It is 10.30 pm at Munirka Village, an old settlement in South Delhi. The lights have dimmed in most of the households and the streets sport a deserted look. But at Baba Gangnath temple premise, it is time for serious business as coach Samundar Tokas shouts instructions to his wards grappling on the mud akhara. It is an intensive coaching session of kurash, a central Asian combat sport that resembles wrestling and judo. Kurash made its debut at this year's Asian Games being held in Jakarta. India have also made a successful start in Asiad 2018 with two youngsters, Pincky Balhara and Malaprabha Yadav, bagging silver and bronze respectively, in the event.
Pincky's silver may not have made headlines in the mainstream media as it has been eclipsed by the golden run of Indian athletes, but the podium finish has made the 19-year-old Delhi girl an instant celebrity in the world of combat sports in India. "My confidence has soared and I am looking forward to focus on judo with an eye on the Olympics,'' says Pincky.
It doesn't mean she will give up kurash but many of the techniques of kurash will come handy as she trains for judo. While judo also involves ground techniques, kurash is essentially judo in a standing posture, where you are looking to land your opponent on his or her back.
"On the eve of my bout, I was struggling with my weight and I was jittery, if I could make the cut in the 52kg category. In order to reduce my weight, I ran around 15-20 km and I was exhausted during the actual day of the bout. This might have affected my performance in the final," reveals Pincky. The Delhi girl lost to Gulnor Sulaymanova of Uzbekistan in the title clash for the gold medal. Her coach Samundar Tokas felt Pincky was too impatient and this caused her downfall.
Pincky and Gulnor had fought many bouts together while training during a 20-day camp held in Uzbekistan before the Asian Games. So, they were aware of their strengths and weaknesses. Gulnor had also beaten Pincky at the Asian championships held in Pune earlier this year.
Pincky had to overcome personal tragedies in lead up to the Asian Games. She lost her father earlier this year and a few weeks later her grandfather passed away. "Despite the set-backs, she went on to finish with medals in international events in both kurash and judo. This speaks highly of her mental toughness. She is definitely destined for bigger things in life. She has promised me an Olympic medal and I know she will work tirelessly for it,'' predicts Samundar.
Pincky is Samundar's niece and he was the one who first initiated the ten-year-old to take up combat sports. "During a friendly fight with her cousin, I saw Pincky land a highly difficult judo throw using her leg. I was convinced that she was gifted and I asked her to enroll herself at my judo academy."
Far away in a remote village of Turmuri in Karnataka around the same time, Triveni Jitender Singh who was working with the Karnataka Sports and youth Affairs, was invited as a special guest to grace a primary school sports meet. During the event, a student of fifth standard playing kho-kho caught her eye and she gifted the little girl a princely sum of Rs 100 as a special prize. The young girl was Malaprabha Yadav.
"There was something about her that convinced me that she would excel in sports. I asked her, if she would want to join the sports hostel in Belagavi. I had forgotten about her and after a couple of weeks, she came with her father wanting to join the hostel and take up a sport seriously,'' said Triveni.
"Initially, she felt homesick, but gradually she started showing results. She went on to become a very good judoka. I wanted her to explore kurash as it suited her more and she took to it effortlessly. Armed with a great technique, she is expected to win more medals at the international level," the sports official added.
The next big test for the Indian kurash team will be the world championships to be held this year. Indian team will also travel to Bangladesh where they will take part in a tournament featuring teams from Afghanistan, and Pakistan alongside the hosts. "We are planning to recruit coaches from Uzbekistan to train our athletes here. With the event likely to be included in this next edition of the Asian Games, we are hoping to get some funds from the Sports Ministry,'' said Ravi Verma, joint secretary of the Indian Kurash Association.
Kurash first made its foray into India in the mid-nineties because of the various cultural exchange programmes initiated with its country of origin, Uzbekistan. Many of the judo coaches came to learn about this new sport and introduced it in their academies. Many of Kurash exponents from Delhi are planning to go to Uzbekistan to take part in weekly local tournaments, which are held on the lines of wrestling dangals in Haryana, with lucrative financial rewards for winners.
Delhi has been the nerve centre of the sport with academies also running in Haryana and Kerala. India won medals at the world championships through Latika Sharma and Pooja Beniwal in 2009, which helped a lot in raising the profile of the sport in the country. Kurash also became popular, because many of the athletes and their parents preferred it over judo which involves more physical contacts, thus increasing chances of injuries. The sport may still lack the glamour of judo, which is an Olympic discipline, but the medals in the Asian Games have been the perfect shot in the arm for kurash in India.