A little boy listens wide-eyed as his father tells him tales of grappling men, hearts thudding, bodies slick and sweaty, covered in kemmannu (red earth). The boy imagines that the very air must thunder during this battle for physical, mental and emotional supremacy. Surely, the imposing God watching the fierce proceedings is not mute spectator? Surely he is there, with them, in that divine space, that swirling mud?
Years later, I set off with my camera to recapture the stories I had heard as a child, to discover and decode the sacred and sustaining zen of wrestling, kusti, its practitioners, the pehalwan, and it’s traditional sporting spaces, the garadimane or akhada.
Crisscrossing Mysore, my home, I found garadis ravaged by time and dwindling patronage. With my lens I captured a few feisty survivors: Kullappa, the guru or Ustad of Mithaaigar garadimane (akhada) in Mandi Mohalla; his students, Santosh, Keshava, Athtar, Seshan and Saba: veteran pehalwan, Ahmed and Shivu, who memorably, introduced himself as “Nanna hesiru Shivu, Idly Shivu” (My name is Shivu, Idly Shivu). Life within the closed-community space of the garadi couldn’t be more different from the reality outside. Santosh has a mutton stall, Ahmed is a bone-setter, Athar drives a taxi, ‘Idly’ Shivu runs a coconut and plantain-leaf shop. Within the garadi, however, these men are no longer mere mortals.
Kusti is at one level about strength and stamina. As I watched in awe, the pehalwan train for hours, despite their daily toil in the ‘outside’ world.
For these fighters, the physical self is no less than a temple – so kusti is also about sustaining the sacred deep within. They shrug off their earthly selves, embrace the kemmannu and by some curious transformation, become embodiments of the divine.