Thursday, May 28, 2009

Sacred Soil

‘Sacred Soil’ as a project is a visual documentation of pehalwani, as ‘a way of life’, and a pehalwan’s life inside the akhara and outside it. A few hours that I spent at an akhara for the first time during an assignment completely changed my perception about pehalwans and drew me towards their rather esoteric way of life. Their lifestyle reflects their passion and the single-minded dedication to the discipline.

Background: Pehalwani can trace its history back to the 11th century and was influenced in a major way by the Persian form of wrestling that the Mughals introduced to India in the 16th century.

Pehalwani is practiced inside akharas, which are areas open to the sky with sunshine and fresh air, surrounded by thickly foliaged trees and with a source of fresh water. The ambience of an akhara is very invigorating, yet instills peace and tranquility. The soil of the akhara is considered sacred by the pehalwans, who anoint their heads and bodies with it. An akhara is usually managed and led by a guru, a senior pehalwan, under whom the wrestlers practice and train themselves, and who is a source of strength and wisdom to them. Members of an akhara who are disciples of the same guru are considered to be guru bhais, irrespective of their caste or creed. They lead a self-disciplined life, which is dictated by certain ethical and moral values and a strict exercise regimen and dietary prescriptions.

What draws people to pehalwani? I often found myself asking this question to the Pehalwans that I have been interacting with for the past ten months now. The answers that I got were varied, but their gist was-‘to discipline their lives’. Gajji Pahalwan, a bouncer with a popular chain of restaurants often works till very late at night, but I would invariably find him at the akhara much before the crack of dawn. Ajju, a 13 year old school going kid and a novice pehalwan gets up at 4 in the morning and is at the akhara by 5. His mornings at the akhara are spent doing a combination of exercises followed by school. School over, he gives time to his studies and is back at the akhara at 4 in the evening after which he helps his father sell vegetables till late at night. A very hectic schedule for a 13 year old but nothing ever deters him from being at the akhara at 5 in the morning everyday, neither the fatigue, nor the lack of sleep. Pehalwans defy all odds and continue to deftly strike a balance between their lives as a pehalwan and their personal and professional lives.