the nail-biting kushti back into the centre, there was a cheer from the crowd nearest the two. Deepak jumped away triumphant.

But the officials were shaking their head, refusing to grant the victory!

Even as he protested, the two were pulled back into the centre and made to face off again. Deepak stood in protest, but the organisers forced him back into the fight.

Both the boys went at each other with renewed gusto. Sweat was making its way through the dust on their necks. As they gripped each other’s hands, I felt my frustration mount as Deepak struggled to pin the Pune boy again. But ultimately, the last two minutes came to naught. Neither was declared a winner, and the prize money vanished into thin air.

The ring dissolved into a mob and I squeezed my way out. I spotted Deepak, still panting and sweating profusely. His was bleeding above his right eye, but the disappointment on his face was much larger than the injury. I was disappointed myself.

“I had won, but they won’t accept it,” he said in a steady voice. Shaking his head, he walked away. I caught up with him again. “I have travelled to Himachal, UP, Ranchi, Nashik, and other places to play. I know that local fighters are taken care of, but fighters from outside are also looked after.” Fortunately, the organisers had given him Rs 5,000.

Deepak Kumar will move on to his next fight, to his next victory. He has at least 20 years in his career as a fighter. When I met him in Pune, he had just finished winning a match worth another Rs 5,000. 

Things we do to get the best photosThings we do to get the best photos

Good for him! But...what had I done? I hadn’t been able to take care of a fellow 'outsider' myself. As I watched a phone video of the fight, again and again, I asked myself about the role a journalist plays. I did not know much about wrestling, but should I have asked questions in his support?

These doubts have stayed with me. Should I exclusively observe and report? If not, at what point should I take action? Or should I seek contentment in having taken action by writing?

I have no answers. Only some more grey hair.




Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are independent views solely of the author(s) expressed in their private capacity and do not in any way represent or reflect the views of

By Shatakshi Gawade
Photographs by Shatakshi Gawade