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The Wrestler's Body (Identity and Ideology in North India)

The Wrestler's Body (Identity and Ideology in North India)
Item Code: ISA35
Author: Joseph S. Alter
Publisher: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers Pvt. Ltd.
Language: English
Edition: 1997
ISBN: 8121507995
Pages: 320 (B & W Illus: 15)
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details: 10.0" X 6.5"
weight of the book: 710 gms

About the Book:

The Wrestler's Body tells the story of a way of life organized in terms of physical self-development. While Indian wrestlers are competitive athletes, they are also moral reformers whose conception of self and society is fundamentally somatic. In order to elucidate the somatic structure of the wrestler's identity and ideology, Joseph Alter uses the insights of anthropology to write an ethnography of the wrestler's physique.

Young men in North India may choose to join an akhara, or gymnasium, where they subject themselves to a complex program of physical fitness. Under the supervision of a guru they become wrestlers by learning how and what to eat, how, when and where to sleep, bathe, defecate, exercise, brush their teeth, and rest, what to wear, and generally how to comport themselves. By these means they not only become competent athletes, they come to develop a moral physique and to embody an ideology of public health.

Alter's first-hand description of each detail of the wrestler's regiment is set within the geomoral context of the gymnasium and is framed by a series of interpretations: the place of the body in the relationship between a guru and his disciple; the meaning of patronage as a system of control and support; the embodiment of symbolic structures in the ritual of Nagapanchami; a deconstruction of the embodied self through the drama of tournament competition; and the development of a moral physique modeled on the iconic form and divine structure of Lord Hanuman's body.

Wrestling provide a unique perspective on South Asian culture and society. Self-consciously outside the cultural mainstream, it cuts against the weave of the larger cultural fabric. By bringing members of high and low castes into close physical contact, wrestling challenges the principles of purity and pollution. Concepts of general health and fitness are redefined in exaggerated terms. Using the model of sannyasa, or Hindu world renunciation, wrestlers transform the disciplinary mechanisms of asceticism into the terms of somatic nationalism and utopian reform.

The body of the wrestler is a focal symbol in the rubric of "ethical nationalism." Wrestlers feel that a reform of Indian national character is imperative and that moral reform on this scale can only be achieved through a discipline of the individual body. As such, wrestlers advocate their way of life as an ideology of national health. Everyone is called on to become a wrestler and build collective strength through self-discipline.

About the Author:

Joseph S. Alter grew up in North India and was himself a youthful member of an akhara. He was educated at Woodstock School in India and at Wesleyan University and the University of California, Berkeley.



This is a study of wrestling as a system of meaning, and it must be made clear at the outset that I have not undertaken to study the technical aspects of the sport. Those who look for a detailed explication of moves, countermoves, and techniques will undoubtedly be disappointed. The reason for this is quite simple. The moves, countermoves, and techniques of Indian wrestling must be filmed or photographed to be appreciated and understood fully. This monograph is not an exercise in replication or description of this exact sort; it is a work of interpretation-to adapt an old adage, 1001 words offered in place of what would otherwise be a mere picture.

I am indebted to a number of institutions and individuals for the support they have given to this project. Preliminary research funding was afforded by a Humanities Graduate Research Grant from the Uni- versity of California at Berkeley for a study of the popular literature on Indian wrestling. Funding for a year of field work was provided by a Doctoral Dissertation Research Grant under the auspices of the Ful- bright-Hays Foundation. The ample financial support given under this grant was much appreciated. I would also like to thank the staff officers in Washington and Delhi for their efficient work. Without their help, getting the necessary visa and academic affiliation would have been impossible. While I was in India the staff at "Fulbright House" were very helpful in many ways, which made the difficult task of research that much less arduous.

In Banaras I was granted affiliation with the Department of Physical Education at Banaras Hindu University under the direction of Dr. S. S. Sharma. I am grateful both to the university and to Dr. Sharma for their support.

Upon completing the field research I was awarded a Mabelle McLeod Lewis Memorial Grant for a year of dissertation writing. This support proved invaluable and fulfilling, as I was able to write without distrac- tion for an entire year-a rare situation today.

In India a number of people contributed to the success of this project. I cannot remember the names of every wrestler whose words and ideas have found their way into this text. To all of them goes my sincere gratitude for patience and long-suffering indulgence. A few wrestlers with whom I spoke extensively must be mentioned by name. In Banaras, they are: Lakshmi Kant Pande, Govardan Das Malhotra, Jatindar Kumar Pathak, Narayan Singh, Kaniya Lal Yadav, Amru Dada, Banarsi Pande, Indramani Misra, Pratap Singh, Jharkhande Rai, Krishna Kumar Singh, Kaniya, Ashok, Sohan, Manohar, Atma, Shy am, Govind, Anand, Subhash, Danesh, Ram ji, and Lal ji. I am deeply indebted also to Sita Ram Yadav, a champion wrestler of his time; Nathu Lal Yadav, a genu- ine pahalwan ; and Lallu Pahalwan, a quintessential guru. I would also like to thank the owner, managers, and staff of San deep Hotel, where I lived for seven months. Their good humor was always appreciated. I recommend their services highly. If I have left out anyone's name it is not by design or lack of appreciation but because so many were helpful. . In Dehra Dun I express my heartfelt thanks to Kanta Pahalwan, who first introduced me to Indian wrestling. During my stay, however, Kanta was absent from Dehra Dun, and I worked closely with Yamin and his cadre of young wrestlers from Saharanpur. A special word of thanks must go to Dr. Shanti Prakash Atreya, who is by popular acclaim the guru of Indian wrestling. I had hoped to work closely with him in Dehra Dun but was unable to for various reasons. (The life of a fieldworker does not always accommodate itself to the obligations of a grihastha.) Instead I have read his numerous articles on Indian wrestling and hope to have absorbed in this way what he would rather have had me learn in his akhara at Bandarjuddha. His influence on my work is considerable. In the Department of Anthropology at the University of California at Berkeley a number of people made valuable contributions to my research in particular, and to my academic career in general. My greatest debt is to my advisor and friend Gerald Berreman, whose support has been unstinting. Over the years his critical eye and astute judgement have broadened my appreciation and deepened my understanding of anthropology. The spirit of his work has informed much of my own thinking. William Simmons's good-natured support and insightful com- ments have helped to keep me on the right track. Thomas Metcalf's extensive knowledge of India has provided a necessary and much appre- ciated perspective.

Other people have looked over various portions of this manuscript as it went through a number of drafts. I am grateful to Burton Benedict for his comments and to the members of the dissertation-writing seminar at the University of California, Berkeley, for a chance to exchange ideas. Philip Lutgendorf has provided encouragement and has pointed out more than one bhram. I am indebted to Bruce Pray and Joseph Schaller for looking over the glossary. My thanks also go to Peter Nabokov, who took an interest in my work and recommended the manuscript to the University of California Press. More than one anonymous reviewer made valuable suggestions for which I am very grateful.' Although not directly involved in this project, I would also like to thank Elizabeth Traube, my M.A. advisor at Wesleyan University, for getting me to ask the right questions.

Finally I am indebted to Nicole Constable, whose sharp eye for impre- cision is but one mundane feature of a wholly immeasurable and invalu- able contribution to the larger project.



Note on Translationxi
1.Search and Research1
2.The Akhara: Where Earth is Turned Into Gold26
3.Gurus and Chelas: The Alchemy of Discipleship58
4.The Patron and the Wrestler70
5.The Discipline of the Wrestler's Body90
6.Nag Panchami: Snakes, Sex, and Semen136
7.Wrestling Tournaments and the Body's Recreation167
8.Hanuman: Shakti, Bhakti, and Brahmacharya198
9.The Sannyasi and the Wrestler214
10.Utopian Somatics and Nationalist Discourse237
11.The Individual Re-Formed.356
Appendix: The Nature of Wrestling Nationalism261
Sample Pages

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