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Munich meets Mumbai

A German team learns the mallakhamb at Shivaji Park and in the process, teaches us some important lessons in life

It is Indian-German collaboration with a twist. Many twists in fact. A team of youngsters from the German city of Munich has been in Mumbai for 10 days post-Christmas learning the indigenous sport of mallakhamb, which, translated, means gymnastics on a rope or a pole. They are learning the mallakhamb at Shree Samarth Vyayam Mandir in Shivaji Park, Dadar and their visit climaxed with a demonstration of their skill yesterday evening at a program in Shivaji Park.



They had been in the city from December 27 onwards and left for their country this morning -- going from Mumbai's January sunshine to Munich's snow. The youngsters have brushed up their mallakhamb skills, for several of them this is not the first time on the rope or pole. An Indian team has been to Munich in the past too, once every year for eight years to be precise, to teach the Germans and hold mallakhamb workshops there. This is the second visit by the German team to Mumbai, for mallakhamb training.

There was a slight nip in the air, a show of some strength by Mumbai's traditionally weak winter as the Munich mallakhamb enthusiasts traipsed into Samarth Vyayam Mandir for training.

Some of them were carrying bouquets, which were probably given to them at the Mayor's Bungalow opposite the training venue.

They visited the Mayor's Bungalow on Thursday morning and then, knuckled down to some serious practice for their evening program.



Culture
Said Uday Deshpande, chief coach at the Samarth Vyayam Mandir, "These children and a teacher, besides a project co-ordinator, are from an institute called the Yoga Forum in Munich. We have been visiting there for the past eight years, I take 10 children from here and we conduct two mallakhamb workshops in Munich. Now, they have started coming here to imbibe more. Besides mallakhamb, they also get a feel of Indian culture."

While mallakhamb is the focus, Deshpande says, "It has got limitations. For instance, one cannot practice mallakhamb for the entire day. We have a number of Samarth Vyayam members who have different skills -- like we have accomplished flautists, trained dancers in traditional forms like the Lezim, artists who do Warli painting, so we have taught the Germans a little bit of this too." Their cultural canvas has spread far beyond the rope and pole as they took in the sights of the city. Woven within the learning agenda, was a visit to Siddhi Vinayak Temple, stays with Indian host families in which the Germans learnt first-hand about how families live in India, a visit to Kamala Mehta Blind School in Dadar (E). "The Germans were touched seeing how the blind visually challenged do mallakhamb," said Deshpande. They also visited the Hindmata market in Dadar (E) for shopping, besides of course, taking an open bus tour for the mandatory Mumbai darshan. Added Deshpande, "The schedule was so packed that their day began at 10.30 am and ended only at 7.30 pm, yet, they were so enthusiastic about mallakhamb, they would be here by 8.30 am the next day to get in an extra two hours of mallakhamb practice."



It is ironical that the more mallakhamb goes to other countries, spreading its base, the more in need of revamp the Samarth Vyayam has become. The institution needs a facelift urgently. "We also need toilet blocks for women, which we can put on the first floor. When this institution started in 1925, there were only men practicing here, but now, there are a huge number of women too, so we need such facilities. A slew of permissions which are needed, are holding us back and there is a lot of red tape, before we can get things going," said Deshpande. Deshpande also added that countries like Malaysia are promoting their indigenous sports like Sepak Takraw and with China on overdrive about Wushu, the Indian Govt. along with the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) needs to step up its promotion of mallakhamb.

Having said that, he emphasized that institutions like these have been taking mallakhamb across the border - to over 30 countries. "We have travelled to over 30 countries, including Spain, Italy, the UK in Europe. Germany, though, is different. The Germans do not like to sit back and applaud at demonstrations. They want to learn themselves."   

Knowledge

Sitting pretty: Showing off their expertise as the pole makes a perch

The Germans are soaking up mallakhamb knowledge like a sponge soaks up water. The students were all enthusiastic effervescence as they filed into the hall to warm up before demonstrating. They first twined themselves on the rope mallakhamb, their tactile bodies coiling around, with some of them rounding off their exercise with a 'namaskar' in a perfect example of Munich meets Mumbai.

Their effort earned them applause and hurrahs from the few people watching them practice. One of those watching was Jutta Schneider, yoga teacher at the Yoga Forum e.v. (That's the full name) and German co-ordinator for the project. Schneider was recording the practice on her camera. She said, "I work as a yoga teacher back in Germany but my primary job is that of social worker. I work in an organization called the Kreisjugendring." Says Schneider, "This is my third trip to India. I was here nine years ago on a two-month tour where I established contact with a Sport Institute in Pune. That did not work out, but I then discovered Samarth Vyayam Mandir and we have been collaborating ever since then." Schneider is enthused that the students not only learn mallakhamb but also broaden their horizons learning different aspects of the local culture. "They taste local food too, staying with host families. I love spicy, Indian food," she said with a laugh.

Ruth Anzenberger is part of the group and has been teaching mallakhamb for three years back in Munich, Germany. "I teach at the Yoga Forum," she said with a smile. "We have students from the age group 5 to 16. Mallakhamb helps in flexibility, concentration and strength." Ruth laughs as she says. "The workshop has been such a learning experience for us. I do not want to go back home."

Neeta Tatke, Indian co-coordinator for the project and secretary (administration) of the Samarth Vyayam Mandir said, "In Germany, I have noticed that sport is not just looked at from the competitive angle. It is a sport-loving nation and people regard sport as a way of life, promoting health and fitness. Here, in India, parents bring their children and many of them are only interested in competing and how many medals their children would win. The scenario is different in Germany." Tatke too admits that the Shivaji park facility needs a revamp and upgradation, "We have funds, and I am sure that once we announce a facelift, we have such a good name, the money will pour in. It is permissions that are the stumbling block," she ended, before turning her attention to the young mallakhamb practitioners who were winding down their session. As one left the Samarth Vyayam premises, leaving the frolicking students behind one could not help but think about how the global scenario could benefit with some inter-country mallakhamb moves. Calisthenics between countries would be good; one country could bend backwards or twist in sync with the other. If only it were the same with politicians. There would be no violence, no political gamesmanship and no war. Look closely and the mallakhamb, especially the coming together of two countries has huge lessons. After all, these 'yoga' like asanas on a rope or pole, are all about coming together in calm, not conflict.

What is mallakhamb?  
Mallakhamb or Malkhamb is a traditional Indian sport in which a gymnast performs feats and poses in concert with a vertical wooden pole or rope. Mallakhamb also refers to the pole used in the sport. The word 'mallakhamb' is composed of malla, which denotes a gymnast or a man of strength and khamb, which means a pole. Mallakhamb can therefore be translated to English as pole gymnastics. Originally, mallakhamb was introduced as a supporting exercise for wrestlers. Balambhattdada Deodhar started Pole mallakhamb sometime between 1800 and 1810. Later on, his student Damodarguru Moghe realised that only major grips can be developed with a pole and used cane instead of a pole. Subsequently, the unavailability of cane resulted in the rope mallakhamb

Foreign flavour
Mallakhamb has travelled to several countries. Some of those are:
Mauritius
Malaysia
The United Kingdom
Spain
France
Portugal
Germany
Italy
USA
Currently, a San Francisco native called David Grace is in Mumbai since November 28 to learn mallakhamb. He is a gym owner back in the USA.

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