The British-Asian photographer uses his lens to explore the ancient practice of Mallakhamb – an intricate sport fusing wrestling with yoga
Off the west coast of India, amidst the early morning haze and encroaching shadows of Mumbai’s sprawling metropolis, long poles jauntily stick out across the skyline. If you take a closer look, you may see a figure or two scaling upwards on these ramshackle wooden apparatus, contorted in shapes unlike any you have ever seen. This is Mallakhamb; a little known, insular sport practised across the state of Maharashtra, and subject of British-Asian photographer Vivek Vadoliya’s first photobook of the same name.
Translated as ‘wrestler of the pole’, Mallakhamb’s origins can be traced back to the 12th century in Sanskrit texts. It is an ancient skill kept alive regionally by a handful of communities. With roots in Hindu monkey god mythology, athletes perform 90-second routines with staggering precision, packed with intricate movements assessed on pole, hanging and rope – for speed, grace and difficulty. “Mallakhamb is a form of wrestling combined with yoga grips and poses,” Vadoliya explains. “It’s a way for wrestlers to train, using the pole as a way to learn how to grapple with the body. It’s a performance, a discipline – a celebration.”
“My work is about celebrating the ordinary, those who can be overlooked but have a really fantastic story to tell.”
The photographer was travelling around India when he first came across Mallakhamb. With some further research, the sport quickly piqued Vadoliya’s interest. “I’ve been exploring the body for a while now, understanding how it moves; the shapes our bodies can create are so beautiful,” he says. “When we see pictures of the body, we don’t see pictures of the Indian body. For me, that visibility was important. Photography allows me to have these conversations, to go into communities and to interrogate myself. I use my camera as a tool to understand myself as much as other people – whether that’s projects about masculinity or being Asian. My work is about celebrating the ordinary, those who can be overlooked but have a really fantastic story to tell.”
Vadoliya got to know the students at Mallakhamb’s foremost training facility in Mumbai early on in his visit, foregoing his lens to build rapport and spend time fully immersed in the environment. Despite shooting only three mornings’ pracises, Vadoliya’s resulting images are remarkable. Black and white, abstract forms mix with the terracotta dust and golden glow of first light, when the cool temperatures make it the best time to practise. The students’ bodies hang suspended upside down, somersaulting down ropes in bright red bodysuits, muscles twisting and twirling in an almost superhuman balancing act, held only by feet, hands, elbows and knees. Splashes of talcum powder and stray cricket balls fall scattered around the grounds.
“My hope is this work makes people think about what the body is capable of, especially at a time where everyone has slowed down.
“A lot of the process was spontaneous, the kids were really up for showing off, we fed off each other,” Vadoliya remembers fondly. “I witnessed how they move and connect with the body – there’s such a language to it,” he attests. “I want to celebrate Mallakhamb as an art form. Mallakhamb shows us what the body is able to do and how beautiful it can be,” he adds. “My hope is this work makes people think about what the body is capable of, especially at a time where everyone has slowed down. I felt the need to share Mallakhamb with the world.”
Charlotte Harding is a writer, creative consultant and editor of More This, a sustainable sourcebook for doing good, based in London.
She has been writing for British Journal of Photography since 2014, and graduated in 2016 with an MA in Visual Anthropology at Goldsmiths, UoL. Her work is published on various arts and culture platforms, including AnOther, TOAST and Noon Magazine.