This series of photographs are a part of a wider series that I have shot over a period of 4 years and which examine the various cultural arts of Maharashtra that are slowly dying.
The reason I chose this series to be considered for this years theme of the Focus Photography Festival, that is, Crossover, is because of the following lines from the description of the theme “The Road Not Taken” is the classical culture, identity, place, rootedness and belonging. And these choices create misunderstanding, tension and conflict, estrangement, isolation and alienation.”
“Kushti” (Mud Wrestling) as a sport is not new to the world. It has been widely covered by several eminent photojournalists. I wanted to shoot this sport in a more glamorised fashion than the documentary style aesthetic that I have seen so far. In a style akin to how, many of the more contemporary and popular sports such as cricket and tennis are treated in India.
The daily routine of the “Pahelwaans” (the sportsmen), who dedicate a large proportion of their lives to the sport is absolutely commendable. Rising at 3 am everyday to exercise, these Pahelwaans follow a strict daily routine involving prayers, workouts, regimented meals and an almost military level discipline of conducting themselves in life. From afar when you watch these sportsmen, the attributes of identity, place, rootedness and belonging become completely apparent. But at the same time, when one looks closely and relates it to the global influences that have occurred in India regarding sexuality, religion and technology, their life seems to be one of isolation and alienation.
Kushti is a very strong contact sport as is apparent from these images. My first reaction when I walked into the “akhada” (gym) and saw so many almost naked men was of a slight discomfort and unease. But they carried on with their affairs without being conscious of their attire. The routine of “maalish” (massaging your fellow Pahelwaan with oil) appeared very sexual to me at first sight. But the Pahelwaans were casual about it and went about rubbing each other’s bodies with oil without hesitancy. The sport itself involves grabbing the “kaccha” (piece of cloth wrapped around the groin) of your opponent and somehow putting him down on his back to the ground. The process of oiling and smearing yourself with the sand appears to be in order to reduce friction so that the opponent has a very difficult time grabbing you in order to put you down. As a result the kaccha is the only place where one can get hold of his opponent. Needless to say, during the fight there is a lot of contact between opponents which, given the prevalent outlook today in the Indian society, might just invoke a section 377 against them!
What impressed me the most was the fact that, despite being aware of all such misconceptions around sexuality and religion, these sportsmen (most with minimal education) hold on to their independent beliefs and revere the sport for virtuous values it imparts. Few sports in India can deliver such innately rooted values of self-discipline and humility. In rural towns and villages, parents continue to send their young wards to exercise with the Pahelwaans, with an expectation that these values will be carried forward. And the Pahelwaans selflessly do all that is expected of them – with pride and without charge.
I also completely agree with another statement from the description – “On one side is a road apparently broad, flat and straight, globalised and modernised while the other path is narrow and steeply sloped, whose hairpin turns disappear rapidly from view”
What I am unsure about, is whether, with the current notions around homosexuality in India, these so called globalised and modernised road is the one with the hairpin turns, while the steeply sloped road of our past was the desirous broader and straighter one.
Check out the complete series, here.