MUMBAI: A DUSTY corner of Mumbai’s iconic Shivaji Park, where cricket usually reigns, had been transformed into a temporary venue for the 1st Mallakhamb World Championships. On the stage, a 22-year-old German, Sebastien Krimmer expertly slid up the sturdy wooden pole, gripping it with his legs and contorting his body into various postures. Somewhere in the stands, a group of giddy kids cheered for him while enthusiastically waving a sizeable French flag.
On Saturday, the opening day of the World Championships, the unique, niche sport seemed at the centre of wider world. And it opened its arms to all comers: German students, French families, American sexagenarians, Vietnamese yoga teachers and British gap-year tourists.
Originating in the 11th century, the sport combines martial and performing arts and is mainly practiced in ‘vyayamshalas’ (gymnasiums) across Maharashtra.
But one of its most prominent practitioners, Uday Deshpande, also the brain behind the Championships, had taken it upon himself to introduce it beyond Indian borders. He has held camps and spread the word to more than 50 countries in the last 25 years.
Germany and USA now have their own mallakhamb federations, and a Mallakhamb Day is being planned in the Bavarian city of Munich in June this year. At the inaugural World Championships, 14 nations, including India are being represented.
Like a lot of indigenous sports that have resurfaced into public view – wrestling and kabaddi being prime examples—there’s an element of raw physicality in mallakhamb.
Though not a combat sport, lithe, muscular athletes put their bodies on the line, shifting and sliding into shapes, on a rope or up on a pole, that seem humanly impossible. The tagline for the tournament aptly reads, ‘Defying Gravity’.
“I have been practicing mallakhamb for the past 14 years,” says Krimmer, a biology student based in Munich. “It’s a sport that combines strength, flexibility and balance. There aren’t too many coaches or training centres in Germany, but we train once a week. It is getting more popular in Germany.”
Even as countries like Germany have some sort of set-up and formal training, however basic, in place, some of the participants had taken it upon themselves to showcase their countries’ flags at the event. France, for example, was represented by a family, who were introduced to the sport in Mumbai itself.
“We shifted to Mumbai about a year and a half ago because of my husband’s work,” says Gaille Tussiere. “My children have been practicing it for about 15 months because it’s included in their school syllabus and I also started doing it with them. We had never heard of mallakhamb before in France. Indian people talk about this sport only in India.”
The British participants, meanwhile, seemed to have accidentally walked into the competition. The United Kingdom was represented by Vikram Nadkarni and Alfie Meeson, who were as surprised as the predominantly Indian crowd at finding themselves at the centre of the stage. On a gap year, and visiting Nadkarni’s grandparents in Mumbai, the students were hauled into the competition on short notice.
“I heard about this sport like eight days ago,” said Meeson. “It is really, really difficult, and we have bruises everywhere. But we were up for the experience when we heard about the competition and have been taking daily lessons from the coaches here.
We have done gymnastics and swim regularly, but this is really intense. We never expected so many people to turn up and watch it” With mehndi designs sneaking across their torsos, the British youngsters were quite a hit with the crowd and did routines on the pole as well as the rope.
The Vietnamese team is made up of yoga teachers, who want to blend the two disciplines for a better quality of life. "Our Academy (Vietnam's Yoga Academy) is the first in the country to use yoga as physical therapy and mallakhamb will be a great addition to it," says Dang Hung.
While Indian athletes were a class above, stronger and surer on their home turf, it was interesting to see the international appeal the sport holds.