When our Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru delivered "Tryst with Destiny", there was a sense of liberty in every Indian. Our nation transformed from a spoon-fed child to a responsible adult who had to find his feet and navigate the storms ahead. As always with liberty, there came a sense of nervousness. A sense of existential crisis per se.
We tried to carve a niche for ourselves on the world map. It was evident that as a young nation, we could only express our soft power. Movies, culture and art became a very subtle way to look eye-to-eye with the west. In sport, we were practically the best in Field Hockey and that was just a lone tree on a barren land of mediocrity.
In such gloomy but hopeful times, a short and stout wrestler was pitted against tall 6 ft. wrestler to fight for a place in the upcoming Olympics. Very symbolic of the situation. The result? The short wrestler won. The legend of K.D. Jadhav, India's first individual Olympic medal winner can only be encapsulated by millions of such incidents.
Born in a village named Goleshwar in Satara district of Maharashtra, Khashaba Dadasaheb Jadhav aka KD Jadhav was a soft-spoken man as his son Ranjit describes. "He never lost his cool even when provoked", Ranjit says while speaking to The Indian Express and provocations came in plenty in his life.
As a 23-year-old in 1948, he was snubbed by his teacher for a place in the college wrestling team at the annual sports meet. His teacher remarked Jadhav as being too weak. Jadhav being as stubborn as he was, approached the college principal and asked for a fair shot at the place in the team.
The principal eventually agreed and Jadhav earned participation at the annual sports meet. Of course, the meet that he eventually won, dominating wrestlers far more physically blessed than him.
The notion of wrestling back in the day, was to be physically ginormous and to have the upper body strength to outmuscle your opponents. KD Jadhav was the pioneer of the art of outwitting his opponents.
In many ways, Jadhav revolutionized modern Indian wrestling by introducing the notion of agility and steadfastness in young wrestlers. This made it fairly easier for him to adjust to different styles of wrestling.
When selected for the 1948 Olympics, Jadhav was financed by the Maharaja of Kolhapur, Shahaji II. Jadhav went to London and trained under renowned English coach Rees Gardner who was one of the first to notice Jadhav's ability to be nimble on his feet and move like a cat.
Although Jadhav's introduction and romance with wrestling was restricted to mud-laden "akhadas", he caught eyeballs around the world when he finished an impressive 6th in the 1948 London Olympics. Jadhav had succeeded to put a nervous India on the world map. But he wasn't satisfied.
He came home and continued training better. He had a harsh introduction at the international level where he saw athletes train better. With virtually no facilities at his disposal, Jadhav made the best of what he could.
"We would do vyayam (exercise) together, twice a day for four hours together. He had great stamina and was the only one who could do 250-300 push-ups at one go and around 1,000 sit-ups", says a ninety-five-year-old Ganpati Parsu Jadhav, reminiscing the time spent with his childhood friend.
Even with such hardships, Jadhav was about to be denied a place in the upcoming Olympics. When pitted against a 6 ft. tall Niranjan Das at the nationals bout before the Olympics, Jadhav came out on top quite easily. Stunned and down, Das proposed a rematch and was defeated again.
Despite his win, Jadhav was overlooked when the wrestling team was finalized for the Olympics. Again, a Maharaja came to the rescue.
Maharaja of Patiala, one of the earliest patrons of sport in India, scheduled a rematch between Jadhav and Das for an Olympic berth on Jadhav's insistence. Of course, Jadhav won again and broke open the door of the plane flying to Helsinki.
A qualification was not enough in those days. Reaching Helsinki had its own challenges. For the opening ceremony, Jadhav was supposed to be dressed in a blazer. Let alone a blazer and a pant, Jadhav did not own a pair of socks back then. There was some money sanctioned by the government but Jadhav did not receive them.
In such times, there was financial help from everyone across the village. His college principal mortgaged his house to raise 7000 rupees for Jadhav while one of his coach Govind Purandare took a loan for 3000 rupees. If one would visit Olympic Niwas (As KD Jadhav named his house) now, the person would find receipts preserved by Jadhav to remember paying back his creditors.
Jadhav was very confident of a better showing at Helsinki. In those times, wrestlers had to go through marathon bouts in order to qualify for the final rounds. Jadhav won his marathon bout with little discomfort, defeating renowned wrestlers from Canada, Mexico and Germany.
He was drawn against the eventual silver-medallion wrestler Rashid Mammudbeyov from the Soviet Union. The bout was supposed to happen after a while. As per the rules, no bouts could be scheduled until 30 minutes after the last bout of a wrestler. A tired Jadhav stood against a mammoth Soviet and eventually failed to make a mark and lost terribly.
Jadhav settled for a bronze owing to the fact that there were no Indian officials present at the arena to press Jadhav's case. But the news of the triumph spread like wildfire. He became the first Indian to win an individual Olympic medal. Ironically, the hockey team defended their gold medal in 1952 but Jadhav's bronze was more talked about.
"There were dhols along with a 151-bullock cart procession right from the outskirts of Goleshwar to the Mahadeva temple which is normally a 15-minute walk" recalls Sampat Rao Jadhav, his cousin who travelled with him to Helsinki.
"It took seven long hours that day and no one was complaining. We have not seen joyous scenes like that either before or after that day. There was a feeling of pride and every villager was basking in that moment of glory. Khashaba bhau brought the small village of Goleshwar, earlier a dot on the map, to the fore. The whole world knew and recognised Goleshwar as the village which gave India its first-ever Olympic champion."
These words will be etched in my mind forever remembering the stalwart that inspired million others to take up the sport. The long-lost legacy of KD Jadhav can be summed up in these words.
Although the legacy seems forgotten, it is still being preserved in the local akhadas of Kolhapur where one would see a framed photo of Jadhav alongside Hanuman. The legacy so rich, but not rewarded.
Missing out on 1956 Melbourne Olympics due to a knee injury, Jadhav took up a role in Police as a sub-inspector and continued training and participating in tournaments for the police. He earned little and eventually retired in 1982 with his final paycheck earning him a sum of 2200 rupees.
He had a fatal accident in 1984 and lost his life. As Ranjit puts it, "ek gumnam maut mili [he died quietly, not known to too many]" as quoted by the Times of India.
The Olympic Niwas still stands in its gloom, symbolic of the forgotten times. The indoor akhada, where once the legend spent most of his time honing his skills, summarized the time gone by.
Marred by cobwebs, broken windows and rotten waste on the ground, the legacy of the patron of Indian wrestling is struggling to survive. But much like KD Jadhav, I am sure that it will make its way to where it deserves to be.