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Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Ancient Indian arts of self-defence: Akhadas carry the age-old tradition

Raeen Muslim Akhada boys test their skills
Ever heard about 'baana', banethi, binwat [binnaut], khari gatka et al?

These are all Indian arts of self-defence whose exponents are now very rare, as Akhadas have lost popularity to the sophisticated Gyms.

Once I saw that spectacle where a hen was pushed under a cot and a man standing on the cot played the lathi so fast that the hen couldn't get out of any of the four sides of the cot.

Just because the hen felt that a cloth had been wrapped all around the 'palang' from four sides. Such was the lightning speed at which he moved his lathi!

The poor animal would rush on all sides but couldn't get out because the speed at which lathi moved on all four sides made it impossible for it to get out. Umpteen such martial arts like the one in which a coin was tied in a piece of cloth and even this 'weapon' turned lethal for the attackers are now history.

Or the breathtaking display of fire where a man plays with balls filled with embers creating a brilliant spectacle at night. Unfortunately the governments banned the Akhadas in most of the places.

When the martial arts came to us from the West, everybody imitates them and classes are run to teach them but our native arts are all gone. In fact, the native arts brought Hindus and Muslims nearer. There was display of such skills on Muharram, Dussehra and other religious events.

In Akhadas, Hindu Ustaads had Muslim disciples and vice versa. Due to the vows of using such arts only in defence and for saving the weak against strong, the exponents of these arts never misused their skills. Still the arts were discouraged.

While the thugs of the political parties on the loony fringe who have no art are allowed to carry the guns, trishuls and all sorts of weapons, the real pahalwans who used to spread harmony and displayed their skills thereby causing awareness about health and fitness were shunted to the periphery.

On Muharram, Milad-un-Nabi and Dussehra, the Hindu and Muslim akhadas all over India used to display their skills. It was such healthy competition. Today all this is lost. Save for a few cities.

Unfortunately we are such monkeys that one day these skills would be brought to us in the name of Samurai by Westerns and we will all rush to learn them like we abandoned yog and when it returned as yoga we got mad.

[In picture: A scene of traditional Indian martial arts at Milad Un Nabi procession in India]


Rohit said...

Very interesting information. I never knew such martial arts existed. Thanks a lot for sharing!

And I agree about our tendency to ape the West. One point in case: there are many English advertisements on TV in which the background voice has an American accent. I understand, though, that the people providing the voiceovers are not really Americans, but Indians. Makes me wonder why the American accent is chosen for these advertisements. Only one rational explanation comes to mind - that we tend to give more credibility to a Western person recommending a product, than to an Indian person doing the same. Strange but true (I think)!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for writing about these fading Indian art forms. I am an Indo-Canadian practitioner of banethi, which I've been studying and researching for 7 yrs. It is unfortunate that the cross-cultural sharing of these forms diminished over time, but there are still a few akharas that practice together, and so there is still hope to revive these arts. I am curious to learn more about your source material for the original post, specifically information about the banning of the Akhadas...I've made a short film about this art form, and just founded a collective in Toronto called IMPACT - Indian Martial & Performance Art Coalition of Toronto, with a mandate to preserve and teach South Asian art forms to youth and adults. Thanks.

indscribe said...

Anonymous sahab, If I had your email...

Anonymous said...

Hello. I am at yoonsuri@sympatico.ca. A correction to my previous post, pointed out by one of my banethi students: IMPACT stands for Indian Martial & Performance Art Collective of Toronto...not 'Coalition'...my apologies.
I look forward to your reply.

Muhammad Azimul Haque said...

حب الوطن من الإيمان
Jazakh Allah for bringing this. I am from a Muslim family which has roots in a tiny Hindu kingdom(during british Raj). Think of it, Muslim commanders of a Hindu King practicing self defense in akharas. My abba used to tell me about one of my uncle who used to rotate an entire wheel of bullock cart for exercise. Wonderful those were. Although such tradition remained with us, but got replaced with gym and sports. I have had relatives who were World war II veterans. Don't get amused when i say on an average, every house in my tiny hamlet has someone from their family who has served in police, armed forces or paramilitary.

indscribe said...

Azimul Haque sahab,

Nice to see your comment on this subject. I would request to you write more, share your memories or if possibly, even write a blog about Akhadas and similar aspects...