The story of Mahavir Phogat, Indian wrestling's unsung hero, who helped his daughters grapple their way to the top.
In a state known for its skewed sex ratio and abysmally low female literacy, the success story of the Phogat family of Balali, an obscure little village in Haryana’s Bhiwani district, stands out as a beacon of hope. This family has produced as many as six wrestling champions, all of them women, in a sport that is anything but feminine, and three of them have won gold medals on the global stage.
A once-promising wrestler from Delhi’s famed Chandgi Ram Akhada, Mahavir Singh Phogat has provided the country’s wrestling contingent with almost half a dozen top notch grapplers.
His daughters and nieces – Babita, Geeta, Ritu, Sangita, Vinesh, and Priyanka –are scripting a revolution in Haryana with their wrestling exploits
A former member of India’s national wrestling team, Phogat’s love for his girls is not just reflected in his words but in his actions too. He quit his job to train his daughters for the Commonwealth Games. His hard work and perseverance paid off when Geeta won gold and Babita won silver in the Games held at Delhi. Two years later, they also won a bronze each in the World Championships. In 2012, Geeta became the first Indian female wrestler to compete in the Olympics.
Geeta and Babita’s success inspired Mahavir’s youngest daughters, Ritu and Sangita, and his slain brother’s daughters Priyanka and Vinesh, to get into the sport. Mahavir took all five girls under his wing and trained them together for the sole purpose of turning them into wrestling champions. Their training was from 4 to 7 in the mornings and again in the evenings after the girls got back from school or college. Under the strict eye of Mahavir, the sisters started spending time in the muddy arena near their cattle shed and sweating it out in local wrestling matches.
The efforts of the family were validated when, in 2014, Babita Kumari and Vinesh won gold medals at the Glasgow Commonwealth Games to make their family and the country proud with their stellar performances.
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Ritu, Priyanka and Vinesh also clinched golds in the 44kg, 51kg and 49 kg categories, respectively, at the Asian Cadet Championships.
The journey to the top wasn’t easy. Geeta and Babita spent their teenage years doing something unthinkable in India – wrestling boys in the akhaada because there were no girls to compete against. Mahavir had to face the wrath of the villagers who were irked by the idea of local girls slugging it out in the mud. To get them into competitions, he also had to borrow money from friends and family. It was only the immense support from their family and deep belief of their father that kept the trailblazing Phogat sisters going in those difficult days.
Things began to change after Geeta’s win in 2010, and so did the attitude of the villagers.
As Babita said at a media-organized ‘I Am Shakti’ program,
“We had to face a lot of trouble during the initial stages. People made fun of us, saying wrestling is a men’s game and women should just stay at home. They used to ridicule us for wearing shorts. But thankfully my parents did not falter under the pressure.”
The Phogat sisters are not the first sister-wrestlers in India. That credit goes to Deepika and Sonika, daughters of the legendary wrestler and Mahavir’s coach Chandgi Ram. It was Chandgi Ram’s drive to get his daughters into wrestling and Karnam Malleshwari’s Olympic bronze medal win in 2000 that inspired Mahavir Phogat to fill up his akhaada with girls.
He has also built a gymnasium in a large hall loaned to the girls by a local college and bought high-tech gym equipment that the girls use to train.
The Phogat sisters’ feat has not only helped push India’s wrestling forward but has also inspired many other women to emerge from the shackles of patriarchy and demolish yet another glass ceiling. Their mere presence at global wrestling platforms symbolizes a shift in one of India’s longstanding gender biases that women can’t wrestle. Today, it isn’t just Mahavir’s own family, but several girls from Balali and nearby villages also, who turn to him for training.
The achievements of the Phogat family are being documented by Nitesh Tiwari in Dangal, one of the most awaited films of 2016. Aamir Khan is playing Mahavir Phogat in the film and the Phogat sisters are excited about the big star playing their father. The movie tells the story of a wrestler who dreamt of pushing his daughters into the competitive world by training them to fight in mud pits.