Look closely. You might recognise the pehelwans you see in this picture shot at the Mahatma Phule Vyayam Mandir on NM Joshi Marg. You may have seen them hauling sacks at the vegetable market or guarding a housing society. These are some of the things wrestlers in Mumbai to do supplement their incomes.
“Most of the wrestlers here are from poor backgrounds,” said 29-year-old Ashok Patil, who stays with two dozen out-of-towners at the akhada, where for over 30 years his father, Vasantrao Patil has been coaching wrestlers in the traditional sport of kushti.
Migrants from towns and villages such as Satara, Sangli and Kolhapur form the bulk of the membership of the ten to 15 akhadas that survive in Lower Parel, Dadar and Currey Road. They come to Mumbai to train in the hope of eventually scoring jobs in the railways or the police force. However, most end up working as security guards, drivers or porters.
For many of them, the high point of the year comes in March and April, when they travel across the state to participate in tournaments held during village fairs. “You can earn anywhere from Rs 500 to Rs 50,000 at these village fairs,” said Ashok Patil. The village fairs are where the big money lies but Mumbai is the source of steady jobs for them. So becoming a wrestler in Mumbai also involves performing a balancing act.
Akhadas were an important part of the social fabric of middle class life until the early 1980s, but the decline of the textile mills in central Mumbai robbed the centres of their main clientele: mill workers, many of whom have moved out of the area, said GV Pargaonkar, the principal of the Bombay Physical Culture Association’s College of Physical Education in Wadala. Simultaneously, the popularity of Western-style gyms shot up.
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