If someone were to write the unwritten legend of Khashaba Jadhav, would it begin this way?
The year was 1948. At Raja Ram College, Kolhapur, a short, scrawny student from a nearby village walked up to the sports teacher and said he wanted to compete in wrestling at the annual sports meet. One look at his physique and the teacher snorted, saying he could not allow a weak player on the team. The young man, 23 years old, approached the college principal, who gave him another chance. That was just the opportunity Khashaba Dadasaheb Jadhav needed to prove naysayers wrong. In bout after bout, he felled bulkier and “stronger” wrestlers to win the event.
Or would it begin with a bout in Lucknow in 1952, between the reigning flyweight champion and the unassuming, lean challenger? Niranjan Das of Bengal was over 6 ft tall, a machine of muscle and power. Going into the match, Jadhav, around 5.5 ft tall, was clearly the underdog. But within seconds, he had Das pinned to the ground. Stunned, Das argued that he had not been ready for the bout, and asked for a re-match. He lost again.
This was a wrestling rivalry as bitter as the one that played out recently, between two-time Olympic-medal winner Sushil Kumar and the contender, Narsingh Yadav.
Despite having defeated Das, Jadhav found himself being overlooked in the squad for the 1952 Olympics. He wrote to the Maharaja of Patiala, who was a patron of wrestling, and had a say in the selection. The Maharaja convinced authorities to hold a bout again. For the third time, Jadhav triumphed over Das and qualified for the 1952 Helsinki Olympics.
The 27-year-old went on to create history, becoming the first Indian to win an Olympic medal (bronze) in an individual sport. (The hockey team led by Balbir Singh had won India its first gold in the 1948 London Summer Olympics.)
Though not too many Indians have earned Olympic glory in the years since, Jadhav’s story has faded from our sporting consciousness.
But it survives in the taleems (wrestling centres) of Kolhapur, where alongside the photo of Hanuman, the patron god of the sport, you will find a framed image of Jadhav. Vishnu Joshilkar, former wrestling champion and winner of the Maharashtra Kesari, a championship started in 1991, says, “Even today, at every taleem, gurus tell their students stories of Khashaba to motivate them, describing how he emerged a winner against the odds.”
In Goleshwar, five rings interlock in a structure at a public square to tell you about the village’s Olympic bragging rights. This is the birthplace of Jadhav, who was born in January 1926. His house, where his son Ranjit, a farmer, and his family reside today, is called Olympic Niwas. The living room in the house is full of trophies, medals and mementos. The walls of the room are covered with photographs. The most eye-catching is a large photograph of Jadhav, standing on the podium during the prize ceremony of the 1952 Olympics.
Jadhav’s father, Dadasaheb, also a wrestler, introduced the boy to the sport when he was five. Though he encouraged all his five sons to take up wrestling, he noticed the spark of talent in his third son. Wrestling bouts were common at village fairs, and he made sure that the boy learnt early to face the dangal. Little Khashaba rarely lost a game.
Dadasaheb soon began to train him in the akhada in Goleshwar. “After his primary education, he took admission in Tilak High School in Karad, 5 km from our village. As transport was scarce, he would run the distance to school,” says Ranjit. Two of his teachers, also wrestlers, mentored him and prepared him for state-level and national-level competitions. “He lost a few years but he did study till graduation, which was rare for wrestlers those days,” says his son.
Ranjit recalls his father as a soft-spoken man, who never lost his cool, even when provoked. In 1948, during a state-level wrestling championship where Jadhav was the challenger, the organisers declared one rupee as the prize, so dismissive were they of the challenge. “Other players would have felt offended and walked out but he stayed on. He was pitted against Rakshe, a bulky wrestler from Mumbai. My father defeated him within seconds,” he says.
The indoor akhada where Jadhav honed his wrestling skills in Goleshwar lies in a shambles. Windows are broken in the one-room building, and dust and cobwebs stifle the air. The ground outside has been overrun by waste. In the centre of the akhada, the mallakhamb pole still stands, like a forgotten reminder of a lost time.
While the generation who watched Jadhav keep his tryst with glory has passed away, the village still holds on to the memories of its heroes. Ninety-five-year-old Ganpati Parsu Jadhav’s memory may let him down on most days, but his childhood friend’s name brings a sparkle in his eyes and a broad smile on his wrinkled face. “We would do vyayam (exercise) together, twice a day for four hours together. He had great stamina and was the only one who could do 250-300 push-ups at one go and around 1,000 sit-ups. He would attack the opponent with lightning speed and defeat him in minutes.
Dhak and dhobi paat were his best wrestling daav,” he says.
Dhak is a technique in which the wrestler holds his opponent in a firm headlock, and then flings him on the ground. It was a move that helped Narsingh Yadav defeat France’s Zelimkhan Khadjiev and win a bronze at the Wrestling World Championships in Las Vegas last year.
Maharashtra has a long and rich wrestling culture, with Kolhapur as its hub. But it has been years since it lost its pre-eminence to Punjab and Haryana. Some of the famous wrestlers from Maharashtra were Maruti Mane, Ganpatrao Andalkar, Shripati Khanchnale and Dadu Chowgule, among others. Yadav, now besieged by allegations of doping, was born to a family of UP migrants in Mumbai, and it is in Maharashtra’s akhadas that his career was shaped.
In London, Jadhav did not win a medal but it exposed him to wrestling at the international level. “In the village, he would play in a mud akhada, whereas there he had to adapt to a mat,” says Ranjit. “During those days, the mats available in India were made of coconut husk and were quite rough. It’s remarkable that someone who practised on mud and coconut husk mats made a mark internationally,” says Joshilkar.
Before the 1952 Helsinki Games, Jadhav had another challenge to face. In one of the glass cases in the Jadhav living room are displayed laminated copies of old, sepia-tinted receipts, which tell that story. He needed to arrange Rs 8,000 in order to travel to Finland. “The amount sanctioned by the government had not reached him. Many families in the village agreed to help him out,” says Ranjit.
Pune-based writer Sanjay Dudhane’s book on Jadhav’s life, Olympicveer Khashaba Jadhav (2001) narrates how his college principal mortgaged his house for Rs 7,000 to send him to the games. To each of his creditors, Jadhav gave a printed receipt, which he took back once he repaid the loan. To be a part of the Olympic opening ceremony, players had to be dressed in formals and Jadhav didn’t even have a pair of socks, leave aside a shirt, a trouser or a blazer. Those, too, he had to borrow.
He was better equipped at Helsinki. For four years, he had immersed himself in training. He participated in the bantamweight category, and was up against wrestlers from 24 countries. Out of six bouts Jadhav won four, defeating ace wrestlers of the time such as Adrien Poliquin of Canada, PL Basurto of Mexico and F Schmitz of Germany. In the following round, he lost to Russia’s Rashid Mammadbeyov.
Helsinki was the last Olympics he would compete in. In 1955, Jadhav joined Maharashtra Police as a sub-inspector. He had set his sights on the next Olympics but a serious knee injury held him back. He did not give up on wrestling, though, winning bouts at police games, and training many cops in the sport. He died in 1984 in a road accident.
Ranjit rues that despite his feats, his father didn’t get what he deserved. “He was an introvert and never marketed his achievements. He was alive till 1984 but the government didn’t bother to felicitate him with an Arjuna Award. It came 16 years after his death. Why can’t we honour accomplished people when they are alive?” he asks. In the last six years, he says he has written many times to the government, recommending his father for a Padma award but to no avail.
“He retired as the assistant commissioner of police (Maharashtra) in 1983. His last pay scale was around Rs 2,200. The amount that he got during his retirement was Rs 75,000. In 1984, when our house was being built, my father had to sell my mother’s gold ornaments to raise the money,” says Ranjit.
The nation rarely remembered him. In 1982, when the Asian Games were being held in Delhi, on senior sports journalist VV Karmarkar’s suggestion, the government invited the sportsman who won the country its first individual Olympic medal. “Just two days before the event, an air ticket and Rs 3,000 were sent to the Mumbai Commissioner office for Jadhav to reach Delhi,” says his son.
Despite the measly recognition, Ranjit says, “he said that he would like to be reborn as a wrestler — the sport had given him some of the best moments of his life.”