Little did we know while watching the WWE that there existed wrestlers in our own backyard, who were, in fact, real-life superheroes. Their physique and strength were like that of any superhuman in a comic book film. Enter the world of Kushti.
WWE has been a popular source of ‘sports entertainment’ for audiences worldwide, enrapturing people of all ages. The industry saw its boom as an entertainment company from the late 90s to the early 2000s, drawing in millions of views and quickly attracting younger audiences.
Every kid back then had a favorite wrestler and spent money on getting their hands on action figures of these wrestlers. To them, these wrestlers were like superheroes. As any kid around the world, my friends and I were obsessed with WWE too.
We would have heated discussions for hours about who the best wrestler was and who deserves to be the world champion. Amusingly, most of us believed that it was all real. If we were told it was not, we would get angry and vehemently shut down these suggestions.
Little did we know at the time that there existed wrestlers in our own backyard, who were, in fact, real-life superheroes. Their physique and strength were like that of any superhuman in a comic book film. Enter the world of Kushti.
Pehlwani and Kushti are terms that people of the Subcontinent are familiar with. The literal English translation for both these terms is wrestling. Traditional Kushti developed during the Mughal Era in the subcontinent. It was the combination of ancient Indian and Persian combat art forms.
It is said that kushti really started to thrive during the colonial rule of the British. Back then princes and wealthy merchants would organize bouts for their sponsored wrestlers, and, in return, the winners were rewarded handsomely. It eventually became a commercial sport with the induction of promoters and matchmakers. Thousands of spectators would gather in the arena to watch these matches and there, some of them would bet on their favorite wrestler. Unlike the WWE, these were real fights and had winners based on actual skill, much like MMA or the UFC.
Any discussion of wrestling though is incomplete without mentioning the greatest pehlwan (wrestler) of all time, Ghulam Muhammad Baksh, more popularly known as “Gama Pehlwan” or ‘The Great Gama’. Unlike the WWE wrestlers, he was the real deal.
The Great Gama
Born in present-day India, it is said that he once lifted a stone that weighed approximately 1200 kilograms, which can be found in the Baroda Museum in India. He was the only wrestler to be undefeated throughout his entire career, which lasted over 50 years and 5000 matches. He also held the title of “Rustam-e-Hind” (Champion of India).
Gama Pehlwan first gained international recognition when he traveled to England and challenged multiple wrestlers, only to return unbeaten and inturn, instantly becoming a national hero. Such was his legacy that he influenced stars like Bruce Lee, who incorporated Gama’s training and nutrition regimes into his own routine.
The Great Gama’s Exercise Routine
Kushti was popular in South Asia during the 60s and 70s. People would gather in huge numbers to witness a Dangal (Punjabi word for wrestling) between two famous wrestlers. Then with the introduction of TV, and the lack of coverage, the decline of kushti began.
In the last few decades, the interest in kushti has diminished to a small number of people, such as villages and a few cities in Northern Punjab. The lack of investment in the sport has resulted in meager financial benefits for competitors.
The only way kushti will survive is if investors and the government take a leap of faith by investing in this dying form of traditional wrestling.
The diet of a wrestler includes a few kilograms of meat, liters of milk, and so on, each day, which requires significant investment. So without sponsorship, it is impossible to keep up the lifestyle considering the socio-economic circumstances in India and Pakistan. Kushti virtually gets no TV coverage, which results in no audience and there is no interest from investors making it financially unviable. That is why WWE although scripted took over as a popular form of wrestling entertainment.
To its benefit, WWE added the flavor of theatrics and storylines to the world of traditional wrestling, like any cliched Hollywood movie that included the good and the evil side. In WWE, the term informally came to be known as kayfabe, which suggests that all the wrestlers in their roster had to maintain the facade of their character in all public appearances to make the audience believe that it was real. This ingenious idea worked in attracting audiences to the arenas. Eventually, it reached viewers halfway across the world through TV and captured their interest. Although kushti takes place in a ring of mud and may be considered uncouth by the present-day viewers there is a potential to reinvigorate the interest in it.
Take the example of present-day MMA and boxing, they are both combat sports not too dissimilar to what kushti has to offer. They both have viewership in millions and significant monetary benefits for participants. Maybe it is time that kushti is given a touch of gimmicks and a slight deviation from its traditional form through the introduction of theatrics to attract modern-day audiences by entertaining them.
The recent depiction of traditional wrestling in the Bollywood movie “Dangal” has reminded the people of the Subcontinent of their tradition and has brought the sport of wrestling back into the discussion.
The only way kushti will survive is if investors and the government take a leap of faith by investing in this dying form of traditional wrestling. Then who knows the new form may stick with audiences and returns to its past glory.
Hassaan Shahid is a sports fan and regularly plays in local cricket tournaments in Queensland, Australia. He follows Esports and football very closely too. You can follow him on Instagram.
For more articles like this, visit Sportageous!