As Alfie Meeson and Vikram Nadkarni stand at Shivaji Park under the pleasant wintry Mumbai sun wearing little but swimming trunks, it is hard not to mistake them for Olympic divers who have probably lost their way by a country mile.
The two Brits, though, know exactly where and why they are there. They say they are competing for England at the first Mallakhamb World Championships at Shivaji Park’s Shree Samartha Vyayam Mandir.
Competing is probably a bit of a stretch, considering Meeson and Nadkarni were introduced to the sport eight days prior to the start of the World Championships.
Image courtesy: Associated Press
“We’re actually students,” says Meeson. “But we have taken a gap year (a sabbatical year taken between high school and college). I want to learn medicine while Vikram will take up chemistry in Norwich. We’re going to travel the world, and our first stop was Mumbai.
“We were staying with Vikram’s grandparents. His grandfather comes to Shivaji Park regularly to do yoga. One day we tagged along to do yoga when one of the coaches from Shree Samartha Vyayam Mandir asked us whether we wanted to do mallakhamb. This was eight days ago! And here we are,” he says.
“We thought we would be quite good at it. We’ve done swimming and some gymnastics. And we’ve dabbled in a bit of ballet as well. So we thought, ‘how hard can it be?’” says Nadkarni.
They found out soon enough. They giggle as they talk about the rope burns on their thighs and blunt blows to body parts hidden from public view which can occur when a novice tries acrobatics perched atop wooden poles and suspended ropes.
“But this padded langot helps,” says Meeson as he pulls down his swimming trunks a crack to reveal the white loincloth he’s wearing underneath.
“We initially thought we would just be climbing the pole. But every day the coaches here were asking us to do new things. I am the tallest of all the people here at six feet, while Vikram’s the heaviest at 88 kgs. That’s a problem, right? But nothing is a problem for the coaches who think we can do anything. They have no problem telling us to do a handstand at the top of the pole. Although, I have to admit every day we seem to get a little bit better. And when we performed a while back, that room went crazy!” says Meeson.
There are competitors from 15 countries participating at the first Mallakhamb World Championships, each with a story more improbable than the other. Gaille Tusseire and her two school-going daughters, Alix and Capucine, are representing France. The kids were first introduced to the sport as an extra-curricular activity in school. Their coach at the school is also here as the sole flagbearer of Spain.
Members of the Vietnamese contingent are all part of the Vietnam Yoga Academy from Hanoi. Pavel Kalina is a diplomat who learnt the sport when posted in Mumbai many years ago. One of the two participants from Germany, Mayur Dalal, is an Indian who was allowed to participate under the German flag because he has been living in the European country for over five years.
But amidst all this, Meeson and Nadkarni stand out. If not for the teddy bear bandanas they are sporting, then the drawings they’ve pencilled on each other’s chests with mehendi which resemble crude cave paintings. They're also making a political stand with the tiny 'No Brexit' they've scribbled with pens on their arms as an afterthought just that morning.
"We wanted to represent the UK. Our mallakhamb skills aren’t going to make us stand out. So we tried to stand out in other ways,” Alfie Meeson
Image courtesy of the author
“We wanted to represent the UK. Our mallakhamb skills aren’t going to make us stand out. So we tried to stand out in other ways,” grins Meeson, as he revels in the attention he gets in the makeshift, air-conditioned auditorium at Shivaji Park which is packed with just over 100 people on Saturday.
The largely Maharashtrian audience — used to seeing Indians deftly defying gravity by contorting their bodies into yogic postures atop an eight-and-a-half-foot pole or wriggling on a rope suspended from 15 feet — has never quite seen anything like this.
There is an Iranian with a headscarf conquering the rope. A ponytailed German man with two studs on each ear lies perfectly flat atop a pole with just a 14-inch circumference. A French schoolgirl climbs atop the pole and dabs like Paul Pogba as two of her compatriots wave the French Tricolore in the stands. An Italian with a crescent bindi on her forehead competes along with Brits with their chests covered with mehendi designs. All this in an ancient Indian discipline that is still as conventional as it is orthodox.
But even more astonishing is the sight of foreigners winning!
Japan’s Keiko Takemoto and Italy’s Delia Ceruti become instant celebrities on Sunday — the concluding day of the World Championships — after finishing first and second respectively ahead of Indian competitors in both, the short set-pole mallakhamb and long set-pole mallakhamb categories. Those with knowledge of the discipline point out that Indian women had never before competed in pole categories.
Above: Japan’s Keiko Takemoto (Image courtesy of the author)
“Conventionally in India, men have been doing pole mallakhamb, while women do the rope variation. Even at our national championships, we have three variations for men — rope, pole and hanging mallakhamb — while women have just rope events. Women do not do pole events as commonly as rope events,” admits Uday Deshpande, the Director and Secretary General of the Vishwa Mallakhamb Federation.
The pole is lathered with castor oil before events to reduce friction with bodies. This necessitates that an exponent be almost bare-bodied for maneuverability, which had restricted the participation of women. There’s also a misconception that performing on the pole could affect child-bearing ability.
There are other factors behind Takemoto and Ceruti beating Indians at their own game as well.
In their bid to have more representation from across the country, the Mallakhamb Federation of India — which says it has 29 affiliated state associations — allotted spots to some states.
Deshpande, though, doesn't approve of this idea. “There should be fair selection for such events. Let everyone come for trials, and you pick the best six in each category. When it comes to the number of proponents or the quality of the performers, Maharashtra is the undisputed leader in India. Maharashtra had better performers, but they were deprived because only two seats were allotted to them in each event. There were participants from Goa and Madhya Pradesh competing, but Chhattisgarh, which has more skilled competitors, was not represented because the state was not invited for the selection at all in the first place.
“The MFI also had a different code of points for the nationals. Pole mallakhamb was not an event for women at the nationals. There’s a girl from Odisha, who stood first in the All-India Mayor’s Cup event. She wasn’t called for selection. She could have won gold at the World Championships. But she was deprived of that due to the inefficiency of the MFI,” Deshpande says.
Another factor which saw the international athletes finish in the top three in many events was the rule which allowed only two competitors from a country to participate in the individual events once the team competitions were over on the first day.
“Otherwise all the six places would have been won by the Indian team!” points out Deshpande.
Despite all of this, Ceruti finishing second is commendable, considering the Italian started learning the ropes of mallakhamb just 20 days ago. It helped that her chosen vocation as a circus performer gave her the natural skill sets to adapt to the demands of mallakhamb.
But this is not a sport for novices. Nadkarni finds that out the hard way, toppling over the pole and leaving the auditorium with his arm in a sling.
Image courtesy: Associated Press
Even though it is a competition, the disposition of those competing is unnaturally relaxed. Almost festive.
While Ceruti, Nadkarni and Meeson were recent acquaintances to the art of kabaddi, Germany's Sebastian Krimmer — who wins the long set-rope mallakhamb and the short set-rope mallakhamb events — first tried his hands at mallakhamb in 2005 when Deshpande conducted a demonstration in Munich. It was one of the many demonstrations Deshpande has held for over two decades now in over 50 countries in his bid to popularise the sport, eventually leading to the formation of the Germany Mallakhamb Federation and Mallakhamb Federation of the USA.
History tells us that the humble discipline was once even performed as a demonstration sport at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Those Games, infamous for being organised under the rule of Adolf Hitler, saw Amravati-based Hanuman Vyayam Prasarak Mandal give a demonstration of mallakhamb and kabaddi on the sidelines of the Olympics.
But at the heart of the sport lies a contradiction: while it's trying to court fanfare abroad, the sport’s popularity is limited in other Indian states apart from Maharashtra. It's recognised by the Indian Olympic Association, but has never been included in the National Games.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the men’s team event at the World Championships is a non-starter as only the Indian contingent is able to put together a six-member team, which is a mandatory requirement for the team events.
Unfazed, the international federation declares that it already has plans in place for the next World Championships two years from now. The custodians of the humble, earthy sport are looking to take the competition to foreign shores for the second coming in 2021.
“The American federation has actually requested us to allot them the next World Championships,” says Deshpande. “They want to host it at New York’s Battery Park. By then, some countries will have fulfilled the criteria of forming national federations and getting them registered with the Vishwa Mallakhamb Federation. But I’m sure at least 50 countries will participate!”