Uday Deshpande is a 63-year-old legendary guru and one of the foremost authorities in Mallakhamb, which he calls the mother of all sports. He has taught more than 50,000 students in the past 40 years. With his incessant efforts the game has now got an international presence.
Q- Tell us something about Mallakhamb?
Mallakhamb is history’s hardest sport that no one knows. It is a traditional sport in which a gymnast performs feats and poses in concert with a vertical wooden pole or rope. The game derives its name from the terms malla which means wrestling and khamb which means a pole. Mallakhamb can therefore be translated into English as ‘pole gymnastics’. The game has a strong regional identity and colourful origin story. It is said that it is infused with the spirit of Hanuman – joyful and irreverent – with oddities. The rope is akin to his tail, so the practitioner may only climb it with his toes, never the soles and the pole is his phallus.
It is an Indian martial art, which 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. 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.
Q- What is the present status of Mallakhamb as a sport in the technological age as most of the children are glued to computers and mobile games?
It is true that due to mobile games the children have lost interest in outdoor sports but we are seeing an increased interest from students from all the different strata of the society. At present we hold an annual All India Inter-University Mallakhamb competition conducted by the Association of Indian Universities and now, the Annual National School Mallakhamb Competitions are also conducted by the School Games Federation of India. The players have won many talent shows not only in India but also abroad. Regular centres for Mallakhamb have started in Munich, Germany, New Mexico and Singapore.
Q- How did you get interested in the art?
It is a sport of discipline. My grandfather lived in Pune and my mother took us on every vacation to stay with him. He used to wake up at 5 a.m. daily and practiced yoga. And I would sit right in front of him and imitate his actions. He saw that spark in me and believed that I would be the right person to bear the torch of this art form and the legendary institution. I mastered the importance of discipline early in life. Even as a school-going teenager I trained in Mallakhamb, early every morning and evening. That dedication for the martial art form and fitness persevered throughout my life and career as a customs officer.
Q- How are you promoting the game?
Earlier there were only four states, where the sports was known but now it has centres all over the country and a presence in three continents, namely Asia, Europe and North America. We have formed the World Mallakhamb Confederation which organizes competitions. It was in 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, 35 Indian acrobats demonstrated the art of Mallakhamb before a rapt audience featuring sports officials, athletes and journalists. Adolf Hitler, highly impressed by the skill and dexterity of these acrobats and their ancient sport, personally presented each with an honorary Olympic medal.
Q- What strategy are you using to get more young people learn the art?
Being a reputed National level player of Mallakhamb in the early seventies has helped me achieve a natural feel for the sport and to understand the unique demands of the sport. As a result I have adopted a two–fold approach. On one hand, I have coached and created several outstanding players, both within the country and abroad. On the other hand, we have organized over a hundred demonstrations and camps within India and in a dozen countries around the world.
Q- How does it help in maintaining a person’s physical fitness?
It is considered to be a perfect exercise because it imbibes various poses and postures of yoga developing all the physical and mental faculties of the human body. The benefits of this training are innumerable. In all the other exercises, there is monotony, however, it is systematic, scientific and very methodical mode of physical exercise. It imparts proper tone and form to every muscle and perfect control over each part of the body. It gives you satisfaction in the soul. It’s spiritual as well as mental and as physical.
Q- Is there any age limit to learn this sport?
Not at all. Anyone above the age of five years are, can learn. At Samartha, my oldest student is 84- years old, Shantilal Sanghviji, who is practicing for about five years now and has been able to pursue it in spite of a bypass operation.
Q- Do you see participation from women?
There are many women who are learning and many more have become coaches. The edge is that there is no bar related to weight and age. You need to have flexibility in your body to do all the moves.