Behind the revival of wrestling wrought by Sushil Kumar stands his coach, Satpal Singh. A contemporary of Dadu Chaugule, Satpal Singh has worked miracles with his wrestlers.

At the 2008 Olympics, the seven-member men’s wrestling team from India featured five wrestlers from Satpal’s akhada at Chhatrasal; it was the same in 2012. He taught both the wrestlers who won medals at these Games—Sushil and Yogeshwar—since they were children. Of the five Indian medallists at the wrestling world championships since 2000, three are Satpal’s students. At the national championships, it is common occurrence that both finalists in almost all weight classes and age groups come from Chhatrasal.

The extraordinary role this akhada has played in India’s recent international wrestling record is founded on three simple things: shifting the training focus to Olympic mats; access to a number of high-quality mats; and giving a free hand to athletes like Sushil and Yogeshwar to set modern training protocols.

If the techniques of kushti and international wrestling are the same, why is the difference between fighting on mats and in pits so important?

It is because earthen surfaces offer far more friction and traction, allowing wrestlers to be stable on their feet, and slowing down the speed of the fight. On the slippery surface of the mat, keeping yourself grounded is an altogether different matter, and fights are furiously pacey.

It’s the difference between driving a rally car on dirt tracks and racing on asphalt.

Satpal fought at the 1972 Olympics, and got to train on a thin jute mat—for the first time in his life—for just a month before the Olympics. It left him wholly unprepared for the surface actually used at the Games.

“My only thought was, how do I keep myself from losing my balance,” Satpal says of that experience. “I went there thinking I would beat everybody. Instead, I could not sleep at night thinking about just what a fool I was making of myself slipping around on the mat. I decided back then that if I ever get a chance to teach wrestling, my students will not face this humiliation.”

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B

y the time Satpal went for the 1972 Munich Games, wrestling in India was already in the grip of a protracted death. The chief reason for this was the loss of the sport’s most enthusiastic patrons, the rajas of various princely states, who were rapidly losing their money and power post-independence. By the 1970s, the last of the princely states had been dissolved, and the onus of sponsoring the sport was left to the government.

India’s engagement with international wrestling had started with some promise. Bombay wrestler Rashid Mian Anwar won India’s first individual medal at an international event at the 1934 British Empire Games (the precursor of the Commonwealth Games). In 1952, K.D. Jadhav won India’s first individual Olympic medal, a bronze. At the 1962 Asian Games, India won twelve wrestling medals, its best ever, a record that was only broken in 2010.

None of those wrestlers had ever practised on mats, and had no structured training in the international style. They practised kushti on earthen akhadas, fought in local dangals, and took their slippery chances on unfamiliar mats at international competitions.

Till the middle of the 1960s, it was still possible to do this and win medals at international events, because Olympic wrestling rules and systems were still very much a work in progress.

At the 1960 Olympics, for example, American Shelby Autrie Wilson, twenty-three years old, won gold without ever having fought at an international event before. By the 1950s, the US had introduced foam-core mats with a smooth, bonded vinyl surface that had revolutionized wrestling in America. The mats at the 1960 Olympics, however, were very different. Wilson’s teammate Ed DeWitt described it as “felt” in an interview: “Never saw anything like it…I’m not sure what it was filled with…could have been horsehair,” he said.

By the middle of the 1960s, these differences were blurring, and international rules and regulations were becoming more consistent. Countries with a rich history of traditional wrestling—the USA, Japan, Iran, Turkey, the states of the Soviet Union—quickly adopted Olympic protocols for the sport, including the surface on which to wrestle.

The first mat at a private akhada came to India as late as 1979, when a basic jute one was installed at the Guru Hanuman akhada in Delhi, where Satpal trained. The next one came in 1992, at Chhatrasal akhada. At that time, there were less than ten mats in all government-run training centres—thin jute ones with little resemblance to Olympic mats.

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S

atpal is not only at the centre of India’s wrestling resurrection, he has lived through the transformation himself. His father was a farmer and a 6’2”-tall fairground wrestler from Bawana, which was once a village on the outskirts of Delhi, and is now very much a part of the city. Satpal was the only one of his three boys (he also had two daughters) of comparative height and built [sic]. 

He put the boy into the village akhada, and travelled with him for local dangals. When he was fifteen, Satpal’s father decided to take him to Delhi, to an akhada run by a wrestling guru he had once learnt from and deeply respected. It was an old akhada, established in 1947 with money from the Birla family, one of the foremost business dynasties in India. The Birlas had been impressed by Guru Hanuman, who until then had led a largely itinerant life, training pahalwans in Calcutta, Banaras, Lucknow and various other cities famed for their wrestling schools. The Birlas gave Guru Hanuman a small piece of land next to their mills in the north of Delhi.

When Satpal arrived at the akhada, it was in dismal state. There were barely ten pahalwans who came for training, and none of them lived on the premises. Not that there were living quarters. The akhada had nothing except for a tin-shedded wrestling pit, a 6-foot by 6-foot Hanuman temple, and a large, shady sheesham tree.

Satpal had never been to Delhi before, and the big alien city and the spartan, run-down akhada reduced him to tears. When he went home to Bawana for the weekend, he refused to go back. Satpal’s father was having none of it. “Either you become a wrestler, or you work full-time looking after the cattle,” he told the young boy. That settled it. Satpal went back. He made the wrestling pit his home, sleeping on the cool earth in the summer, or under the sheesham tree. Winter was another matter. He would have to crawl into the mandir to escape the cold at night, curled into a foetal position, hemmed by walls that could barely contain him.

His family sent him fresh milk, ghee, fruits and vegetables every day. A driver on a bus route from Bawana to Delhi, a friend of the father, would make the delivery. Young Satpal would wait at the bus stop at the appointed time to receive it, and sometimes the driver would tell him, “Pahalwanji, aaj toh hum thoda doodh se chai pee liye, toh aadha doodh hai.” (Today I made some tea with some of the milk, so you only get half.)

Guru Hanuman filled me with awe,” Satpal recalls. “He did not know much about mat wrestling, but he had the spirit of the wrestling god moving through him. He spoke little, but saw everything.

There was only one thing that helped Satpal keep the loneliness at bay—he was falling in love with wrestling. Sundays were the best. On that day, there would be the big dangal for schoolchildren at the park next to Jama Masjid. Satpal would get to test himself against people his own age. He would get some money if he won. One Sunday, he won nine fights in a row. He bought himself a pair of canvas shoes with the money.

“At that time there were hardly any TVs, so these things were huge,” Satpal says. “The park would be packed with people to see the fights. For a young boy, that kind of atmosphere is just an out-of-body experience. I used to tell myself that no matter what happens, I will never lose a fight at Jama Masjid.”

Guru Hanuman tapped into this thought. He improved on it, polished it and strengthened it, until Satpal became the country’s strongest, most invincible wrestler.

“Guru Hanuman filled me with awe,” Satpal recalls. “He did not know much about mat wrestling, but he had the spirit of the wrestling god moving through him. He spoke little, but saw everything. He would go to dangals, make a note of every mistake we made, and then come back and drill us till those flaws were ironed out. He could make you tough like no one else.”

In his first year with Guru Hanuman, Satpal won the U-19 National Championship—he was still only fifteen. Next year, he competed in the senior nationals and won. Satpal was responding to the wrestler’s training and diet with alarming potency. He fought the first junior national in the 46 kg class, but was fighting the senior nationals the next year in 62 kg, and the next at 80 kg.

Attracted by Satpal’s success at the nationals, other boys began trickling in to the akhada. The construction of squat little living quarters became a necessity.

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F

our years after he came to Guru Hanuman’s akhada, Satpal was selected to compete at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Here was a completely new experience—the wrestlers in the team were expected to wear shoes, but no one could tell them what kind of shoes. They got cheap canvas shoes from the government, and old wrestling leotards that were already frayed and discoloured—“We had to sew them in places ourselves,” Satpal says.

They were going to fight on mats, and Satpal had never seen one till he went for the month-long national camp before the Games. But there Satpal was in the presence of some of the legends of Indian wrestling—people like Jagroop Rathi and Chandgi Ram, also known as the “Master”, and he basked in the knowledge they shared freely.

When they finally landed in Munich, Satpal was dazzled.

Satpal became what Guru Hanuman wanted him to be. From 1973 to 1980, he won every major national competition and dangal—Rustom-e-Hind, Bharat Kesri, Rustom-e-Bharat, Hind Kesri. He was invincible.

“I had no idea that such places even existed,” Satpal exclaims, the memory clearly fresh in his mind. “The hotels, the transport systems, the buildings and roads, the gyms and the shiny mats… there was an abundance of everything, and everything was beautiful and clean and sparkling. I felt awed and amazed, but at the same time it was a massive psychological setback. I thought, ‘How am I going to get on the mat wearing my old discoloured leotard? How am I going to explain the canvas shoes? What kind of a country do I come from? Are we really this poor?”’

Even though Satpal won four of his bouts at Munich, he still finished sixth. A medal was never within reach.

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W

hen he came back to India, he found out that his eldest sister had died of an illness. In fact, she had died soon after the trials, six months earlier, while he was still in India, but Satpal’s father had made sure that the news did not reach him—he felt that it was necessary to cut his son off from the family altogether.

“He thought it would only distract me,” Satpal says. “He used to get angry if I went home for holidays. He stopped coming to see me at competitions. He stopped coming to the akhada.”

Satpal became what Guru Hanuman wanted him to be. From 1973 to 1980, he won every major national competition and dangal—Rustom-e-Hind, Bharat Kesri, Rustom-e-Bharat, Hind Kesri. He was invincible.

“By this time, Guru Hanuman was everything to me. Coach, father, mother, everything. If I won, no one was happier than him,” he says. “I remember in 1976, I won the Rustom-e-Hind in Rohtak. It was a very big deal then. My final was with Jagdish Mittal, who was at that time the most famous wrestler in Delhi and Punjab.

“A huge guy. Just a year before that, Guruji had asked me not to fight with Jagdish at a competition because he thought I would get injured. There was more history as well—Jagdish’s father and my father had trained under Guruji together many years back. There was lots of excitement about this, lots of tension. Journalists had come, All India Radio was broadcasting the fight.

“I pinned him in three minutes. Guruji went mad with happiness. The All India Radio reporter had told Guruji that he should wait at a certain spot after the fight, and he would get me there as well so both of us could be interviewed together. Guruji forgot all about it. He forgot about his things at the guest house where he was staying. He was so happy that he just started walking from the venue back towards the train station. I can imagine him smiling to himself as he did this. That day, no one could find Guruji! It was only the next day, when I came back to the akhada, that I found out that he had come back to Delhi.”

In 1975, Satpal became Bharat Kesri, and a month later, he was also in the final of Rustom-e-Bharat. The venue was the historic Shahu Khasbag Maidan in Kolhapur. His opponent: Dadu Chaugule.

“It was the biggest dangal I can remember,” says Satpal. “Every famous heavyweight pahalwan in India was there—Master Chandgi Ram, Kartar Singh, Sukhchain Singh, Birajdar, Vijay Chura. Thousands of people had gathered to watch the fight, the stadium was full and there was a thick crowd of people outside it as well. It was madness.”

The final lasted over fifteen minutes. “But in the end, I pinned him. People went wild!”

 Satpal, in his langot, covered in earth, was hoisted on an elephant and taken around town. He can still recall the peculiar odour of the elephant.

“I was bloodthirsty,” Satpal says. “Bloodthirsty. There was a saying that if you could withstand three minutes in a wrestling match with Satpal, you would be offered a job in the armed forces or the police.”

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Satpal had some successs on the mat as well, winning medals at three consecutive Asian Games and Commonwealth Games from 1974. He is still the only Indian to have done so. But an Olympic medal eluded him.

“There was no reason why I could not have won an Olympic medal,” he says. “The man I beat at the 1982 Asian Games final had won the World Championship that year. If we had the right support and the right coaching, many of us could have won at the Olympics. We have never had any officials who really cared or knew how to nurture athletes and do what is good for them, so we never had a system to back us. The sports administrators were only looking to make money for themselves, consolidate their own political powers. The sport was not their priority. It still isn’t. The only thing sports federations do is push files.”

In 1983, using his influence as a top athlete, Satpal wrangled a position in the Delhi government’s sports administration. He was sent to look after Chhatrasal Stadium. He got a wrestling pit made next to the main stadium and started an akhada.

Soon after, Sushil Kumar and Yogeshwar Dutt joined the akhada.

When Sushil won the World Cadet Games in 1998, Satpal began his campaign for an Olympic mat. The next year, he got one from the Delhi government. Two years later, he got another one. Now there are enough mats for a hundred wrestlers to train simultaneously.

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There is a clear reason why Delhi and Haryana are so over-represented in India’s international wrestling teams. There are Olympic mats in every major akhada in these two states, and a fair number of mats in smaller akhadas too. Politicians in Haryana must—almost compulsorily—sponsor an akhada and furnish it with an Olympic mat if they want any influence over their electorate.

“In sporting terms, this is just the beginning,” Sushil says. “The effects of this access to mats will start showing results now.

   “Of course, there are still many things we need to modernize, including our knowledge of training techniques. For example, we still think that the only measure of how well you are training is how long you spend working out. How many dands did you do today? Our idea of mehnat is unscientific and narrow, and coaches don’t know any better than what tradition has taught them. There has to be a lot more learning, a lot more exchange of knowledge.”