A sport & an art

A sport & an art

Traditionally conceived as a fitness sport, ‘mallakamba’ has emerged as a performing art in recent times. Divyashri Mudakavi describes how an initiative in Gadag district has taken the rural sport to the next level, making it popular across the State.

In Lakshmeshwar, a town in Gadag district, there is at least one mallakamba athlete in every house. Children here have inherited sporting talent from the older generation which had an inclination towards fitness and sports, especially rural sports. As a result, the town has become the cradle of many traditional sports like wrestling, kabaddi, atya patya, cycling and mallakamba.

Interestingly, unlike many other state-level sports associations that are located in Bengaluru, the mallakamba association  is in Lakshmeshwar. This association is considered as the ‘mother of mallakamba’ in Karnataka. What began as a trickle in Lakshmeshwar two decades ago, mallakamba has today become a flood with its units now reaching many places across the State.

Strength & flexibility
At its core, mallakamba is an aerial sport which involves entwining the body around a pole or balancing with a rope. The word comprises two words malla which means a gymnast and kamba which means pole. Gymnasts perform various acrobatics, exercises and yoga on the pole which leave the onlookers stunned. Earlier, wrestlers used to practice only wrestling exercises on the pole but now, it includes more of yogic and gymnastic postures. While, boys usually perform ‘pole or fixed mallakamba’ and ‘hanging mallakamba’, girls take to ‘rope mallakamba’.

In ‘pole mallakamba’, a vertical pole made of teakwood (or sheesham wood) is erected firmly on the ground with half-a-metre pole extending below the ground level. The height of the pole above the ground is 2.6 metres. The base of the pole has a circumference of 50 cm and the pole further goes on tapering up to the circumference of 25 cm. The pole has a neck extending up to 20 cm height and a knob. The pole is smeared with castor oil to give it sturdiness and smoothness to avoid skin aberrations. It also enables the gymnasts to get a grip on the pole. In ‘hanging mallakamba’, a pole measuring half the size of ‘pole mallakamba’ is hung using iron hooks and chains. In ‘rope mallakamba’, a sturdy rope measuring 5.5 metres and made completely of cotton is hung. The challenge in ‘rope mallakamba’ is that the gymnast has to perform yoga and exercises floating in the air without knotting the rope.

Also, some new innovations like ‘bottle mallakamba’ have been made in recent years. Mallakamba is also unique as it can be performed solo and in groups too. While yoga postures like padmasana, parvatasana, shavasana, bajarangi pakad, Nataraja asana are performed solo, pyramid asana and shambar shot are group performances. As the sport was revived in Maharashtra a few centuries ago, many key words used in the sport are in Marathi.

“The exercises performed on the mallakamba are both tough and creative. Due to this, it is viewed both as a sport as well as an art. Though it was initially conceived as a fitness sport due to its numerous health benefits, it has also emerged as a performing art these days. Ultimately, it is a test of scientific streamlining of strength, skill, discipline and innovation. A gymnast takes at least two to three years of rigorous training to learn this sport,” says S F Kodli of Lakshmeshwar, who is the vice-president of Mallakambh Federation of India. 

M I Kanake, a mallakamba trainer, explains that in competitions, a gymnast has to perform 10 exercises in 60 to 90 seconds in the first round of compulsory set. In the second round or the optional set, gymnasts can select the exercises of their choice. The performance is assessed by a panel of three to five judges. The judges rate the performance on a scale of 10 points based on parameters like degree of difficulty of the exercise, execution, grace and coordination. 

The origin of mallakamba is traced back to the mythological period. But the first written reference of mallakamba can be found in the book Manasa Ullasa written by Someshwar in the 12th century. It is also said that rulers like Krishnadevaraya and Shivaji practised mallakamba.

On the revival path
The fading mallakamba was given a rebirth during the period of Bajirao Peshwa II by Guru Balambhatta Dada Deodhar in the 19th century. It is said that two wrestlers Ali and Gul from the kingdom of Hyderabad Nizam challenged the Peshwas. Balambhatta Dada Deodhar accepted it and went to the forests of Saptagiri (near Nashik) to practice yoga and wrestling. There in a temple premises, he noticed a monkey playing with a lamp post. Inspired by that, he practised the sport and defeated the wrestlers of Hyderabad.

He considered the sport as a gift of Lord Hanuman and then popularised and taught it to the wrestlers across the country. His disciples Kondamadevanana and his follower Damodar Guru Moghe improvised it and the ‘wrestlers’pole’ became an integral part of the Maratha kingdom. It later became dominant during the period of Bal Gangadhar Tilak and was spread throughout Bombay presidency which included parts of present-day North Karnataka. In this period, almost every traditional gym (called Garadi Mane in Kannada) had a mallakamba (pole) installed.

Gradually, Marathi teachers began teaching mallakamba in schools. One such teacher fondly called ‘Pathak Master’ began teaching mallakamba in holidays in Lakshmeshwar.

Thus began the tryst of modern-day mallakamba with Lakshmeshwar. However, the popularity was not much as it was not a ‘recognised sport’. This time, it was multi-faceted physical instructor N S Patil who rejuvenated it. He  started promoting mallakamba in Lakshmeshwar in 1976. He even formed a mallakamba team at Karnataka University, Dharwad. He then played a significant role in forming the first mallakamba federation of the country. He also started the Karnataka Mallakamba Association at Lakshmeshwar and worked as its secretary. Within a few years, he began churning national-level players at Lakshmeshwar. The Karnataka team also started participating in national championships. His disciples spread all over Karnataka and began grooming young talents. Also, schools started training their students in mallakamba. Gradually, people started recognising N S Patil as the pioneer of mallakamba in Karnataka. Due to all these efforts, Lakshmeshwar became the epicentre of mallakamba in the State.

“Presently, there are 39 mallakamba teams in Karnataka. About 20 states participate in the national championship. When I began teaching mallakamba, there was less scope for it though it requires minimal investment. Our children even performed in fairs and other programmes to popularise the sport then. Though mallakamba got encouragement in foreign countries, we struggled to get recognition for it in the country. I am happy that now, it has been included in the National School Games also. But above all, it is a sport which improves our concentration, dexterity and poise,” N S Patil says.

Today, mallakamba has become a known sport in the State. The team trained by C K Channal, a disciple of N S Patil and a mallakamba teacher from Tulsigeri in Bagalkot district, has performed at various programmes like Hampi Utsava, Mysuru Dasara and Chalukya Utsava, and has won accolades. Surprisingly, there are teams of deaf and dumb students that are performing mallakamba. “Students of our school are learning mallakamba braving odds and have also performed in many programmes,” says Somanna Mahajanshettar of B D Tatti Residential School for Hearing Impaired at Lakshmeshwar.

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