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Mitti vs Mats: Dissecting the Indian wrestling debate once and for all

The Bridge caught up with WFI Secretary Vinod Tomar in a bid to understand the entire debate between traditional and modern styles of Indian wrestling

Mitti vs Mats: Dissecting the Indian wrestling debate once and for all

Wrestlers from the Shahupuri Akhada, Kolhapur


C.C. Chengappa

Updated: 6 Oct 2021 5:31 PM GMT

Mitthi v Mats. Who decides the best career path for a wrestler to traverse? A majority of Indian wrestlers begin their journey in the akhadas (wrestling grounds) around the country. Whether it be Andhra, Punjab or Haryana, mud wrestling is the way to go for all those who wish to be the biggest 'pehelwan' of them all. Traditions are the fundamental facet of any demography that revels in age-old customs. Wrestling for one has been a mainstay in India for centuries. But only time shall tell if traditional wrestling can match up to modern Olympic wrestling. Can wrestlers cope with the physical demands of mud and mat wrestling? Is there a dearth of Olympic medals in wrestling because Indians do not wish to leave their traditions behind? Or is it simply the fault of the government for not providing enough facilities to undergo the transition?

Vinod Tomar is a distinguished individual currently employed at the Wrestling Federation of India as the Secretary. He recently gave an interview to the Bridge in which he expressed his informed opinion about mud and mat wrestling in India.

Speaking on the transition from mud to mat wrestling, Tomar stated that there has been a major change in the outlook towards mat wrestling over the past few years. This has primarily been because of the involvement of the government, Wrestling Federation and the wrestlers themselves. Several years ago, there was a definite struggle in terms of the transitioning of wrestlers from mud to mats. He stated that it was never easy to get access to mats especially for local wrestling academies who were reliant on what they already had. However, the trend changed over the years and now almost 95% of academies and akhadas have mats. There is a definite surge in the popularity of wrestling in India but this has doubled in areas in which wrestling was historically popular. This is not to say that there is complete ignorance of traditional 'Dangals'. There continues to be an interest in local wrestling tournaments along with professional mat training.

One of the points that were asked about was the injuries that have taken place in recent years. Vinesh Phogat had an infamous incident at the Rio Olympics during her bout. Several other wrestlers such as Bajrang Punia have 'nagging' injuries as well. Tomar stated that this 'was all part of the game' and had nothing to do with the transition of wrestlers from mud to mat wrestling. It is true that the requirements of the two styles of wrestling are different but at the end of it, contact sports will always end in different ways especially for wrestlers. Tomar specifically touched upon the fact that some wrestlers are good at mud wrestling and display exemplary performances. But the same might not be the case when it comes to mat wrestling as they are suited to a different style. Regardless, the impact of wrestling is almost the same and the physical transition is not really different.

Vinesh Phogat's ACL injury at RIO 2016

A minor issue was also about the professional coaching for mat wrestlers. There is no doubt that Indian and foreign coaches have been brought up with different styles of training. This however does not make a difference to the training of budding wrestlers as coaches are only focused on delivering what is asked of them. For example, foreign coaches have no role to play in influencing how a wrestler transitions from mud to mat wrestling. Their job is to essentially oversee the role in winning medals at the Olympics and World Championships.

An important question that The Bridge asked was on the support of the government and federation in providing necessary facilities. The famous movie Dangal, caused a stir with the wrestling fraternity in India with its brilliant directing and acting. It also got the attention of the government in 2017 who directed that around 100 mats be sent to various akhadas for training requirements in Haryana. Is Bollywood the only way that wrestling will get the attention it deserves? Vinod Tomar replied by saying that mats are not just being provided in stadiums but in akhadas as well. They are being used as part of training regimes and for young wrestlers all across traditional wrestling strongholds. The idea behind this to help them get a grip of what mat wrestling really is before stepping into the professional wrestling scene in stadiums and academies.

The Shaupuri Akhada in Kolhapur, Maharashtra.

The transition from 'tradition to modern' has been a battle that is seen all across India in fields such as education, technology and even fitness. Given that it has also entered the domain of sports, the battle will continue to persist until both sides meet at the halfway point. There is an understanding that wrestling must continue by introducing children to the Indian ideals of strength training and muscle building. But this has to be complemented by allowing youngsters to practice and train in areas suited to modern physical needs. The Wrestling Federation has undertaken tremendous efforts to provide the needful for budding wrestlers especially over the past few years. This is the halfway point for a lot many wrestlers who dream of winning an Olympic medal one day. It remains to be seen how the rewards are reaped in the coming years. After all, India needs to hone talent that has been passed on for several centuries with modern requirements.

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