Ace Pahalwan of his time, Mir Mohammad Ismail offers a sketch of the sport’s fall and rise. He tells Javid Sofi that the government might have to chip in to restore the soul back to the game that created Gama Pahalwan
On an October morning in 1952, recalls Ustad (an Urdu word used as an honorific for an expert) Pahalwan Mir Mohammad Ismail, Dara Singh led troupe of Punjabi wrestlers to Srinagar. In the danghal with local pahalwans, when they were knocked down one after the other, a thick silence hung in the air around the wrestling arena, located at a place where Bakshi Stadium was later built. Then, the popular and undefeated Pahalwan Buta Singh, considered amongst the strongest of wrestlers in India, grabbed the loudspeaker and issued an open challenge. He had defeated eight of the locals and asked if there is anybody willing to lock horns with him.
Wrestling was such a huge sport then that all tickets at sold out. It cost Rs 1, a ticket, then carrying a lot of value.
Sixty-five years later, he is an old but active man of 85 years. Offering services of a traditional healer in bone and joint ailments at his Wanpora village in Pulwama, Ustad Ismail still retains his love and enthusiasm for wrestling he started at the age of 18.
“If I could, I would jump back into the akhara (the wresting arena) and practice and train pathas (junior wrestlers),” he wishes, keen to go back into time. He remembers how the 400 pound Pahalwan Ghulam Ahmad Malik, from Soibugh, Budgam, considered amongst best of the then local pahalwans, accepted Buta’s challenge, was defeated.
With Malik feel flat, Islamail remembers how the jubilant Punjabis danced to drum beats. Dumb-founded, Kashmiri spectators felt humiliated.
The then Deputy Prime Minister of the State, Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad, , was the Chief Guest of the event. He summoned Ismail, then 20, to the podium and encouraged him to defeat his weakest-looking opponent and help retain the moral of the local pahalwans and the spectators.
“But I insisted on taking on none less than Buta Pahalwan himself,” Ustad Ismail recalls with a sense of fulfillment in his voice.
In about 20 minutes fight, much to the surprise and jubilation of spectators, Ismail knocked out Buta within the first half match.
Even as rumors of him blowing some dark mantras at Buta Pahalwan leading to the latter’s defeat spread far and wide, Ismail was awarded a then huge Rs 14,000 cash prize by the government.
That marked Ismail’s take-off. Ismail’s success led to his official patronage. He was funded to open two akharas, one at Soibugh and Wanpora, where he practiced and trained around 40 pathas.
But the dreams with short-lived, courtesy the political instability. With the shift in the political situation in the state in late 1953, when the then Prime Minister Sheikh Abdullah was deposed and arrested, the patronage ended soon afterwards. “The government forgot about the sport,” Ismail rues, adding as an afterthought “and the akharas gave way to cemeteries.”
Prior to 1950s though, the state patronage formed an essential aspect of wrestling as a career in Kashmir. The likes of the great Habibullah Pahalwan, of Chattabal, Srinagar, went on to become inspirations for future wresters, like Ismail, because the patronage enabled them to hone their talents and make a name.
(Nazir Ahmad Yatoo)
Habibullah, whose patronage came from the then ruler, Maharaja Hari Singh, who paid him a monthly stipend, trained another great Pahalwan Ghulam Mohammad Ghori, of Hussipora, Budgam, who had another celebrated Pahalwan Mohammad Subhaan Najar as his disciple.
Najar was Ismail’s contemporary and regarded as an Ustad Pahalwan. During an annual fair at Wathoora (Budgam), in mid-1970s, Ismail had a chance to challenge Ustad Najar for a fight. But the Ustad would accept it if Ismail was first able to defeat his pathas.
When, one after the other, Ismail had taken on and knocked down ten of them, Ustad Najar conceded defeat without contesting against Ismail and declared him an Ustad Pahalwan.
Ustad Ismail also competed in wrestling events outside J&K including Amritsar, Haryana and Delhi during his career. He retired from active wrestling in the late ’80s when he was in his 50s, but not without having inspired those that have followed him.
However, in the absence of interest from the government and, therefore, without akharas, where amateur wrestlers could train and compete, the sport has been about broken bones and shattered dreams for the local wrestlers.
Nazir Ahmad Yatoo, of Qazipora (Budgam), has “remained undefeated in all of some 200 amateur wrestling fights” he competed in across Budgam in the late 1990s. His wrestling career, however, ended after just about five years, when an injury, during one such fight, saw his sternum bone ruptured. “It has resulted in more than just injuries here – in shortening of careers and dwindling of wrestlers,” Yatoo said. But he hopes that the state of affairs changes for the better for the current and future generations of local wrestlers.
Speaking of them, 30-year old Mohammad Ayoub Ganai, of Pakherpora, is from the current generation of wrestlers and a bright one at that. He has been wrestling as an amateur in his hometown since he was 20. He has participated in around 600 danghals and remained undefeated. Ganai, interestingly, draws his inspiration from no less than the World Champion ethnic Kashmiri Ghulam Mohammad Butt, or the Great Gama Pahalwan, credited for popularizing the wrestling sport in the subcontinent.
Gama Pahalwan has been a legend who is considered to be the “greatest Pahalwan” who has ever walked on the soil in the Indian subcontinent. Born to a Kashmiri family that had migrated to Amritsar, he eventually migrated to Pakistan. A second-generation wrestler, who has never been defeated in his nearly half a century of career, is still an inspiration for people even now. Even Bruce Lee is reported to have studied his practices and body-building systems.
Born to the wrestler Muhammad Aziz Baksh, Gama was trained by a Madhya Pardesh Raja. He was famous for doing one thousand dand (jack-knife push-ups) and baithaks (deep knee bends) in one drop. Gama died of crippling arthritis in 1963. Kulsoom Nawaz Sharief is Gama Pahalwan’s granddaughter.
Back home, Ganai continues to be the main wrestling attraction at the locally held amateur wrestling competitions, where pahalwans from the adjoining villages lock horns with each other. For lack of infrastructure, they use the rough and hard surfaces of post-harvest rice fields.
But while he looks forward to even the amateur wrestling competitions like these, Ganai, wishes to make to wrestling commercial. “It is a distant dream to get people from the roads to the ring without proper training and promotion,” Ganai said. “Somebody at some level must pitch in.”
Ustad Pahalwan Ismail, who referees some of these competitions, sees significant potential for the wrestling sport in Kashmir and for regaining the splendour his predecessors had brought to it. “But,” he cautions, “before another generation of wrestlers dies the death that his and the ones after him did, the government will have to rescue it and help hone the wrestling talent in Kashmir.”
Unlike Kashmir, Jammu still has the basic infrastructure and the local interest intact to a larger extent. Part of the credit for this goes to the religious touch to the event because of Ramayana and Mahabharata. It also has its great Ustad’s like Ishar Dass, Noora, Sain Dass, Bodh Raj, Dushyant, and Billa to its history but danghals are more about entertainment than sport now. Some of the akharas that dotted Jammu in Shiv Mandir Akhara, Bajrangi Akhara, Diwan Mandir Akhara, Shiv Puri Akhara, Peer Khoo Akhara neither exist in the way they were nor are as active they used to be.
Despite this, there are various events in which wrestlers from abroad participate which keeps the sport alive. Unfortunately, however, Delhi withheld a visa to Pakistani wrestlers for the international event that takes place in Katra, every October as part of the Navratra festival. J&K Wrestling Association is routinely identifying wrestlers for sending them to various events outside. But the government will have to move a step ahead to get the game its soul back.