Placing his feet steadily around the pole he tightens his grip and lets go with his hands. Rajesh’s body is hanging in a horizontal position more than a meter off the ground. After holding their breath for a few seconds the crowd begins to cheer. This is Mallakhamb, an ancient Indian sport turned in to a popular art form.
"It’s Indian gymnastics combined with yoga poses. It’s all about your strength and flexibility” Rajesh Mudki explains.
His group of five Mallakhamb performers has just finished a performance at the Dutch Festival Mundial. Though the act was advertised as hilarious, in fact the audience was purely amazed at the strength of these Indian men.
The practice of Mallakhamb was invented to train wrestlers, helping them build muscle strength. The word malla literally means man of strength and khamb refers to the special pole that’s used. It’s vaguely shaped like a man to remind the wrestler of his ever present opponent.
Around 1800, pole Mallakhamb – you also have a rope version– was invented by Balambhattdada Deodhar. During a performance the athlete is supposed to demonstrate as many different poses as he can. Quickly shifting around the pole, without touching the ground in between.
Mallakhamb originates from Maharashtra, but participants from all over India compete during national championships.
“Most of us are former national champions,” says Rajesh, “but all of us stopped participating professionally after turning 25-years old. That’s when most Mallakhamb athletes retire.”
Rajesh began to practice Mallakhamb around the tender age of six. After becoming one of India's best performers he retired, but he kept on receiving requests from fans to perform. That's when he decided to form Mallakhamb India with five other former Mallakhamb performers. To promote their sport they turned the individual sport into a group performance.
At various points during the show all five men climb the 2.5 metre high pole. They create complex figures by using the pole and balancing on each other’s bodies. If one of them made a wrong move the whole structure would collapse.
But it's not the balancing or the height that worries the men most.
“Initially we were a bit worried about the weather conditions here. It could be too cold here in Holland to perform outside. Our muscles need to warm up to prevent injuries”
Thought it looks quite dangerous, according to Rajesh the group has only ever suffered minor injuries.
Other versions of Mallakhamb as a sport have been around for centuries, but the artful style Mallakhamb India has developed was fairly unknown until recently. Participating in India’s Got Talent landed the men almost instant fame.
“Since our performance on India’s Got Talent we have been invited by people from all over the world.”
The group has successfully managed to prolong their career and see something of the world while they’re at it.