Back When Wrestling Was Macho, This Delhi Akhada Began Training Women

Now 40% of the trainees at the Guru Premnath Akhada are women dreaming of making it to the Olympics, mostly from small-town India

In the winter of 2016, Shraddha Singh, 12, was watching Dangal, the Aamir Khan film chronicling the journey of the Phogat sisters, India’s first world-class female wrestlers. When it ended, her father asked her a question that went on to shape her future: “Do you want to become a wrestler too?” Without any hesitation, Singh said yes.

Singh’s father had not been convinced. After all, at the time the Phogat sisters were an anomaly in wrestling, a sport dominated by men. How would their community react? “People were known to say things like, ladke ko karao jo karana hain, ladki toh shaadi karke dusre ke ghar chali jayegi (girls get married and move away, why bother),” recalls Singh, who hails from Uttar Pradesh’s Gonda district, 190 km from Lucknow.

It took her two years to convince her father to take that leap of faith. In 2018, Singh enrolled in Gonda’s Nandini Nagar Mahavidyalaya, a school founded by the former wrestling federation chief and BJP MP Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh who was recently accused of sexual harassment by India’s premier women wrestlers.

Singh trained at the Gonda centre in competitive wrestling. Now 19, there is no question of turning back. “I have dreams of winning the Olympics,” she says. After four years of training she moved to Delhi. “Most girls were younger than me here and I needed to train with girls my own age,” she says.

Singh had heard of Vikram Kumar, a Delhi-based wrestling coach and that he was running a centre named Guru Premnath Akhada where girls were welcome too. It has trained international level-athletes like Divya Kakran and Shivani Pawar. “So I packed my bags and moved to Delhi — a decision that again meant convincing my parents,” she recalls.

Earlier this year, when India’s capital was rocked by the protests of women wrestlers over alleged sexual harassment charges against Brij Bhushan Singh, at least 30 women athletes left the Delhi akhada due to family pressure. In 2020, the centre had a total of 150 students, of which 80 were girls.

Despite the Phogat sisters’ achievements, women wrestlers routinely deal with gender bias and sexual harassment. In dangals, women continue to be routinely paid less than their male counterparts.

Despite all this, Shradhha Singh and others harbour Olympic dreams. They live far from their hometowns, homes and families, and many of them are school-going. This is their story.

‘The World Was Changing, We Had To’

Kumar’s akhada, the second such in Delhi, lies within the narrow bylanes of the city’s Gurmandi neighbourhood. It is easy to miss if you do not notice the big training ropes hanging from the ceiling that are used for strength training. The akhada, named after the late former Olympian and Arjuna awardee, Prem Nath, Kumar’s father, was started in 1976. The akhada did not always train girls. Women’s wrestling was not even part of the Olympic games then.

But things changed in the new millennium. In 2004, women’s wrestling was added to the Olympics at Athens. The same year, Kumar decided to include girls in his centre. “The world was changing and we needed to change with it too,” says Kumar.

In the early years few parents were willing to send their daughters here. “People would say, ‘Pehelwani toh Bajrangbali ka khel hain, ladkiyon ko kyun is akhade mein laana chahte ho (why send girls to a game whose presiding deity is Hanuman, a bachelor god)?’ Parents worried that the sport would damage their daughter’s looks, leaving them ineligible for matrimony,” remembers Kumar.

Vikram Kumar at his wrestling centre in Delhi’s Gurmandi neighbourhood where he coaches emerging wrestlers / Ankita Dhar Karmakar

Kumar took to going from door-to-door to mobilise young girls, and four girls joined that year. Today, the centre, which was adopted by the Sports Authority of India (SAI) in 2000 and then again in 2015, is free and 20 of its 40 (50%) wrestling students are girls.

Women’s entry into wrestling in India was first popularised by Master Chandgi Ram, a professional wrestler from Sisai, a small village in interior Haryana, who won the 1970 Asian Games heavyweight title and represented India in the Summer Olympics of 1972. His daughter Sonika Kaliraman is India’s first woman wrestler.

His life was documented in the book Enter The Dangal: Travels Through India’s Wrestling Landscape, by journalist Rudraneil Sengupta. It points out that the addition of women’s wrestling in the Olympics was an incentive to push his three daughters into the sport. But no dangals were open for women then, and it was with great difficulty that Ram’s quest to train his daughters as wrestlers took shape.

“One time in 2000, we had gone to a dangal in a village in Palwal. It was a clearing in the middle of a sugar cane farm. The moment Sonika and I got on to the pit, stones started flying at us, and people were shouting obscenities and surging towards the pit, some brandishing sticks”, recalls Deepika, Ram’s oldest daughter, in the book. Chandgi Ram’s vyayamshala (training centre) located in Delhi’s Civil Lines was also attacked in 2000 by its own coaches and students for admitting girls, Sengupta writes. But Ram’s daughters and one son all went to become professional wrestlers. Kaliraman has won 16 national titles in her career, but never qualified for the Olympics, says the book.

Mahavir Singh Phogat, who trained under Chandgi Ram when he was just 16, would drive his six daughters, two of them adopted, to become India’s premier international wrestlers. One of them, Geeta Phogat holds the distinction of being India’s first woman wrestler to qualify for the 2012 London Olympic Games. The first Indian woman wrestler to win at the Olympics however is Sakshi Mallik who clinched the bronze medal in the 2016 Rio Olympics.

Now in Indian cities, the number of private akhadas that train women have increased, but still remains few. These include wrestling coach Jabbar Singh Sone’s centre in Meerut; former Olympian Kripa Shankar Patel’s centre in Indore, the University of Rohtak that runs a popular training centre for women, and Prem Nath’s akhada in Delhi, writes Sengupta. Chandgi Ram’s eldest daughter’s Deepika’s training centre for both boys and girls is another in Delhi.

The four girls that joined Kumar’s centre in 2004, all went on to win Gold medals in Delhi’s inter-zonal wrestling competitions, part of Delhi’s State’s School Games. “This encouraged more parents to send their girls to the centre,” says Kumar. Divya Kakran, whose poster adorns the centre’s light blue walls, and who won the Bronze medal twice at the 2018 and 2022 Commonwealth Games, also trained under Kumar.

Athletes warming up before wrestling practices in Guru Premnath Akhada

“She came to the centre when she was only 8,” recalls Kumar. Madhya Pradesh’s Shivani Pawar is another prized athlete of Kumar’s centre who won Silver in the U-23 World Wrestling Championship in 2021, and recently won Gold at the 36th National Games.

In the early days, young girls, socialised in deeply patriarchal households felt under- confident around boys. The attitude of the boys did not help either. For Kumar, as a wrestling coach, this was an impediment, but one which he overcame quickly.

“Back then girls would come crying to me saying some boy said something to her. I would clap back to them, ‘Main tujhe pehelwani kis baat ki kara raha hoon? Maar jaake, baaki main dekhlunga. Pit ke heen toh aayoge isse zyada kya hoga?” shares Kumar. Soon the girls stopped feeling awkward about sharing close spaces with the boys. “Whenever we are on the mat, we feel that we are khiladis, not a boy or a girl,” says Singh.

Olympic Dreams

Saniya and Ishika*, aged 17 and 15, are best friends who come to train at the akhada six days a week. Both school goers from Delhi’s Khichripur and Anand Vihar respectively have a long metro-bus commute to reach Gurmandi. Their days begin at 4 am, when they workout and then leave for school by 6 am. By 4 pm, they are ready to train at the akhada where they spend 2.5 hours. They reach home by 7:30 pm after which they must do their homework, ensure that they have a protein-rich meal and turn in early. The days are hectic, but the girls say they love it.

Both Saniya and Ishika come from low-income families, as do most of the others in the akhada, says Kumar. The fact that the centre is free is a further encouragement.

While most girls enrolled here are residents of Delhi, several come from as far as Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. They are passionate about the sport but also keen to have a steady work life. “We also want to secure good government jobs with a stable salary,” says 23-year-old Chhaya, who lives in Delhi’s Ghanta Ghar, and has been wrestling since she was 12.

But family support is also contingent on the number of medals they win. “Medal nahi aayi toh mummy kehti hain pehelwani nahi karani aur, ghar mein baith jao,” adds Chhaya. She could not participate in last year’s senior national championships conducted by the WFI which was postponed due to the wrestlers’ protest. She is now preparing for the next championship. But with the recent suspension of the WFI for the second time, she does not know when that will be held. The WFI was suspended first in August last year by the United World Wrestling (UWW) body after it failed to conduct elections on time.

The WFI finally held elections in December 2023, with Sanjay Singh, a close aide of Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, elected as the president. This caused premier wrestlers Malik, Punia and Phogat to return their medals in protest. The sports ministry soon suspended the newly elected body for flouting due process.

‘I Haven’t Been Home In Months’

Singh, who rents a one room kitchen close to the akhada in Delhi, has not been able to visit her hometown in Uttar Pradesh, not even during festivals. “Accha nahi lagta aise jaane mein, sochte hain ki kamyab hojaye tabhi jaye (I think i will go home after I have proved myself),” says Singh. She adds, the pressure of practice also keeps her away from visiting. “We hardly miss a day of practice. It is only during our periods that we take a break”, adds Singh. Has she visited any monuments since moving to the capital? “Only India Gate, that too only once. Koi vishwas nahi karta Dilli mein rehti hoon aur ghoom nahi paati.”

In Sengupta’s Enter The Dangal, Kaliraman notes a similar loneliness. “We forgot everything but wrestling…I forgot my animals, my friends. There was time for nothing but wrestling. I forgot what Diwali meant. For the next ten years, there was not a single festival that we were home for.”

Sundays are rest days which the girls treat as sacred. “We just sleep the whole day on Sundays,” says Ishika. The girls have to maintain a strict diet, one which keeps them away from junk foods. “I love eating chowmein and gol-gappas. But I’m not allowed to. On Sundays though, I sometimes indulge,” says Singh.

It was not easy convincing her parents once again to do something out of the ordinary, notes Singh. “My father was afraid because of the reputation Delhi has, especially when it comes to women. There were lots of fights, and crying, and eventually he relented. This move was tough on me too. I had to leave my friends and family behind and move to a new city. I used to cry a lot. But it had to be done,” says Singh.

Singh’s mornings, similar to Saniya and Ishika, start at 4 am. After a 7 km run from Gurmandi to Bonta Park, she cooks her breakfast that consists of milk, daliya, dry fruits, 4 eggs and a protein shake. She goes back to bed by 10 am, and wakes up at 2:30 pm to eat her lunch. By 3:30, she is ready to go to akhada where she practises till 6:30. By 7, she is back at her rented flat, where she starts figuring out her dinner. Singh adds, some days she is so tired after practising that she doesn’t have the strength to cook. But at the centre, most of the girls are Singh’s friends. “I have found a community here though. We are all a group and just one call away from each other.”

Tussle With Femininity

At the wrestling centre, all the girls and women have short, closely cropped hair and wear T-shirts with shorts. Singh too, tall and confident, has short hair which she recently got cut. But she wishes she didn’t have to. “My hair was fairly short but I had to get a ‘boy cut’ because once during practice my hair accidentally opened up. Coach sir’s glare was enough to send me running to the nearest parlour,” says Singh.

Saniya says her short hair doesn’t bother her. Neither does she hear any comments at school for having unconventional hair. “In fact, our teachers really like the fact that we have such haircuts. It is a mark of our sport, and a matter of pride for us.”

But Singh struggles with it. She wishes she didn’t have to cut her hair short and could wear nail paint, mehendi, bindi and lipstick, like her sisters do. “If we do then, Sab bolte hain dekho shauk kar rahi hain, hogayi uski pehelwani. Pehle toh dekho kaise ladko ki tarah rehti hain, dheere dheere bahar rehke bigad gayi hain, iske shauk badh rahe.”

While Singh yearns to explore the ‘feminine’ aspects of her gender, she is also grateful that she has the freedom to wear T-shirts and shorts. “I can only imagine what will happen after I get married. I don’t think about it. But zindagi jhand hojayegi tab toh. Waha pe unke kehne pe chalo – zindagi aadhi toh ladkiyon ki aise heen kat jaati hain.”

But in the privacy of her one room flat in the company of her friends, she steals some moments of joy. “Nailpaint, bindi, lipstick chupke chupke room mein laga lete hain hum.”

Singh’s parents too were considering getting their daughter back. “But they didn’t. I told my parents that we don’t know whether these allegations are true or not. But hamare haath mein hain ki hum sahi hain ya galat,” adds Singh.

  • Ankita Dhar is a reporter with Behanbox. She is also a digital artist whose artwork has documented political prisoners in India.

Malini Nair (Editor)

Malini Nair is a consulting editor with Behanbox. She is a culture writer with a keen interest in gender.

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