“And now, ladies and gentlemen, I would like to welcome Anup Wadekar and his troupe, who have come from India to showcase one of their oldest art forms. They call it…”

“Oh, here we go again…art? Seriously?”, I quickly closed the curtain of my greenroom from where Iwas peeking and turned towards Ajit and Vinod, “They did it again! I can’t believe it! I specifically told her to say the oldest sport, the traditional sport of India. Don’t say art.”Ajit and Vinod were warming up by stretching their muscles. They looked focused and determined.

Even as a kid wherever we used to perform, I would always glance from behind the curtain and if the curtain was not there, I would quietly stand at the corner of the stage, make sure I was hardly visible to the audience, and with folded arms I would imagine us performing. The audience cheering and applauding off their seats after we finished our performance. I would simulate such a scenario in my mind because it pumps me up and motivates me to give my best. And before I go on stage, I always pray to Lord Ganesha, the source of my inspiration, the divine power and the one who has given me everything. But, this time around I was a little worried and in doubt because of the jet lag and physical fatigue we went through because of our long travel.

Sixteen hours of train journey, that too during the night, from Mumbai to Delhi and then coming to New York on a fifteen-hour flight from IGIA (Indira Gandhi International Airport), New Delhi to JFK (John F. Kennedy International Airport), we had travelled by almost every mode of transportation invented by man. From such a tedious journey, one could imagine the stress and the fatigue in our body. On our way to New York, I was staring at the cloud cover in the stratosphere and hourly looking at Ajit and Vinod, who were enjoying amenities they were receiving on the flight. And seeing this, the cloud on the horizon for me was the lack of sleep they had before our performance.But, all my doubts were cleared once I saw Ajit and Vinod warming up.

Taiyar houn ja” (“Get ready” in Marathi), Vinod reminded me as I was not in our attire. He was a man of few words. I pulled out mylangot from my bag and wore it. It’s a single piece of cotton cloth we had to wear, the only thing which covered our body in our sport. I saw Vinod meditating. I thought he must be doing his visualization therapy.

Many years ago, Vinod told me how Wayne Rooney on the evening before a Premier League football match asked the club’s kit man, what colour shirts, shorts and socks the team would wear the next day. He did that because at night before sleeping it would help him to visualize himself scoring goals or doing well. He brought sports psychology in our team and this took our game to a different level. Ajit, who was applying oil to his thighs later joined him.

Ajit grew up in Nalasopara, a small town within the suburbs of Mumbai in the Palghar district of Maharashtra. His father was a constable and mother worked as a dishwasher in one of the reputed restaurants. He had two brothers and one sister, all younger than him. When he first came to our team, he was all over the place, his mind and hands were not coordinated. I told Vinod (the one who brought him) that he’s talented, but not ready.

“He’s not here because of his talent. He’s here because of his attitude. Let him fail today, to succeed tomorrow.”

Vinod was very different from others. While the rest of the world looked at successful sportsperson for inspiration, he would look for those successful sportspersons who had failed initially. While for the rest of the Indians who see failure as a punishable act, he had a different perception. In his words, failure is an opportunity. Failures are the stones on which an athlete should thrive and become a hero. And one such example was in front of us, Ajit. We huddled together, closed our eyes and took the blessings of our God and parents. Vinod and Ajit went to the other side of the stage.

I stayed at the opposite corner of the stage. Vinod took a deep breath. I looked at him and I felt it was just yesterday that we had started as kids, who formed human pyramids with our friends to break the high hanging pots during Janmashtami. It was from there that we chose different paths and left our Janmashtami troupe. We learnt about Uday Deshpande Sir and the rest is history. So, here we are at the United Nations to demonstrate our skills.

The music started, Ajit braced himself and clapped, upon which the powder scattered out of his hands. He proudly tapped his thighs and arms and ran towards the pole made up of teak wood, 2.6 meter in height with a circumference gradually tapering from 55 to 35 centimetres, if one goes from bottom to top. As he came close to that pole, he took a hop and flipped in front. At this point he had astonished the audience completely. However, the sudden gust of “ah!” came when, after doing a half-flip he caught the pole mid-air by his legs. His legs were wrapped around the pole, and then he slowly crawled over the top of the pole like a snake and sat over it. Vinod and I, standing at the corners of the stage, bustled onto the stage from the opposite ends and started mounting on a pole. We then performed handplanch– our body perpendicular to the axis of the pole and our torso facing the audience, a very difficult position to retain for a longer duration as it demands a lot of strength from the core. Ajit, who was sitting like Simba the lion king, spread his arms sideways and to follow his lead, Vinod and I extended our right and left leg respectively, so that Ajit could grab us by our ankles. This helped us to retain our handplanch for a couple of seconds more. This was done to aggregate a long round of applause from the audience. A psychological victory for every athlete at the beginning of performance. We did a backflip from the monkey position. We landed safely on the stage. Ajit then stood on the pole on his left leg and bent his body forward, with the right leg lifted back to help him balance. He extended his arms to join his palms and kept that pose for a few seconds. This pose is known as Virbhadra Asana (Warrior pose in English). His hands moved further down and touched the tip of the pole, and he lifted his left leg and did a handstand. The audience applauded whole heartedly. He did a free fall and that sacred the audience. I heard many ‘ooh-aahs’. It was Vinod’s turn to replace him on the pole. He climbed it using the monkey technique – interlocking his hands to get a firm grip. Once he reached near the tip of the pole, it was my turn to enter the arena again. I briskly climbed to the top of the pole and performed a handstand. Vinod swiftly drew his legs into the loop formed by his interlocked hands over pole – just like one draws a thread into the needle. He did it with such an ease that even my grandma would be proud after seeing it. He touched my shoulders with his feet and started lifting me. I quickly changed my grip into interlocking position so that I could transfer my weight onto him. To perform this asana, you need to trust your partner. After smoothly transferring me in the line of the axis of the pole, he unmounted himself; I rested myself on my belly and safely got down from the pole.

Eight feet above

It was like poetry in motion that day. Everything was just the way I visualized it. I could see in the eyes of the audience that they were seeing something different. They could not apprehend our moves and I could feel their inability to anticipate what was coming next from us. After our performance, the audience was on its feet and the auditorium echoed with the applause. Ajit had tears in his eyes and even we couldn’t control our emotions. Mallakhamb was now on everyone’s lips. The sport which was created in the 12th century, preferably for the wrestlers as a supportive exercise, took too long to earn its name. The Koreans and Japanese spread taekwondo and judo respectively and today both are Olympic sports. On the other hand, we are trying our best to lift Mallakhamb to great heights! I believe that in the coming years the world will see Mallakhamb in the Olympics.

The Seesham pole for us is what a blank canvas is to a painter. There are innumerable things an artist can paint on a canvas. And that’s the beauty of it, there are no limitations. Every individual can show his/her creativity. And during all the applause, I realized that Mallakhamb is more than just a sport, it’s an art and we are the artists.

Word meanings:

  • simulate: create a representation or model of something
  • another cloud on the horizon: a problem or difficulty that is likely to happen in the future
Eight feet above
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