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How Aamir Khan’s inspiration in ‘Dangal’ broke the gender barrier in wrestling

An excerpt from Rudraneil Sengupta's recent book 'Enter the Dangal: Travels Through India's Wrestling Landscape', which explores the history and culture of the 'manly' sport in India

Aamir Khan with Mahavir Singh Phogat (left). Photo: Hindustan Times
Aamir Khan with Mahavir Singh Phogat (left). Photo: Hindustan Times

When Mahavir Phogat, the real-life wrestler-turned coach who Aamir Khan portrays in Dangal, began training his six daughters in wrestling, he was following the footsteps of a pioneer. Mahavir’s guru, the Delhi wrestler Chandgi Ram, was the first person to campaign against the gender barrier in wrestling. He began at home, training his daughters in the art. Then, with his two wrestler-daughters in tow, he went from village to village, wrestling school to wrestling school, door to door, to convince his former students and colleagues to join him in the campaign, and teach their daughters wrestling, a sport considered an exclusively male domain, only to be passed on to sons and grandsons.

One of the doors he knocked on was Mahavir’s.

An excerpt on the early days of women’s wrestling from Rudraneil Sengupta’s recent book Enter the Dangal, which explores the history and culture of wrestling in India.

Enter The Dangal: Travels Through India’s Wrestling Landscape: Harper Sport, 264 pages, Rs359

Chapter 17

The Master

At the time Satpal was sowing the seeds of transformation in Indian wrestling, there was another influential wrestler who campaigned hard for the introduction of mats in the akhadas of Haryana and Delhi.

But he did something else, something that dug far deeper into the roots of kushti and ripped them out, sending out shock waves that still resonate in the world of Indian wrestling.

Master Chandgi Ram did the unthinkable. He let a woman enter the akhada and made her a pahalwan.

It was a strike at the most conservative, unchanging core of kushti: wrestling was not just a manly sport, it was the sport that defined manhood. Women never had a place in it. They neither wrestled, nor were they expected to watch wrestling. They were not welcome at akhadas or dangals.

The Chandgi Ram Vyayamshala (literally, gymnasium) is surrounded by history. It lies hidden between the reedy banks of the Yamuna and a highway thick with speeding cars. This is the edge of Delhi’s Civil Lines, the name given to non-military British residential areas in Indian cities during the Raj. Now at the northern edge of Delhi, the locality used to be the very centre of the city. Opposite the hidden vyayamshala once stood Ludlow Castle, the chief residence of the British administrative head of Delhi. The original building is gone, replaced by another built in the same style of architecture—the Ludlow school.

During the siege of 1857, the final wave of attack that broke the Indian resistance came right through where the vyayamshala now stands, using the cover of the extensive gardens and forests that lined the Yamuna then. John Nicholson, the indomitable Scotsman who led the attack and was so fiery that he inspired a cult among his enemies—the Nikkal Seyn—is buried barely a kilometre from the vyayamshala.

Surrounded by such potent history, yet cut off from it by the highway, the vyayamshala and its inhabitants lead a quiet, sleepy existence.

Mahavir Phogat (in green). Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

When you enter through the low gate, the first structure that meets the eye is the akhada itself: a cavernous hall in poor condition, just to the left of the entrance, sunk two steps below ground level. Two old mats take up the whole flooring of the hall, and old portraits of Chandgi Ram recede in the shadows.

A small courtyard with a couple of trees separates the wrestling hall from a flat single-storey building on the right. On the left, hidden from view behind the hall, is another residential building of similar style. The back of the vyayamshala is bordered by a sparkling Hanuman temple, an outhouse which contains a shiny gym and a small office, and another small detached building which functions as a guest room. Behind this, through a small door in the back wall, is the river, an earthen wrestling pit and a patch of farmland. Even in the middle of the day, the only sound here is of cicadas.

Chandgi Ram’s daughter, Sonika Kaliraman, has just woken up. She is on holiday. She lives in Los Angeles, and the jet lag is yet to leave her system. She is tall, and stoops slightly from her broad shoulders. Dressed in an oversized T-shirt and pyjamas, she fixes her long hair lazily into a tousled ponytail. She is beautiful, in a big hulking way, with large almond-coloured eyes, long eyelashes and a perfectly straight nose. It’s the first time in a long while that her nose is straight and not broken, she says, and I can see evidence of that from the photographs that hang on the walls.

Sonika is India’s first woman wrestler. She retired recently, got married, moved to the US and became a mother.

‘It’s been a long time since I have been on a mat,’ she says. ‘It seems so far away. I live such a peaceful, calm life now—wrestling seems like it happened a lifetime ago!’

A lifetime packed into ten short years of turmoil and rebellion.

Sonika was born in a hospital near the akhada in 1983, the second child of Chandgi Ram’s second wife, and grew up at the vyayamshala.

Here, she discovered an early love for nature, and spent her days helping her father with his gardening, catching frogs by the bank, watching spiders spin webs, and bringing in stray dogs and cats to adopt. Chandgi Ram had a large family, and was entirely without regard for social conventions. He had three wives, even though polygamy was, and is, illegal in India. When he married for the third time, a police case was filed against him and he lost his post as a sports administrator. He wrangled out of stricter legal action by claiming that he was ‘looking after’ the wives and children of his brothers after their deaths as was the custom in their area, and that the third wife was actually his only wife.

Chandgi Ram had a daughter and a son from his first wife, and put the son, Jagdish Kaliraman, straight into wrestling.

‘When I could crawl, I was crawling in the akhada,’ Jagdish, now a police officer, says.

He had three daughters with his middle wife, and all three are built to be athletes—Deepika, a year older to Sonika, also called Lucky; and Monika, or ‘Chhoti’, a year younger than Sonika.

Chandgi Ram and his youngest wife had a son and a daughter too.

The family lived together—a big, boisterous and freewheeling life—bound together by the three wives, and a father who seemed never to leave the wrestling arena.

‘Ever since I can remember,’ Sonika says, ‘it was pahalwani, pahalwani, pahalwani—papa on the mat, lots of noise, lots of thudding and slamming and screaming and shouting…’

The girls were not allowed near the akhada though. ‘Too many sweaty, muscular men in langots…not a fit sight for young girls,’ Sonika says.

Vinesh (in red) and Babita trains for the 2014 Asian Games under Geeta Phogat’s watch. Photo: Ashok Dutta/Hindustan Times

In the early 1980s, Chandgi Ram’s vyayamshala was rivalled only by Guru Hanuman’s school in popularity. A decade earlier, Chandgi Ram was second to none as a competitive wrestler. A tall, long-limbed man packing in 100 kilos of pure muscle, Chandgi Ram was a handsome man, with a wide, lopsided smile that was positively Bogart-ish. He was sought after and offered quintessentially masculine roles in Hindi films—of Tarzan in a movie called Tarzan 303 (thus continuing the long global legacy of Olympians playing Tarzan), and of the mythical eponymous hero in Veer Ghatotkach.

Jagdish offers an elegant critique of Tarzan 303, which he remembers going to see in a hall with the rest of the family, as well as students from the akhada, when it released.

‘Now what’s Tarzan like,’ Jagdish asks rhetorically. ‘He doesn’t talk, because he was raised by wild animals, and he has a great physique because he lives in the jungle and swings from tree to tree. It was perfect for father who had no experience in acting, and was shy in front of the camera. He didn’t have to speak, he had to do amazing physical stunts. And he looked really good!’

This foray into films was a short-lived experiment, something to do after Chandgi Ram retired from a long and distinguished career in wrestling in which he won, much like Satpal, every big championship in India.

In 1968, when he beat Indore’s Meheruddin pahalwan in Delhi to win his first Rustom-e-Hind, he was widely reputed to be the first Hindu wrestler to have won the title (though no official records of this exist). Meheruddin had, in fact, beaten Chandgi Ram in the same competition a year earlier. Soon after Chandgi Ram’s triumph, he was called to Indore for a felicitation parade, and a communal riot broke out at the parade. The effects of that are still felt in Indore: Hindu–Muslim wrestling matches remain banned in the city.

Chandgi Ram also won the 1970 Asian Games heavyweight title and went to the 1972 Olympics. By then he was thirty-five, and approaching the end of his career. Soon after, he retired from wrestling, dabbled in movies, decided it was not for him, and opened his akhada.

Like in his wrestling days, Chandgi Ram soon acquired the reputation of being an excellent coach—so far, so predictable.

In 1997, twenty-two years after he started his school, Chandgi Ram’s life took an abruptly stormy turn, precipitated by an announcement that bypassed most of the wrestling community in India. Women’s wrestling was to be added to the Olympic programme—starting from the 2004 Games in Athens.

‘I remember that I was playing with a tap in the courtyard, spraying water on the plants,’ says Sonika. ‘And papa came back home looking all excited and the first thing he said was “They’ve put women’s wrestling in the Olympics! Who wants to be a wrestler?" And he was looking straight at me.’

Sonika was flummoxed. She had been a laughing stock in school for her antics on the sporting ground. She was tall and well built for her age, giving the appearance of being sporty, but in fact she was particularly uncoordinated. Others were always tickled by this contradiction.

‘I was the joker of the pack,’ she says. ‘I was a…what do you call those funny animals? Sloths! I was a sloth—slow, shuffling, baby fat—so when papa said this, I was like, yes! I want to be a wrestler!’

Deepika, a year older than Sonika, was less enthusiastic when Changdi Ram made her the same offer. So, one day, Chandgi Ram bundled the two sisters into an autorickshaw and took them to a government-run sports training centre, where a small team of women wrestlers from Russia had come for an exhibition.

‘It was the weirdest thing—girls wrestling,’ Deepika says. ‘It was funny, scary, liberating, elating, all at the same time. We laughed at the “costumes"—we had never seen girls dressed in shiny body-hugging clothes. Look at those muscles! Those thighs!

‘As we were taking it all in, one of the girls picked up another over her hip and slammed her down on the mat—phatak!’ Deepika slaps her thigh with the hollow of her palm. ‘And that sound…it was like a dazzling light switched on in my head. I had an incredible urge to slam someone on to a mat.’

The two sisters, so far barred from being near the akhada, were now practising moves on it, along with their brother Jagdish and the other men.

‘How life changed,’ Sonika says. ‘We forgot everything but wrestling. Papa seemed to be bursting with a new kind of energy. I forgot my animals, my friends. For the next ten years, there was time for nothing but wrestling. I forgot what Diwali meant. For the next ten years, there was not a single festival that we were home for. We were out fighting, going from village to village, from dangal to dangal.

‘I remember that there was a black cow in my house I was very attached to and she was pregnant, and I had to leave for a dangal. I remember my mom telling me about the birth of the baby, and I was so sad that I couldn’t be there and I cried over the phone. So it was like that. Many things would happen at home, life would go on, and all that news I would get over the phone from my mother.’

The band of wrestlers travelled with their home on their backs—clothes, utensils, stoves, fuel, all bundled into army holdalls. They practised in trains and train stations and farmlands.

No dangals were open for women then, so Chandgi Ram took Sonika and Deepika of his own accord, staging exhibition matches between the two in far-flung villages, as Jagdish battled in the main competition.

The Master had begun his campaign.

‘At six in the morning, Papa would sit in front of the phone and start calling coaches and wrestlers all over India,’ Deepika says. ‘He would say, “Look, the boys of my akhada will only come to your dangal if you allow a girl’s bout as well—just a couple of exhibition matches." He had a lot of patience and a lot of drive. He would call, write letters and meet people all day with just this agenda: start getting women into wrestling.’

Dangal organizers were not happy about this. Some refused straight away, others hesitated because of Chandgi Ram’s stature as a wrestler and coach, yet others had long associations with him and could not refuse out of courtesy. Nowhere were they made to feel welcome.

‘We were always fending for ourselves, which is why we carried all the necessities with us,’ Deepika says. ‘Once in 1999, we were in a village in Uttar Pradesh, and were received in a small house on a farm by the organizers. We thought, this is not bad—a room with electricity, a toilet, a kitchen and fans—it’s got everything! But then they told us, okay, wash up here, and then you can go to your room downstairs. We thought, downstairs? There is no room downstairs…only a garage with a tractor!’

What the organizers meant was the gap under the staircase. They had put a bed there, and a naked bulb hung over it for light.

‘Papa saw all that calmly, and then he told us, you girls must be stiff after the journey, why don’t you go for a long run,’ Deepika says.

When they came back two hours later, Chandgi Ram had taken over a small, empty grainery in the middle of the farm, got it cleaned, got a generator and hooked it up to an electric line, and put lights and fans in the room. Because the path from the main house to the grainery was unlit, he had also stuck two poles there and hung light bulbs on them.

‘There were charpoys inside the room, with mosquito nets, and the kitchen had been set up,’ Deepika says. ‘We spent three nights in that room, and though millions of tiny insects would come into the room and take over everything at night, it was the best time of our lives. We used to go and fight, and then come back into the insect-filled room and talk deep into the night hidden under our mosquito nets.’

The backlash was severe.

‘No self-respecting woman should go to watch a dangal,’ Sushil’s mother says. She too has never seen her son fight in one. ‘This was the thought. It is still what people think.’

Often, at these village exhibition matches, Sonika and Deepika would be at the receiving end of obscene commentary.

‘People would throng to see them because they thought they will get some freak value from it, some sort of fantasy, watching two women in tight clothes tear each other’s hair out,’ Jagdish says. ‘They were disappointed that they fought like real wrestlers, with technique and power and grace.’

At first, many in the wrestling community thought that Chandgi Ram’s experiment with his daughters, like his experiment with films, would be short-lived. When they realized that it was not to be so, the counter-campaign heated up.

‘One time in 2000, we had gone to a dangal in a village in Palwal,’ Sonika says. ‘It was a clearing in the middle of a sugar cane farm. The moment Sonika and I got on to the pit, stones started flying at us, and people were shouting obscenities and surging towards the pit, some brandishing sticks.’

‘Papa rushed at us,’ Deepika says, slapping her thigh hard with the palm of her hand. ‘We ran. Papa bundled us into the car, and we drove off with people chasing.’

For the next few months, Chandgi Ram became obsessed with Palwal. He financed dangals in the surrounding area himself, and took his daughters to fight there.

‘By the end of it, the very mention of Palwal made me sick,’ Sonika says. ‘I must have fought thirty or forty dangals in that place in two to three months.’

Guru Hanuman, who claimed to have been celibate till his death at the age of ninety-nine, was one of the main dissenters, and used his considerable influence on the wrestling circuit to stop women from wrestling.

Despite its modern set-up and Olympic success, Satpal’s akhada is still all-male, even though all the other sports training units at the stadium are unisex. Guru Hanuman’s decaying akhada, which has lost much of its earlier glory, is resolutely all-male too.

The campaign against women in wrestling reached Chandgi Ram’s akhada. Some of the vyayamshala’s own coaches and students rebelled. One day in 2000, they attacked the akhada.

‘It was the worst thing I have ever seen,’ Deepika says. ‘Stones being thrown from everywhere, papa running, blood flowing down his head, mummy running, the electricity lines cut off. I was told to take all the kids and lock myself up in the inside room. People hammered on the doors. I could hear papa screaming “Deepika pahalwan, don’t open the door!" I could see one of papa’s coaches lying on the floor with his legs broken.

‘Then the police came. Later, we were packed off to the village. All except papa, who remained here with five or six coaches and students who were on his side. Papa was heartbroken after this. They wanted to destroy the akhada, and take over the space. But papa was a lion.’

Perhaps Chandgi Ram knew always what it was to forge his own path through humiliation and defeat. He came from a small village called Sisai, far in the interiors of rural Haryana. He left his village in anger when he was eighteen, tired of being mistreated for being weak and thin. He never really spoke to anyone—family or friends—in any detail about this, except to say that his father too was mistreated in the same way; that they were always a sickly family, and people took advantage of that. So, soon after he finished schooling, Chandgi Ram left home. He worked as a teacher for a brief while in Rohtak (thus the epithet ‘Master’), but was haunted by his own weakness. He began working out with a vengeance. He started travelling to Delhi on the weekends to seek out an old and very reputed wrestling coach called Chiranji Lal. Soon, he had quit everything to live in Chiranji Lal’s akhada, determined, despite the late start, to become a wrestler.

Not everyone was unmoved by the unflagging determination with which Chandgi Ram stood his ground. The few people who remained loyal to him took the fight forward. Jagroop Singh Rathi, one of the coaches at the vyayamshala, brought his daughter Neha to the akhada—she became an international medallist. A wrestling coach from Meerut, Jabbar Singh Sone, stayed at Chandgi Ram’s akhada for a few months of training and went away transformed, beginning his own long battle to get women into the sport by starting a women’s wrestling programme in a university in Meerut. Sone’s student Alka Tomar became the first Indian woman to win a wrestling medal at the World Championships in 2006. Her sister, Anshu Tomar, became an international wrestler. Yet, in 2013, a village panchayat near Meerut banned its girls from wrestling, and Jabbar lost four students.

Deepika had to give up wrestling early in her career after a back injury, but now runs her own training school, for both boys and girls, in Delhi. Jagdish won the national championship and competed at the Olympics. Sonika too won a national championship, though she never qualified for the Olympics, and retired from wrestling in 2010.

The author is deputy editor of Mint Lounge.

Excerpted from Enter The Dangal: Travels Through India’s Wrestling Landscape, with permission from HarperCollins India.

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