Visually impaired gymnasts of the Victoria Memorial School of Blind defy gravity to effortlessly glide, roll, swing and perform yogasanas on and around an eight-feet-tall pole at the Samarth Vyayam Mandir in Shivaji Park, Mumbai. Fellow athletes and sports enthusiasts at the public park cheer them on, but these boys hear nothing but the instructions of their guru Uday Deshpande. They are demonstrating a variety of Mallakhamb poses.
For the uninitiated, the word Mallakhamb is a combination of the terms ‘malla’ meaning wrestler and ‘khamba’, which means pole and it was originally a support exercise for wrestlers. It is a unique combination of yoga, gymnastics and martial arts that can be traced back to the 12-century Maharashtra, where it was first mentioned in the 12th century Chalukya text Manas Olhas as ‘mall-stambha’.
Many variations of Mallakhamb have been introduced over the years, informs Ravi Gaikwad, who has spent two decades (and counting) practising and teaching this ancient sport. He is also one of the co-founders of Mallakhamb India, a group that spreads knowledge about this sport on a national and international level by participating in television shows such as Entertainment Ke Liye Kuch Bhi Karega (India) and Georgia’s Got Talent (Georgia). His group is known for combining traditional Mallakhamb with aerial choreography.
A girl performs yogasana on a rope at Shivaji Park
Gaikwad divides the types in two: competitive, which includes, pole (fixed), rope (cane) and hanging Mallakhamb; and demonstration, which features the use of traditional weapons, fire and glass bottles. “While pole Mallakhamb is performed on a wooden pole called sheesham, the rope/cane one uses a thick cotton rope and hanging uses a shorter pole that is suspended by a hook and chain. You can watch these at sports competitions,” he explains. As for the second type, which can mostly be seen at performing art programmes, it features gymnasts performing with flaming torches and. According to him, the thrill of the twists, turns and stretches (with or without props) is what keeps the spectators hooked to a Mallakhamb demonstration. “Each of these has its own challenges and it takes years of practice to master,” he adds.
For Gaikwad as well as Deshpande, Mallakhamb is the ultimate exercise for not just the body but also mind. “Yoga has its own benefits and performing these poses on a pole or rope helps a gymnast learn balance and self-control. It focuses on building core strength, agility and aids full body coordination,” Gaikwad reveals. In addition to those, the sport also known to enhance one’s mental ability. The asanas and tricks showcased in Mallakhamb promote logical thinking, creativity, concentration and build self-esteem.
Guru Uday Deshpande with one of his oldest students
Over 800 years later, this ancient sport is still relevant because of people like Deshpande and Gaikwad, who are globalising it in their unique ways, and it’s slowly and steadily gaining popularity as a means to stay fit and build mental and physical strength.
Images: Sohail Joshi for Mast Maharashtra