It is 4.00 AM. The alarm rings, but Uday Deshpande is already up and about. Quickly getting ready, he then drives to Shivaji park from his Mahim house and walks into the Shree Samartha Vyayam Mandir which has been his second home for almost sixty years. Proceeding to his office he changes into his coaching attire; black tennis shorts and an orange and a blue shirt and walks out. His students greet him with a unique Namaste – their left hands folded near their chests and palms facing downwards. Uday smiles at them humbly, ushering them to begin practice. As students take to ropes and poles, he observes each one of them meticulously. As the person who took Mallakhamb to the world, he wants to prepare them to not just win tournaments but also become world class Mallakhamb practitioners.
We sit in his office as he takes me through his journey. With a desk full of files, papers and books on various sports, he pauses as and when students come in to greet him. The sky turns crimson outside, the commotion of students grows as they sweat it out on the ground, twist and tumble on parallel bars, ropes and poles with agility and balance themselves acutely. Looking outside, Mr Deshpande narrates, “During every vacation, I would imitate my grandfather as he practised yoga early in the morning. It was him who suggested that my parents take me to his close ally, the late PL Kale Guruji, the founder of Swayam Vyayam Mandir and my guru who taught me Mallakhamb. I started learning at the age of 3 and haven’t stopped since. Today I am 65-year old, or 65 years young; the chief coach here and the secretary of the Mallakhamb Federation Of India.”
Mallakhamb, an Indian martial art and performing art originated in Maharashtra centuries ago and was reportedly reinvented by Balambhatt Dada Deodhar, from the Peshwa clan who accepted a challenge to beat two Nizami wrestlers. Legend has it that Lord Hanuman taught him wrestling moves on a wooden pole in his dreams and that is how Mallakhamba was born. After his unparalleled victory, Mallakhamb made its way into the Akhadas. “The term literally means Malla (fighter) and Khamba (pole),” Mr Deshpande says talking about the origins of the sport.
However, it quite some time, and a whole lot of struggle to make Mallakhamb a competitive sport. “It was dismissed off as a form of exercise, but I tried really hard to get it recognized as a sport. From creating a rule book to the criteria of judgment and competition and standardizing all the regulations, it was finally recognized by the Indian Olympic Association in 1998. Thereafter Mallakhamb federations were formed in India and even USA and Germany wherein I have taken many camps and given demonstrations. In Maharashtra, every district has a centre. In India, the game has spread to all parts of the country, with Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh being on the forefront. We are now trying to encourage the sport in the North Eastern states as there is a lot of raw talent over there,” explains Mr Deshpande who is also responsible for Mallakhamb as a word finding a space in the Oxford dictionary. Talking about the judgment criteria, he tells me it is similar to that of gymnastics wherein participants are marked on various aspects. Moreover, he conducts these classes for free. “My guru charged only one rupee from me, why should I then charge these students anything at all?” he states humbly.
Since he started learning Mallakhamb as a child, Mr Deshpande’s daily routine has been pretty set – Shivaji Park at 4.30 AM for multiple batches of classes till 10.00 AM. Followed up by paperwork and meetings, he’s then back on the field in the evening for practice. He had started coaching when he was a teenager and continued doing so through his college days, graduation and finally, employment and retirement from the Customs and Central Excise department as the Deputy Commissioner in 2013. “But I am not retiring from Mallakhamb anytime soon,” he says smiling. For him, its been an undying passion. So much so that he came for the morning practice even on his wedding day.
“It is a cost-effective sport with multiple benefits. It does not have a lot of infrastructural costs, you require minimal clothing and it gives exercise to each and every part of the body and anyone of any age group, body shape and size can do it. I have had an 85-year-old do it, I have had visually impaired people do it. I have had women do it in sarees,” he says as he shows me images for each. “Even if you feel you are not fit and flexible enough, remember the rope is. It ties and adjusts itself around your body,” he adds simply.
It’s obviously easier said than done as I see a young boy swiftly climbing a pole and suspending himself upside-down with unbelievable grace as both his legs are clasped around the pole. I realise that it requires more mental strength than physical strength – a kind of fearlessness and belief in yourself that comes after years of hard work and practise. That is when I notice the girls all lined up to climb the ropes while the boys lined up to climb the poles. “Why the difference and separation?” I ask him.
“The poles have castor oil on it and pole Mallakhamb is better performed bare bodied. Initially, when girls started out, we had cane poles being imported from Singapore for them as they did not require the oil but soon the import laws changed and the canes here in India weren’t the best. We also had an accident wherein Neeta here fell down on her face,” he says, pointing to a short middle-aged woman sitting beside him managing some paperwork. “That is when we shifted to the ropes. However we have now begun training girls in pole Mallakhamb as well,” he adds. Mr Deshpande had a huge role to play when it came to opening up this sport to the girls. “The sport does not discriminate. We make sure that we provide equal opportunities to both girls and boys and now we have female students coming in more than ever. Neeta here was perhaps one of my first students,” he says looking at her.
Neeta smiles at me, looking up from the thick file her head is buried in. A psychology professor, she has been practising Mallakhamb since the age of 8 and did her PhD in the psychological benefits of Mallakhamb. At Shree Samartha Vyayam Mandir, she looks after the documentation work and helps Mr Deshpande coach whilst also keeping her own practice ongoing. “I would come here with my friends and see all these boys practising. I asked my friends, ‘you want to try it?’” she says. What started out as a trial has become a way of life for her now. “My parents were always supportive. Once I got married, my husband would be busy in the evenings at his corporate jobs, so I would come down to practice here. I didn’t really care about what the society had to say,” Neeta tells me coyly. Talking about the accident, Neeta narrates that she and the team were forming a pyramid around the pole and she was on the top. As soon as she completed the BajranPakad or a full back arch, the cane broke and she fell on her face and hurt her chin badly. However, that never deterred her spirit. They slowly shifted from canes to ropes and got the experience of both. “Through my own practice and research for my thesis, I have found how Mallakhamb lets you overcome your fears. You start by just climbing the pole which itself may seem challenging. As soon as you get comfortable you are asked to sit on the top of the pole and then asked to stand. There is a constant feeling of achievement with each step, accompanied by constant fear as well. Mallakhamb teaches you to continuously overcome your emotions and leaves you with a very positive feeling,” she explains.
I realise that her findings are quite true as soon as I step out to interact with the students. The sun has set, there is a nip in the air and everyone on the ground is vigorously involved in some sort of physical activity. It is here that I spot Aditi Karambelkar at the top of the rope with it tied around her toe, her body twisted around it. Within seconds she lifts herself up and changes her position with agility in the Eka Pada Sirasana, with one leg raised forward, while the other folded behind her head, back straight and palms clasped together in ‘Namaste’. Trickles of sweat showing on her radiant face in the white dim lights of the ground, she gracefully completes her demonstration and slides through the rope with ease. It is a treat to the eyes to watch her perform. “She has been our four-time national gold medalist,” Neeta says as I watch her approaching me. I am not the least bit surprised. Still a little worked up from the rope work, Aditi greets me smiling. Her 8-year-long practice is visible in her stature. Strong, slightly muscular arms, toned calf muscles and a pleasant yet an ambitious face. “This sport gives exercise to my entire body. It has made me bold and fearless and has also helped me channel my energy, and concentrate on my studies. I have also started doing pole Mallakhamb now. I wish this sport reaches the Olympics. I would love to represent my country,” she states. Standing beside her, is the 9-year-old Grishma Desai, state level player learning Mallakhamb for the last three years. “Aditi didi is my idol,” she says. “I want to be like her someday.”
I then trod towards the pole Mallakhamb where I see a young man dressed in trunks climbing the almost 8-foot-tall pole whereas other boys watch him in awe. As he reaches to a little below the top, he winds one foot around the pole and keeps the other on it while slowly stretching his body horizontally, parallel to the ground. My mouth drops as I see him defy the rules of gravity with a smile on his face. 16-year-old Sagar Swapnil Rane skids down the pole smoothly. With sharp biceps and four-pack abs, he too has been practising the sport for the last ten years. “I have already started coaching students here. I would like to play this sport professionally,” he says rushing back off to practice.
As everyone is busy at practice, I see Mr Deshpande at a distance, busy observing the demonstrations of each student, making notes on a piece of paper. I am overwhelmed by his dedication and sincerity. Having played and performed in over a 30 countries, coached almost 250 foreigners, more than a thousand Indians, having formalized Mallakhamb, given Ted Talks and having won more than 40 awards (including the prestigious Dadoji Kondadev Puraskar) Mr Deshpande is no ordinary man. When asked what it is that keeps him going even at this age, he only smiles humbly. “Mallakhamb has been a way of life for me. How can I ever let it go?” he muses.
Standing there, watching him give feedback to a student I have quite a poignant realisation – here is a man that learned to tie himself in knots at the tender age of three, only to go on to untie those that posed as hurdles to take Mallakhamb out from a park in Mumbai to the masses, and then, the world.
All photographs have been taken by Rashi Arora for Homegrown.
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