When Mahendra Gaikwad was only a young boy his father Babasaheb Gaikwad had certain expectations from him. There was no question about what the young boy, who was born in the village of Shirsi in the southern Maharashtra district of Solapur, was to do in life. “ Usko pehelwan banna tha (He was going to become a wrestler) . It’s in our blood. My father was a pehelwan. I and my brother were wrestlers. Mahendra is the third generation in our family to wrestle,” father Babasaheb says.
The direction of his pehelwani career was also mapped out. While wrestlers in the rest of the world had long since moved to the synthetic foam mat with dreams of winning a medal at the Olympics, this part of Maharashtra’s wrestling heartland, it seems, was satisfied with the old ways. Here all wrestlers competed on pressed earth or mitti. And while other wrestlers might struggle through gruelling weight cuts, the best pehelwans, in Babasaheb’s belief, were the ones who competed without any weight restrictions. The reward for winning wasn’t a medal but a golden mace – the weapon of Hanuman, the god of Indian wrestling.
Just like his grandfather, father, and uncle, Mahendra was expected to wrestle wearing a loincloth in a circle marked out on mitti. If he was any good, Babasaheb hoped his son would wrestle in the maidan (tournament), held in November each year during Vetal Yatra – the festival of the patron village deity of Shirsi. If he was very good, he could think of travelling around the state competing in maidans as a prize fighter. If he was excellent, Babasaheb hoped his son could even wrestle in the Maharashtra Kesari - a state-wide open weight mitti kushti competition. “If you win that competition, that means you are the greatest wrestler in Maharashtra. You become famous here,” he says.
Babasaheb’s expectations on the limit of his son’s possible fame will have to be scaled up. On Wednesday, the 20-year-old won a silver medal at the World Junior Championships in the men’s 125kg freestyle division. “ Hum soch rahe the yeh Maharashtra Kesari ban sakta hai par yeh toh international nikal gaya. Yeh toh sapne se bhi bahar hai,(We were thinking maybe he could become a Maharashtra Kesari but he became an international star. This is beyond what we dreamed of)” chuckles Babasaheb heartily.
The result didn’t just come as a surprise for Babasaheb. It’s also a historic first in the sport in India. While Mahendra lost 13-2 in the final to Iran’s Masoumi Valadi, he had beaten two tough opponents early on including Turkey’s Adil Misirci -- a bronze medallist at the U-23 European championships earlier this year. “We expected that he might get a bronze medal. To reach the final is a huge achievement. He’s the first Indian in a very long time to reach this level in the super heavyweight class,” says former international wrestler Kaka Pawar at whose academy in Pune, Mahendra trains.
There is no shortage of medallists in the lower weight classes – India won 6 bronze medals in various weight categories (57kg, 61kg, 65kg, 70kg, 74kg, and 97kg) at the 2022 junior worlds in the freestyle division. But medals in the highest weight division are rare and it had been over 20 years — prior to Mahendra’s feat— since an Indian had reached the final. (Palwinder Cheema had in 2001). “The belief was that in India you don’t get heavyweight wrestlers. And if you do, they prefer not to compete on the mat,” says Pawar.
There’s some truth to this. There’s been more opportunity for super heavyweight wrestlers in maidan kushti, or dangals as they are known in north India, compared to mat wrestling “If you are a heavyweight wrestler, there is a lot of money in mitti kushti. You can get 2-3 lakh rupees for one bout. Why would you want to train four years for just a few chances at the Commonwealth, Asian Games, World championships, or Olympic games,” questions Pawar.
Mahendra didn’t start out thinking of the World Championships. He started his wrestling practise under the eyes of his uncles, Kakasaheb Gaikwad and Naganath Gaikwad, in the Jay Hanuman talim – the academies that are known as akharas in North India-- in his village. “He trained like how we had done and how our father had trained. All the exercises were the ones he did in the mitti itself,” says Babasaheb.
Mahendra took part in local competitions but there was little in his early performances that would make him stand apart from other wrestlers. His transformation happened, his father says, when he took him three years ago to Kaka Pawar’s academy in Pune. While maidan kushti still draws crowds of tens of thousands, Pawar though maintains there is a place for mat wrestling. His academy in Pune --“ Antarashtriya kushti sankulan (international wrestling centre) ” -- is named with that belief in mind.
Mahendra hated it at first. 250km away from his home, he couldn’t deal with the loneliness and the gruelling regime. “He ran away from the academy the first time. I had to bring him back and stay with him until he got used to it. I had to. The Academy of Kaka Pawar is very famous and if he wanted to become a good wrestler he had to train here,” says Babasaheb.
If Mahendra didn’t like Pawar’s academy, Pawar didn’t think much of the 16-year-old either. Babasaheb is a fairly wealthy farmer with a fruit orchard over several acres of land and over 40 cows, and Mahendra never lacked a good diet as a child. Kaka Pawar puts it even more bluntly. “He was really fat. He was only five-eight because he hadn’t completed growing but was around 100 kilos. You know, how when you churn curd and that first sphere of butter forms. He was like that -- lone ka gola (ball of butter). But when you keep churning it and add some heat to it, it becomes like ghee. That’s what he is now,” says Pawar.
If Pawar was willing to put the time and effort on the youngster, it was because he thought he had something special. “He was naturally very strong. And as he adapted to our training techniques he lost a lot of fat and added muscle. He’s not carrying any flab on him now. Now, he’s six foot and about 126 or 127 kilos. He still cuts about 1 or 2 kilos before a competition but he is in very good shape. He’s also very disciplined and hardworking. But most importantly he has a lot of self-belief. Before the World Championships while most of us weren’t very sure how he would do, he kept saying he will come back victorious,” says Pawar.
It’s also helped Mahendra that his arrival at Kaka Pawar’s talim coincided with a resurgence of heavyweight wrestling in Maharashtra. While North India’s Haryana dominates wrestling in most weight categories (of India’s 6 bronze medallists in freestyle at the 2022 World Championships, five are from Haryana while one is from UP ), wrestlers from Maharashtra are increasingly competitive in the open weight category. In 2019 Abhijit Kakte became the first from the state to reach the finals of the nationals, followed by Shivraj Rakshe winning gold at the same championships in 2021. Both incidentally train at Pawar’s talim.
With a tough training pool to fight his way through, Mahendra also improved. Mahendra won gold at the junior nationals last year and although he failed in his bid to qualify for the Indian Commonwealth Games team, he qualified for his first international tour at the Junior Asian Championships in Kyrgyzstan last month where he won a silver.
Through his rise, Mahendra hasn’t lost touch with the mitti kushti that he started his career with. He still competes in those tournaments. At the Maharashtra Kesari this year, he nearly fulfilled his father’s early ambitions for him before losing in the semifinals. Kaka Pawar also sees no harm in taking part in these contests. “There are people who say that you should focus entirely on the mat. But this is our parampara (heritage). We have to maintain it also. Each week at our talim we spend one day in training in the mitti. Since it is a lot harder to push opponents, you need to make a stronger grip on the mitti. It helps the wrestlers build strength in their legs also,” he says
There is an even more basic advantage. “One of the reasons we are now having many good wrestlers in the open weight category in Maharashtra is because there is a lot of incentive for families to encourage their children to go into mitti kushti,” says Pawar. “And if they perform on the mat, it makes people more interested in seeing them,” says Pawar.
That’s the way it is for Mahendra too. While his silver medal at the junior worlds marks him out to become a major contender in the Indian mat wrestling scene over the next few years, it’s likely to boost his profile in the mitti kushti circuit too -- aficionados sometimes complain about his wrestling style which features few spectacular throws but the safety first approach translates well on the mat. Mahendra will likely continue to take part in these competitions, perhaps even fulfil his father’s hopes and win the Maharashtra Kesari next time around.
For Kaka Pawar though the medal is more significant than what it can immediately bring to Mahendra. “This is a very important medal for wrestling and specifically Maharashtra wrestling. So many young wrestlers who normally are satisfied with just competing in mitti kushti now know that it’s possible to win medals at the international level as well. Their ambitions will grow as well,” he says.
Babasaheb’s ambitions certainly have. Where he once would have been happy with Mahendra taking part in the Maharashtra Kesari, he’s thinking bigger now. “ Maidan kushti aata rahega. Abhi toh isko Olympics jana hai. (the maidan wrestling will keep happening. Now he has to go to the Olympics)” says Babasaheb.