Learning The Ancient Martial Art Of Mallakhamb



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Uday Deshpande has been teaching Mallakhamb, the ancient martial art and aerial sport that improves the body, the mind, and the soul, for 40 years at Shivaji Park at the Shree Samartha Vyayam Mandir. It was founded in 1923 and moved to Shivaji Park in 1949. Free Rope Mallakhamb sessions for all are conducted daily from 7 a.m. to 8 a.m. Anyone from 5 to 85 years old is welcome to join.

Shree Samartha Vyayam Mandir, Swatantrya Veer Savarkar Marg, Shivaji Park, Mumbai 400 028


“I start my day at four in the morning and end it at 10 in the night.”

That’s barely five hours of sleep, I thought, when Uday Deshpande told me about his daily routine. Dressed in black tennis shorts with his signature glasses and a humble smile on his face is the only way I remember this man who’s responsible for keeping the art of Mallakhamb alive.

Not much had changed since I last visited Shree Samartha Vyayam Mandir some 15 years ago. The earthy smell of red mud, the little Hanuman idol, the grated coconut and sugar prasad every Saturday (the taste of which I still remember), students in the staple white and blue dress code loitering around the field, some practicing gymnastics, some doing Rope Mallakhamb and some warming up for their turn. The age old Institution was bustling with fun and fitness even late on a humid evening.

Each time a student greeted Uday Sir with the traditional SSVM Namaste – right hand folded against chest and a light tip-toe movement – jolted me to the past. Vyayam Mandir (Marathi for “temple of exercises”) has always held discipline and respect in high regard, and that can be seen in Uday Sir’s outlook too. I had never been to his office when I was a student here, but years later I still felt like a teacher’s pet sitting across him. That was his persona on the field.

We looked at the future of Mallakhamb and the potential of this Institution to survive in the modern world abuzz with fitness mantras.

“So, Vyayam Mandir was not founded by you?” I asked in surprise. “It is a 91-year-old institution,” he said with a laugh. “SSVM was founded by Vyayam Maharshi Late P.L. Kale Guruji, who was the pet disciple of Rajratna Proff. Manikrao of Baroda. Manikrao’s teacher Jummadada was a freedom fighter along with Rani Laxmi Bai, Tatya Tope and many others of the league, and that is where it had its roots.”

Uday Sir came to the Vyayam Mandir courtesy of his maternal grandfather. “My grandfather lived in Pune and my mother took my siblings and me every vacation to stay with him,” he said. “My grandfather woke up at 5 a.m. daily and practiced yoga. And I would sit right in front of him and imitate his actions.” His grandfather saw that spark in him and believed he would be the right person to bear the torch of this art form and the legendary Institution. He was all of three when he met the founder of Shree Samartha Vyayam Mandir, and he has been associated with it ever since.

“We lived near Byculla, through my teens, but my father was a badminton enthusiast and we made the trip to Shivaji Park every evening,” he said. “That worked best for me, and I was able to spend time at the Vyayam Mandir.” He mastered the importance of discipline early on in life. Even as a school-going teenager he trained in Mallakhamb early every morning and evening. That dedication for the martial art form and fitness persevered throughout his life and career as a Customs officer too. Barring his years as a student, he has devoted close to about 40 years at this Institution, training over lakhs of students, looking after the administrative activities and now taking Mallakhamb to the world.

His grandfather saw that spark in him and believed he would be the right person to bear the torch of this art form and the legendary Institution.

Mallakhamb, also famous as an Indian martial art, originated in Maharashtra and traces back to the period of the Mahabharata and Ramayana. Legend has it that a certain Balambhatt Dada Deodhar, from the regime of Bajirao Peshwa II, accepted a challenge to beat two Nizami wrestlers, Ali and Gulab, thought to be unbeatable. The then 16-year-old Deodhar belonged to the priestly clan, and so he sought help in goddess Saptashrungi. It is believed that Lord Hanuman taught him the wrestling moves on a wooden pole in his dreams. That is how modern day Mallakhamb – “Malla” meaning wrestling and “Khamb” meaning Pole – came to life. After Deodhar’s smacking victory against the Nizami wrestler, Mallakhamb soon found its way to all the akhadas in Maharashtra, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, Uday Sir told me as he walked me through the historic trail of this art.

My attention was drawn back to the present when a student stopped by to greet Uday Sir. There were still some men sweating it out at the Parallel Bars, and kids in gymnastic attire stretched in the lobby. We looked at the future of Mallakhamb and the potential of this Institution to survive in the modern world abuzz with fitness mantras. “Earlier there were only four states, where Mallakhamb was known,” said Uday Sir, “but now it has centers all over the country and a presence in three continents, namely Asia, Europe and North America.” Having formed the World Mallakhamb Confederation, Uday Deshpande is sure globalising it will help gain due attention to it nationally too.

Photographs by Suruchi Maira

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