CHENNAI: On the final day of the Khelo India Youth Games 2023, the national-level multidisciplinary competition where athletes competed in 26 sports, Maharashtra stood tall with 158 total medals.
With 57 gold medals in 16 disciplines, no other state came close to Maharashtra's dominance. While swimming (11 gold) and gymnastics (9 gold) comfortably led the way for the state, mallakhamb quietly helped the state retain their top position with six gold medals.
In all of that success, Satara's Maya Mohite, a primary school teacher, and Wai's Prasad Bedekar, an employee of the famous Mapro Foods, have played a massive role. Both of them started their journey as school-going kids, who were obsessed with the sport. Mohite's journey started while watching her cousin practice.
"Sujeet Shedge, Uday Deshpande and others used to roam around and perform mallakhamb, so people could get introduced to this game. Once they came to my village, I saw it for the first time. My cousin was friends with many of the performers and when I witnessed it first hand, I got attracted to it,"Mohite told this daily.
"I always thought I was a brave girl who wanted to prove myself from a young age so I grabbed this opportunity and started mallakhamb. My father was a primary school teacher, but he was always progressive in his thinking. Once he saw my passion, he supported me to pursue the sport.
In the beginning, all the teachers used to come once in a while and teach and then my brothers would help me practice it. Once I started winning competitions, I got a lot of boost from it and I moved to Satara for education and mallakhamb," Mohite recalls.
During this, she also won the Shivchatrapati Award for mallakhamb alongside her husband and fellow athlete, Vishwatej Mohite. The athlete became a coach when she followed her father's footsteps and started as a primary school teacher.
As someone who started her mallakhamb career in the same place, she was hoping to do the same for the other girls. Who better than the Chatrapati Award winner to coach the players?
"I started with performing in front of the students. When they saw me performing, they were convinced that if our teacher could do it, we could do it as well. Looking at their enthusiasm, I put my own money to buy a rope and my guru, Sujeet sir, helped me with mattresses. That's how I started 'Samartha mallakhamb Sangh' and it has been going on for 24 years. The real problem started when girls reached the menstrual cycle age and parents were not ready to send their daughters for practice."
"Misconceptions about the menstruation cycle led to talented girls staying away from the game. I called for a parents' meeting to clear all of their doubts and I had to come up with creative ways to convince them. Our area is known for rice cultivation. So I told them when women are working the paddy farm in almost thigh-deep water, no one takes their work away from them. Girls wear shorts only when they are practicing. They are not roaming around the village in shorts. Taking their game away from them will not help anyone. It helped me convince them and the game didn't stop," Mohite gets emotional talking about the hardships.
If the teacher had to deal with the parents of the school kids, Bedekar had a bigger battle on his hands. While he was training performers in the evening after finishing his day-to-day job, one of his students was also growing through the ranks and evolving as a performer, but destiny had a few other plans. "One of my students was exceptionally talented. At one time, she was a national champion, but after some time, even when she was performing her best in Mallakhamb, her mother decided to stop her practice. We tried to convince them, but nothing could change their opinions. When two of my other players won the National Championship later and won `10 lakh and `7 lakh, respectively, something changed. The mother of the performer who was banned from practicing the sport realised that her daughter could take the sport seriously, and not just as a hobby and make a career out of it. I am happy to tell you that she is back practicing again," Bedekar says with pride.
The love of the game triumphs a lot of hardships they have faced so far as teachers, but love alone cannot help sustain and grow the game. It requires money.
"Sujeet sir never took any money from us for teaching, so we always knew that we were not going to ask for money from our students. Saying that, we knew, we had to have some money for other expenses. Let's say for example someone falls during the practice, I know it can be fixed but I would need some money for that. We cannot force parents alone to take care of it, if we do that, they would not let their kids come for the practice. In the remote areas, especially for a girl child, parents agreeing to their education in itself is a big deal, to ask them to take care of their sports career is unheard of."
"So we decided to use the old method of performing in various places to earn money. Whatever we earned from it, we kept it as a contingency fund. The mouth-publicity helped us reach more places and earn more money from it as well. Even today, it is one of the biggest sources of money for us to fulfil our needs," Mohite maps out the reality.
Love can make you do a lot of things. In Mohite and Bedekar's case, it helped them create a group of enthusiastic performers who have now received a platform via Khelo India Youth Games.
The medals, the top rank, and the other success are just the tip of the iceberg when one gets to know the hard yards put behind by many. It's the dedication of coaches like them, that helped Maharashtra top the medal tally for the second year in a row.