GADAG: ACtor Aamir Khan’s biopic on Haryana’s Phogat sisters may have put the spotlight on women in the wrestling ring and made the Haryanvi sisters poster girls of the sport. But much before ‘Dangal’ rode the tidal wave in Bollywood, teenage girls in a remote and rustic region in north Karnataka have already grappled with the gender divide and put their feet firmly on the mat.
Girls from the hinterland of Gadag, known for its garadi manes or wrestling houses, have dared to muscle their way in a man’s sport and achieve recognition.
These teenagers have been attending wrestling practice everyday f or the past six years besides pursuing their college education. Some of them commute by bus daily from their villages to get coaching.
They are being trained free of cost by national level wrestler Sharanagouda Beleri, an ex-serviceman, employed as a coach at Sports and Youth Welfare Department in Gadag.
Beleri gives six hours of training to the aspiring wrestlers while the Gadag district administration provides energy drink in the morning and fruits in the evening to all the trainees. The girls hail from small villages in the district.
Take Shwetha Belagatti , 18, from Huilagol, a hamlet near Gadag. When she began wrestling villagers laughed at her , saying it was not meant for women. Her parents and relatives too suggested that she abandon wrestling and concentrate on studies. But she refused to do so and is living in a h ostel in Gadag. She has won a gold in a state level championship and participated in national meets.
Sangeeta Sitarhalli, 14, from Soratur village, too left home after parents and her relatives opposed her wrestling passion. She lives with other girls in Beleri’s home where they undergo training. “Four wrestlers are staying with me and they are all like my daughters. I will make them grab international level medals soon,” says a confident Beleri. The wrestling bug bit some of the girls when Kusuma Rani Bilekudari won a gold medal in Mysuru Dasara and bagged Best Wrestler Award from the Karnataka Olympics Association in 2012.
Inspired, more girls evinced interest in the sport. Kusuma began training under Beleri in 2008.
Today, the strength of female state and national level winners in Gadag district has risen to 10.
“It is not an easy game and only aspirants with full dedication and commitment can continue here. Many parents come here, ready to pay more fees. But we are more keen on moulding the best wrestlers. My dream is to win a gold medal in Olympics and make Gadag famous on the world’s wrestling map,” says Beleri.
Another star on the horizon is Prema Huchchannavar from Asundi village, who bagged gold in the Asian Cadet Championship in 2012 and many other medals. Recalling the Asian meet in Kyrgyzstan, she says, “I was initially very scared. But my coach told me to think about winning and not who I was fighting.”
She was conferred Ekalavya award in 2014, apart from ‘Lakkundi Kishori’ and ‘Lakkundi Kumari’ titles. Recalling her golden bout, Prema says, “l remember shouting Bolo Bharat Mata ki Jai, and the National Anthem played instilling a huge sense of pride in me.” She wants to have a go at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics next.
Other women wrestlers who have shown spark are Shaheeda Begam Baligar from Venkatapur, who already has Hampi Kesari Award, Kempegowda award and other titles in her kitty, Maitra Vyapari, Shahira Bhanu Nadaf, Jayashree Gudgundi, Shweta Belagatti, Shashikala Talawar, Sonia Jadhav, Sangeeta Sitarhalli and Shweta Jadhav, among others.