All around India’s parks and recreational spaces, people wake up early or stay late to practice what is known as ‘mallakhamb’. Just a few moments of watching it, and you’ll be awe-struck. That’s what happened to photographer Vivek Vadoliya when visiting friends in Mumbai. Mallakhamb, which translates from Sanskrit as ‘wrestler-pole’, combines wrestling grips and yoga poses, with women using ropes and men climbing onto poles to perform it: bodies suspended in gravity-defying poses. Mallakhamb is a superhuman display of strength, agility, and control.
“I’ve been focussing and exploring the body in my work a lot more over the last few years,” explains London-based Vadoliya. “When I discovered mallakhamb, I was pretty mesmerised by the beauty of how they move and the discipline you need to train the body in that way.”
Vadoliya was so entranced he began documenting these young people at the training institution Shree Samarth Vyayam Mandir in the city’s bustling Shivaji Park, which Uday Deshpande runs. Against a backdrop of sunshine and shadows, we see the before, after, and in-between moments of their practices. The photographs will be published in his book, Mallakhamb (Antihero), launching at the Photobook Cafe in east London on Thursday (14 April).
“People may recognise elements of the movement through the rapid popularity of yoga,” he says. “This project is an ode to that body language told through the beautiful motion that’s inherently and deeply Indian.”
“I was interested in Indian youth and national identity. These players, to me, symbolise young, proud Indians. I suppose it’s been something I’ve always questioned in myself and something I’ve always explored through my work.”
Originally an ancient technique used by wrestlers and warriors, mallakhamb almost disappeared under British rule (1858–1947). However, it’s been kept alive because of people like Uday Deshpande, whose lifelong commitment to nurturing and developing its practice through competitions and camps, all while cultivating the mallakhamb community at Shivaji Park. Mallakhamb is now the state sport of more than 20 Indian states considered more than a sport: it’s an art form.
“For Uday, it’s a way of preserving the discipline and bringing new life to the sport,” says Vadoliya. “He’s set up federations nationally and internationally, and now it’s practised in many parts of the world.”
“For me, the sport is about preserving a sense of Indian national identity. It’s an ode to the rich history, the soldiers and warriors who moved in this way.”
Mallakhamb is published by Antihero, and is available for pre-order now. Donations from the proceeds of Mallakhamb will support COVID relief in India.