Published: 18th October 2019
Pole Trance: Meet the Mallakhamb artists who are preserving this Indian art form for posterity
Mallakhamb performers across India tell us their stories of how they learnt this traditional sport and how they are striving to get more people to watch them, get interested and preserve the art form
Whenever I would watch people performing different yogasanas and gymnastics on a seven-feet-tall wooden pole, I would wonder how they held their grip firm and performed without a single slip. Now, these are not some Bollywood movie stunt scenes where performers are harnessed. This is actually a sport which is also performed as an art form, especially during national festivals. Rarely heard of and spoken about, this sport is called Mallakhamb ('malla' meaning 'wrestler' and 'khamb' meaning 'pole'). It originated in Maharashtra but as people moved around, the sport travelled and was mastered in several parts of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. However today, very few people can perform the sport. In order to preserve this dying art form and teach the new generation about Mallakhamb, a few youngsters still practice it and even teach it for free. Rajesh Mudki from Mumbai, Ashok K from Chennai and Girish Jiddimani from Lakshmeshwar in Karnataka are among those few Mallakhamb artists who are raising awareness among people.
Mumbai's Mallakhamb magic
When we spoke to Rajesh Mudki, he was performing in Egypt and was full of energy and enthusiasm to climb up the pole as many times as he could. And the response from people was equally amazing, expressed Rajesh. Dedicated to his craft, Rajesh performs in different places and conducts workshops across India. Unlike most parents hoping for their children to become doctors or engineers, Rajesh's father always wanted his son to be part of some sport and excel in his life. He says, "I was only six years old when I first climbed this wooden pole. My father enrolled me in an institute in Mumbai that trained children in all kinds of sports. When I saw this pole and people performing on it, I knew that I could do it too. And I climbed up like any experienced person who has practised for many years."
Incorporating Mallakhamb: Rajesh Mudki at Nritarutya Contemporary Indian Dance Academy teaching Mallakhamb to dancers (Pic: Madhuri Upadhya)
Rajesh first participated in a state-level Mallakhamb competition when he was only 14 years old and won. And he continued to win many medals and certificates at the national level. He says, "In 2006, I was awarded the Shiv Chhatrapati Award which is the highest honour bestowed upon a sportsperson by the Maharashtra State Government. I've been performing this art form for more than 29 years and have taught it to several people of all ages. At one point in time, I felt the need to look beyond competitions and perform it as an art. So in 2007, I formed my own group called Mallakhamb India in Mumbai and, harnessing the power of the internet, we created our own website. From then on, there was no looking back. We started receiving calls and emails, asking us to conduct classes and workshops. Today, there are around 17 people in our group who go to different parts of India to conduct workshops."
This young man and his team became famous to such an extent that they received an email from Ellen DeGeneres to perform on her show in 2010. While at first Rajesh ignored it assuming it was spam, his friend later informed him that Ellen runs one of the biggest shows in America. That's when Rajesh replied to the email and flew to the USA to perform at the Ellen DeGeneres Show. Observing this young talent, Cirque du Soleil, an entertainment company from Canada, signed a contract with him last year. And this was Rajesh's biggest break. Currently, Rajesh and his performing partner Kalpesh Jhadav are creating Mallakhamb magic across the globe.
Mastery over Mallakhamb: Rajesh Mudki has his own Mallakhamb group in Mumbai (Pic: Rajesh Mudki)
Ashok K is a well-known name in Chennai when it comes to performing Mallakhamb. A final-year engineering student from Rajalakshmi Engineering College, he took up Mallakhamb when he was in class VII. Like every other Mallakhamb enthusiast, he too has participated in many competitions. But in 2018, he went one step further and attempted an exam conducted by the Tamil Nadu Mallakhamb Federation and is now a certified teacher. Ashok, along with Arunbabu B and Priyadarshini M, who are also Mallakhamb performers, trains 130 students at the Railway Police Force training centre in Chennai. "We begin our classes with different yoga postures and exercises that we teach children to perform on the pole. Due to fear or improper grip, they might lose balance and fall. Hence, we don't encourage them to climb up the seven-feet-tall pole at first. We have a three feet and a five feet pole that children practice with first. They are taught to perform the padmasana, shavasana and a few other asanas. When children are young, their body is quite flexible, so it is easy for us to teach them," says Ashok.
Chennai champ: Ashok and his team teaches Mallakhamb to 130 kids in Chennai's RPF centre (Pic: Ashok K)
He also adds, "Apart from the normal form of Mallakhamb which is performed on a wooden pole, there is Rope Mallakhamb and Hanging Mallakhamb. In the case of Rope Mallakhamb, the person performs all kinds of postures using a rope. Usually, girls prefer the rope format over the pole. As it involves working against gravity, they need to use their toes, muscles in the back of the knees, arms to hold on tightly to the thick rope. The trick involves wrapping one's feet around the rope and performing different postures. Hanging Mallakhamb is another type of challenge because a wooden pole, which is shorter in length than the usual pole, is tied to a chain with hooks. With the pole swinging in the air, it becomes tough for beginners to hold on to the pole and perform various postures. It takes years of practice to gain mastery over these techniques."
Ashok and his team are looking forward to participating in the National Mallakhamb Competition and they hope to win themselves a trophy.
Karnataka's diff-abled champions
After all that you've read about Mallakhamb, if you think that it can only be performed by able-bodied people, then think again. In Lakshmeshwara, Gadag, the sport is performed flawlessly by deaf and mute children. The Shri B D Tatti Residential School for Children with Hearing Impairment has been teaching Mallakhamb for more than six years now, thanks to their chief trainer Girish Jiddimani who has never given up in training these kids to perform some of the most difficult stunts. When we ask him about the programme and how it all started, he says, "During one of the occasions at school, N S Patil, a pioneer in Mallakhamb, suggested teaching the sport to the children. That's when I was appointed to this school to train the children. Initially, I felt teaching them was challenging as they can't hear or speak. But that's not a big deal now. They can see what postures I'm doing and mimic them accordingly. Now there are 30 students who are learning and a few of them are able to perform Mallakhamb flawlessly."
Girish's and his students' day begins at 5:30 am, where they gather in the ground to do some warm-up exercises and yogasanas. Then, the students are divided into two groups. While one group practices Rope Mallakhamb, the other group practices on a wooden pole fixed to the land. Girish explains, "In order to see that the children's hands or legs don't slip while climbing the pole, we apply castor oil to the surface. Then, one by one they wait for instructions and speedily climb the rope. Sometimes I use sign language bur most of the time, they watch their friends doing different postures and mimic them. We teach them over 20 to 30 different asanas and postures including dasarangasana, bagaluti, veerabhadrasana, rajasana, flag pose or dwaja, hand balancing, natrajasana, nidrasana, parvathasana, gurupakad, sankyasana and the list goes on. It is a practice for us to bow down in front of the pole before we climb it. We call it salaam and every student follows it."
All in one: The children's team at Shri B D Tatti Residential School for Children with Hearing Impairment perform Mallakhamb and practice on daily basis (Pic: Hemanth D)
When we ask him about the benefits of Mallakhamb for children, he says, "The pole doesn't have anything to hold. If you climb it and sit at the top, one will feel independent. Hence it is taught to the children to make them confident about themselves and tell them that they also can achieve anything. Apart from this, they become more active and their logical thinking capacity increases. No matter what, they will try to find a solution to every problem in their lives." Not just Girish, even his students are happy to learn this sport as they have something different to show their parents and siblings whenever they are home.
Ashok informs us that on the weekdays, classes are held in the evenings from 5 to 6.30, and on Sundays, classes are held in the mornings