Muscles, meet morals

1 May 2017

India’s sport of Mitti Kushti (mud wrestling) goes back centuries. The training regimens, techniques and rules of the sport are documented in Sanskrit in the 13th-century Malla Purana texts.

Mitti Kushti isn’t merely a martial art form. It’s also a tradition and a way of life, with strict guidelines on everything from diet, training, body discipline and even morality. Strength and technique are naturally key, but so are the ‘soft’ skills such a celibacy, abstinence, honesty, devotion, humility and a sense of duty.

From a photographer’s perspective Kushti offers a fertile ground. The typical akhara (gymnasium) has many tasty image-making ingredients: gloomy interiors lit with natural window light, richly coloured walls bearing the scarred patina of a thousand wrestling bouts, lurid religious images and icons — typically of Hanuman, the bachelor deity. And the dark red clay of the floor, which the contestants rub over their bodies before and after each session.

As with Kushti itself, there’s more to that clay than meets the eye. It’s not just dirt: it’s permeated with lemon, milk, butter, camphor, turmeric and more, nourishing body and soul in a time-honoured recipe while providing better grip on sweat-slippery bodies. And, like so many of India’s great traditions, times are a-changing: mud is increasingly being replaced by mat in response to commercial pressures to professionalise and internationalise the sport.

The shooting is challenging but rich. Fast-moving subjects shifting constantly and unpredictably in low light inevitably demand fast lenses, high ISOs and speedy creative decision-making. But the opportunities go beyond the wrestling itself, into the showers, the dormitories and exercise regimes. Classic storytelling material.

If you’d like to have a go at shooting Kushti, Travelshooters can plan a session into pretty much any private photography tour itinerary. Or tack it on before or after one of our group India photography tours.

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