INDIAN NATIONALISM AND THE WORLD WRESTLING CHAMPIONSHIPS OF 1910 AND 1928 by Joseph Alter
The purpose of this article is to understand the relationship between Indian wrestling and Indian nationalism during the first quarter of the 20 century. The world wrestling championships of 1910 and 1928 are interpreted within the context of growing nationalist sentiments in North India during this era. Information collected on modern Indian wrestling during a year of field research in Banaras is used to shed light on the relationship between nationalism and the body politics of wrestling. I will argue that wrestling tournaments were a form of dramatic protest against imperial power and colonial authority
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Since American and European wrestling is regarded by most people as a rudimentary form of sport which enjoys limited popularity, it is necessary to begin by dispelling any such preconceptions with regard to Indian wrestling. Indian wrestling, known variably as kushti, pehlwani, or mallayudha, is very much like olympic free-style wrestling. The techniques and rules are virtually the same. Although wrestling in India may be called a profession, it is not a professional sport. Moreover, it is very different from the popularized burlesque performance known as American professional "rasslin" which appears on syndicated television. While Indian wrestling is a sport which attracts large crowds, it is, more significantly, a moral, ethical and physical way of life which defines unique parameters for self-definition in Indian society. The moral and ethical features of wrestling implicate it in the ideology of nationalism.
In order to illustrate the relationship between wrestling and nationalism it is best to consider the present situation and then reflect back on the political environment of the early part of the century.
Nationalism and the Body of the Wrestler
Wrestling is organized around the institutional structure of an akharda or gymnasium. Each akharda has between 40 and 60 members ranging in age from 15 to 60 with most being about 20 years old. Each akharda is run by a guru who disciplines his wards and instructs them in the fine art of wrestling. He also teaches them the moral and ethical philosophy which underlies the physical training and exercise regimens which structure the wrestlers every day life.
A wrestler's life is strictly regimented. At 3 am he wakes, performs his ablutions and goes to the akharda. At the akharda he wrestles and exercises until about 8 am. After practice he relaxes and bathes. Once his body has cooled down he drinks a mixture of milk, ghee and almonds. Later he eats a regular meal and if his regimen is strict he will spend the better part of the day resting. In the evening he will bathe again and return to the akharda at which time he will perform various exercises to strengthen his shoulders, thighs, lower back and neck. By 8 or 9 pm he is in bed.
Time does not permit me to describe every aspect of the wrestler's daily regimen. Suffice to say that each detail - from how, where and in what position to sleep, when to defecate, what to eat, what to wear and how and with what to brush ones teeth - is all carefully spelled out and explained in terms of its particular value in the overall scheme of health and fitness.
In addition to the disciplinary regimen of exercise, a wrestler's life is defined by strict moral rules. Paramount is the injunction of self-control and anti-sensuality. A wrestler must be a celibate bhramacharya because semen is regarded as the primary source of strength.
The concept of bhramacharya goes far beyond the basic control of ones sexuality. It structures one's attitude towards the sensory world of material objects. Thus, while it is crucial that a wrestler not engage in sexual intercourse, it is equally important that he not be concerned with material gain. Moreover, a wrestler must avoid such things as tobacco, alcohol, tea and coffee, sour and spicy foods as well as meat. All of these things are thought to enrage a person's passion and thus make the practice of bhramacharya impossible. Similarly a wrestler must turn his back on such modern evils as cinema and film. From the perspective of the wrestler, the modern Hindi film has come to represent all that is wrong with modern society: greed, fantasy, lust, disparities in wealth, loose morals, escapism and misdirected goals. Cinema halls are the target of a modern nationalistic rhetoric which emerges from the akharda. But film is but one manifestation of what wrestlers see as a much larger ethical problem. Calendar art, modern magazines, so-called chap pornographic literature and a host of other morally suspect materials - including television - are targeted for their corrupting influence. All of these things combined have conspired to erode the moral fiber of the nation.
The wrestler's view of modern India is very critical since his point of reference is the epic heroism of Ram Chander, Hanuman, Krishna, Arjun and Bhim. In this light the moral fiber of the modern world is weak indeed and heroism is virtually nonexistent. Traditional and modern institutions alike are regarded with cynicism. Out of this cynicism, however, emerges a utopian vision of national reform based on principles of ethical and physical reconstitution. In an article from the popular journal Bhartiya Kushti entitled "The True Wrestler is God" (1972-73) Dr. Shanti Prakash Atreya, one time U.P. champion writes:
These days the strength of society - not only in the
villages but everywhere - is being spent on intoxicants of
all kinds. Our energy should be spent building strength
and wisdom. In this way we can prevent the wastage of
our national wealth….
It is my prayer that the people of India send their
children to the akhardas. Send your children to learn the
knowledge of wrestling… It is essential to turn your
children into wrestlers. Only with your effort can the
condition of the nation improve. The true wrestler is god
The appeal of national reform based on moral and physical reconstitution is visionary and therefore emotionally charged. In a poem on the subject Ramchandar Kesriya appeals to wrestlers - the diamonds of the red earth - to become moral reformers.
Virtuous, we will teach the world true duty.
As the diamonds of the red earth,
We will build the nations pride.
As the burning lamps of energy we will teach peace.
Tearing asunder the veil of darkness,
We will call forth a new day of brightness.
Weakness will be removed from the face of the earth.
Strength and Manhood will be fostered.
The shadow of fraud, conceit and deceit will be removed.
As the diamonds of the red earth,
We will make the nation proud.
In the vision of utopian reform the burden of responsibility is placed squarely on the individual's shoulder. Although the target of reform is corrupt society and eroded social institutions, the agent of reform is the individual who must take responsibility for his own actions. Thus personal virtues such as self-discipline, exercise, devotion, respect and world-renunciation are lauded as the primary building blocks - the new corner stones - of a nation being built from the rubble of moral demise. As. K. P. Singh writes:
Practice self-denial. Go to the villages. Be an ascetic for
your work. Spread the work and do it with missionary
zeal. If a wrestler only gives a fraction of himself and
goes to the villages, thousands of young people will
crowd around him and dig and akharda. The roots will
then run deep and it will not take long to build up a
tower [of moral and physical strength] (1972: 47).
The wrestling ideology emerges, if not directly, at least indirectly in response to the changes brought about by rapid and dramatic westernization. As such, the utopian vision of national reform is a counter critique designed to advocate an alternative framework form modern India. A realization of this utopia is, of course, not eminent. Wrestling is very popular but it does not have a wide appeal. Nevertheless, the wrestling ideology emerges as a coherent if largely muted voice.
What is significant about the wrestling ideology is that its history may be traced back to the late 19th and early 20th century. This was a period of strong if disparate nationalistic sentiments, and a time when imperial influence was being questioned and challenged on numerous fronts.
Early 20th Century Nationalism and Physical Culture
The latter half of the 19th century saw the rapid growth and extensive penetration of colonial institutions into the structure of Indian society. In Bengal particularly, but also in other urbanizing centers, the Hindu elite were taking advantage of educational opportunities and finding employment in the administrative and legal branches of the government. For various reasons, which John Rosselli (1980) had discussed in some detail, the Bengali Hindu elite were stereotyped as effeminate, weak-need and generally lacking in masculine virtues. All Bengalis, irrespective of whether or not they affected the character of a low ranking clerical worker, were thought of as "soft-bodied little people" and "lilliputian in size and weak in constitution" and "physically about the weakest people in India" (1980: 122-123). Although this stereotype was ascribed to the Bengali by Englishmen, over time it became a pejorative self-image. Such eminent Bengalis as Vivekananda, Bankim Chandra Chaterjee and Rabindranath Tagore came to regard the Bengali physical constitution as in need of serious overhaul.
In 1866 Rajnarayan Basu drafted a prospectus for a Nationality Promotion Society. One of the primary tasks of this society was to promote "national physical exercises" and to revive the akharda as an institution to develop fitness and character. A year later the Tagore family started a Hindu Mela which sponsored, among other things, wrestling tournaments and demonstrations of physical prowess. In 1876 Bipan Chandra Pal founded a secret society to promote physical strength and disciplined self-control (ibid: 127). During the 1860s and 70s there seems to have been a fairly widespread resurgence of interest in akharda culture and physical fitness generally and wrestling specifically. During the 1890s and particularly in the first decade of the 20th century, physical culture came to be associated with active protest against imperial authority. Swadeshi activism in Bengal was in part inspired by a resurgent interest in physical and moral strength. In the late 1920s and the early 1930s this resurgence took more concrete form. Physical culture clubs were established and members subscribed to strict rules of self-discipline (ibid: 131). While these clubs seem to have served as training centers for the terrorist activities, I do not think that terrorism became the primary motive for gymnasium membership. The discipline and physical training provided by the clubs was, in and of itself, a radical form of self-redefinition within the larger cultural environment of imperialism. While some gymnasiums may have subscribed to terrorism as a form of protest against formal injustices, the ideology of physical culture was, in fact, more a movement of ethical reform than of active agitation.
Although the association between physical education and national identity may have been strongest in Bengal, there is evidence that akharda culture - as an ideology of physical and moral fitness - gained popularity throughout India after the turn of the century.
In the Kohlapur, Sangli and Poone districts of Mahaharshtra, where wrestling is still very popular today, Lokmanya Tilak called on young Maratha men to follow in the footsteps of Shivaji and develop interest in akharda culture and the art of wrestling. In a speech he called on students and youth to be "devoted to strength and celibacy." (Patodi 1973: 62). Madan Mohan Malaviya, who was largely responsible for establishing Banaras Hindu University was a great supporter of wrestling as a means to health. He argued that along with schools, every village should have an akharda and that physical training was an essential part of basic education (Patodi 1972: 13).
In the 1920s a number of Indian educators became concerned that young men in India were being taught European gymnastics and such western sports as football, hockey and cricket to the exclusion of Indian sports and exercise. In response to this, gymnasia were established in Baroda, Ujjain, Amrothi, Banaras and Madras to train instructors in Indian style physical education. The idea was that trained instructors would then introduce Indian athletics and sports such as wrestling into school curriculums. Kashi Vyayamshala in Banaras is still active and although it suffers from an endemic lack of government support those who are in charge continue to speak in terms of a burgeoning ideology of national health.
While many leaders of the freedom movement advocated wrestling as a means to national health, and a few such as Malaviy and Tilak exercised at akhardas, it was the Indian prices who were most successful in championing the cause of wrestling. The Maharaja of Indor, The Gaikward of Baroda, Shahu Tripathi of Kohlapur and the rulers of Allwar, Datiya, Darbhanga, and Patiala all sponsored numerous wrestlers and often took part in wrestling practice themselves. As Patodi writes:
The kings and prince of India did not sponsor wrestling
simply because it was entertaining. They sponsored this
art because it underscored their power and also because
it fostered a sense of unity (Patodi 1972: 12).
The Raja of Aundh, Bhawanrao Pantpratinidhi, clearly supported traditional Indian physical culture as a means toward national strength and unity. He particularly advocated the practice of Suryanamaskar which is part of the more general wrestling regimen of many akhardas. In the forward to D. C. Mazumdar's Encyclopedia of Indian Physical Culture he writes:
If our boys and girls, mean and women will regularly
practice Suryanamaskars … there will shortly be
produces a type of humanity that shall excel in body,
mind, and soul more than any that the earth has yet
brought forth… (Mazumdar 1950: unpaged front matter).
By no ones account was the early part of this century a golden age of wrestling revival. Nevertheless, many of the older wrestlers recall this period as a time when wrestling was a matter of national pride. To a large extent the nationalistic sentiments which are expressed to day harken back to this period as a time of moral and physical restitution.
The turn of the century saw the raise of Swadeshi sentiments among many of the Indian elite. A major feature of the Swadeshi movement was a renewed pride in "things Indian" - home spun Khadi cloth in particular. On the level of ideological sentiment, and to a lesser but more complicated extent on the level of political action, Swandeshi represented a spirit of reappropriation. It was, in many ways, an appeal to all Indians to take pride in the fruits of their own labor. On a political and ideological level Swandeshi was in direct confrontation with both the administration and economy of Imperial rule. Advocacy for homespun khadi cloth was a clear statement of economic and ideological insurgency. If khadi was a symbolic reappropriation of cloth made by Indians for Indians, wrestling may be seen as the symbolic reappropriation of the body in a similar light. The performance of uniquely Indian forms of exercise and the celebration of strength built on national moral virtues was a symbolic rejection of physical and cultural subordination.
It is in this context of political insurgency and against the backdrop of a pervasive though muted advocacy for wrestling as a nationalist ideology that we may now turn to a consideration of Gama's epic wrestling bouts in England and India.
Gama in England and India
There is no figure who epitomizes the ethical, moral and physical ideal of wrestling more than Gama, a relatively low-class rural-born Muslim who became the court wrestler of the Maharaja of Patiala. Virtually every popular article on Indian wrestling pays verbal homage to Gama. He is often called - in an odd twist of religious identity - the "Krishna of the Kaliyug," and his strength was said to be simply incomparable. In another instance he is described as an incarnation of Bhim, the epic padava hero of the Mahabharata. At the age of twelve he impressed the Raja of Datiya by doing more bethaks (deep knee bends) than any other wrestler in the king's employ.
As a young wrestler Gama distinguished himself by winning numerous contests and by sticking arduously to his regimen of diet, exercise and practice. According to one writer (Atreya 1984) Gama was the perfect embodiment of wrestling virtues. He was devoted to god, perfectly self-controlled, humble yet self-confident and committed to physical fitness as a way of life.
In 1910 the John Bull Society of London organized a world wrestling championship bout to which wrestlers the world over were invited. A Bengali millionaire, Sharatkumar Mitra, sponsored Gama and three other wrestlers who went to London by way of Italy and Paris. Gama and the others were not the first wrestlers to fight in international contests. Gulam, a famous wrestler of the late 19th century as well as many others had been to Burma, Japan and Paris to compete in various tournaments. What is significant, however, is that Gama was going to fight with British champions in London, the very bastion of Imperial power.
Upon arriving in London, however, Gama and the others were disappointed for Gama, only 5 feet 6 inches tall and weighing a scant 14 stone was regarded as too small and unknown to take on the world class athletes who had assembled. Undaunted, Gama signed up with a local theater at a salary of £25 per week, and put out a general challenge saying that he would give £5 to any wrestler who could throw him down in under 5 minutes.
On the first day of the challenge only 3 wrestlers came forward and they were all easily beaten. On the second day Gama succeeded in defeating 10 British wrestlers one after the other in a matter of a few minutes. On the basis of this success Gama's sponsors were able to arrange a bout with Stanley Zbyszko, the world champion Polish wrestler.
On September 12, 1910 Gama and Zbyszko met at Sheperds Bush Stadium. Although Zbyszko weighed 55 pounds more than Gama the Times gives the following descriptions of the bout.
Zbyszko, though in perfect health and the model of
herculean strength, pursued a policy of passive resistance
from first to last … [F]or nearly three hours he spread
himself face down on the mat, evading his busy
antagonist… [and] when in danger of being pulled over
and pinned out, crawling laboriously to the edge of the
mat. Thrice he got up and made a futile attack - when
the Indan's vast superiority in open play was at once
apparent - and he was only to glad to resume his prone
position (Illustrated Weekly of India, February 7, 1960).
On account of the lateness of the hour, the bout was postponed until the following day. However, Zbyszko did not show up and so the world championship belt was awarded to Gama.
As one can well imagine, the Indian press was quick to report on Gama's success. Tilak's Marathi newspaper the Kesari had created a fervent patriotic spirit in many parts of western India and Gama's heroics fed directly into a mood of growing national pride. Other patriotic newspapers in the Punjab, United Provinces and Bengal were quick to pick up on such quotes from the Times as "Gama rode gaily on Zbyszko's back and slapped him contemptuously…" In a word, Gama's triumph was India's triumph.
It is significant, however, that Gama's win did not represent a simple sporting triumph over the English. One must remember that Gama was the embodiment of wrestling as a moral, spiritual, and physical way of life. His success was, therefore, indicative of far more than mere skill and brute force. Gama proved that strength itself did not have to be construed in English terms. Although relatively small in stature Gama had a kind of energy and stamina which emerged, in equal parts, from his absolute moral self-control, his diet, and his strict regimen of uniquely Indian Exercises. The Times of Aug 9th picked up on this point, albeit somewhat obliquely, by contrasting Gama's "fluid physique" with that of the American wrestler Roller's pugilistic might. The contest, it was reported, would determine the relative merits of the "oriental physique" vs the occidental strong man.
Gama returned to India as a national hero. He was recruited by the Maharaja of Patiala as the courts preeminent wrestler. Gama fought numerous bouts in India, one of the most spectacular being in Allahabad against Rahim Sultaniaa. In 1922 when the Prince of Wales visited India he honored Gama by giving him a 30 seer silver mace. One observer wrote "seeing Gama with this mace it would appear that the epic hero Bhim had been reincarnated" (Patodi 1984: 34).
In 1928 the Maharaja of Patiala organized an industrial and agricultural trade fair which, according to the Lahore Tribune of January 29th, was "designed to break down the barriers between the backwaters of Indian village life and the main currents of our existence in the state" (1928: 4). On exhibit were various indigenous products such as hookha bowls, shawls, rope, cotton cloth, silk, carpets and numerous other things unique to the Punjab. There were, apparently, also examples of improved agricultural methods developed by the Patiala state. The exhibition was clearly a demonstration of Indian technological prowess.
On the occasion of this trade fair, to which many royal persons and foreign dignitaries were invited, the Maharaja arranged a spectacular rematch between Gama and Zbyszko. A stadium to accommodate 40, 000 spectators was built and equipped with huge spotlights in case, as had happened 18 years previously, the bout was to go on into the night. The newspapers advertised the bout well in advance and Zbyszko's journey to India was charted in the columns of the Lahore Tribune and other papers.
On January 28 the bout was scheduled to start at 4:00 pm and it is reported that people had traveled from many parts of the country to witness the fight. Among the notables were the Nawab of Bhopal, the Maharana of Dholpur, the Majaraja of Kapurthalai, Sir Leslie Scott, Sir Harcourt Butler and numerous others.
Zbyszko was late arriving and the contest did not get underway until 4:15. The bout had hardly started when Gama grabbed the 300 pound Zbyszko by one foot and kicking out his other leg sent him crashing to the ground in 42 seconds. As one observer noted: "The stadium erupted in one voice cheering 'India has won! India has won!'" The Maharaja came down and embraced Gama and gave him the pearl necklace he was wearing. A parade was organized and Gama rode on the Maharaja's prize elephant. He was awarded a silver mace, and annual stipend of 6000 Rs and a village.
As in 1910, the newspapers were quick to report on Gama's smashing success. The defeated Zbyszko was quotes as saying "Gama, you are truly a tiger!"
While Gama was clearly the most well known wrestler of this period, the extent and nature of his fame makes sense only in the larger context of the political environment of the time. In the mid 1920s the Hindu Mahasabha sponsored wrestling tournaments as part of its appeal for Hindu revival. There are also indications that in Kohlapur and Sangli as well as in Bengal wrestling was being used as a medium through which patriotism was being expressed in local regional terms.
Gandhi's philosophy was also becoming firmly entrenched during the late 1920s. While the Simon Commission of late 1927 brought a strong reaction from nationalist leaders such as Lala Lajpat Rai, Gandhi's appeal was for civil disobedience without violence. With growing Hindu-Muslim tension, increased police violence, and terrorist activities in both Bengal and the Punjab, wrestling came to represent if not the eminent climax and resolution of tension, at least the nature of the bitter struggle. Even for Gandhi who advocated passive resistance, the metaphors for political action were strength and courage. In a letter to the Lahore Tribune Nehru criticized those who referred to Gandhi as "effate and fossilized". "He is," Nehru wrote, "the supreme example of latter day India, of all that is good in youth - action and energy, courage and daring, perseverance and resolution" (1928: 9).
In spite of the fact that wrestling exemplifies martial combat and aggressive physical confrontation, violence is not its primary ideological referent. During the first quarter of this century wrestling was seen as a form of moral and ethical resistance cast in graphically physical terms. In the context of growing nationalistic sentiments, Gama's dramatic victories clearly exemplified the moral and physical primacy of wrestling as a way of life and as a form of protest.
Emerging form the era of the nationalist struggle, wrestling as a way of life has become codified as an ideology of ethical reform. Although imperialism is no longer perceived as a political threat, and freedom has long since been achieved, the wrestling ideology continues to be structured in opposition to the perceived threat of western values. In the rhetoric of a modern wrestling advocate one can hear the general nationalistic appeal which was embodied by Gama and other early 20th century wrestlers:
Now is the time, the demand of the hour, the appeal of history and the nations
urgent call: go to the akhardas! We must denounce the path of delusion and
insincerity and turn instead along the path of health and strength. There we will find
shakti and our competence will grow. There we will realize our full potential
(Akhardon ki Aur ND: 4-5).
About the author:
Joseph Alter teaches Anthropology at UC Berkeley.
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1972-73 "Saccha Pehlwan Devta Hoti Hai." Bhartiya Kushti 10, no. 7, 8, 9: 21-24
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Kherdawda, Ramchandra Kesriya
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Lahore Tribune, January 29th 1928
Mazumdar, D. C.
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Rajput, A. B.
1960 "Gama in Retirement." Illustrated Weekly of India, Feb. 7: 8-10
1980 "The Self-Image of Effeteness: Physical Education and Nationalism in Nineteenth-Century Bengal." Past and Present 86: 121-148
Singh, Himath Bahadur
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Singh, Kamala Prasad
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The Times. August 9, 1910.