AS the winter sun ascends over a mustard farm, pale orange bleeding into sharp yellow, a line of 36 girls all dressed alike – T-shirts, track pants, crew cuts – emerge into an open field, rubbing sleep from their eyes. Under a tin shed, they sit on their haunches, bent over stone mortars.
For the next 20 minutes, they crush raw almonds into a fine paste, straining out a bottle of nut milk. They will need it to regain their strength.
Started in 2017, Yudhveer Akhada is a residential wrestling academy for girls, run by a family of competitive wrestlers in Sonipat, an industrial town in Haryana, a province in northern India.
Currently it hosts 45 trainees who, on arrival, are typically 10 to 15 years old and are expected to stay until they are 20, immersing themselves in the community of girls who wrestle. Every student who enters the academy has the same goal: to win an Olympic medal for India.
“In India we are surrounded by the stories of violence against women,” said Prarthna Singh, the photographer for this article. Yet the country has also seen rising participation in women’s sports, including wrestling.
“Within those patriarchal constructs, we have these academies where young women are carving out a space for themselves as sportswomen. It’s inspiring to see them put in the dedication and rigour it takes to become one.”
The girls begin each day at 5am with an hour-long warm-up, starting with a jog and settling into targeted stretches: toe touches, hamstring swipes, windmill arms, curtsy lunges.
After the warm-up, their training varies. Cardio days can mean a cross-country run or stair climbing. On sports days, they play handball or basketball. Strength-building days are the most demanding of all: the girls must drag blocks of wood across the field or pull themselves up several metres of gnarly ropes.
“Had we not come here, our lives would have been very different,” said Siksha Kharb, a 16-year-old girl from a farming family in Sonipat. “If she weren’t wrestling, I would drop out of school to be married off.”
Every session ends with an hour or two of sparring, either in the outdoor wrestling pit or on an indoor mat. Yudhveer is one of several such academies across the region, which has traditionally been known for strict social codes to govern the lives of women and girls. Girls’ sports, and particularly wrestling, have been on the rise in India for the past decade, thanks in large part to two pivotal events.
In 2016, a woman from Haryana, Sakshi Malik, became the first female Indian athlete to win a medal in freestyle wrestling, coming in third at the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. Later that same year, Aamir Khan, one of India’s most influential actors, starred in the blockbuster Dangal as an amateur wrestler who trains his two daughters to become world champions; the movie was set in Haryana.
Since then, local families have been coming to the wrestling academies in a steady stream to drop off their daughters.
The training is not cheap – Kharb said her father had to stretch his budget to afford the monthly fees of 15,000 rupees (RM850) – but they do it in hopes that the girls might return home a pehelwan: a professional competitive wrestler.
Rounak Kumari, 18, came to the academy in 2021. Growing up, she remembers her father watching wrestling on TV. “Because he didn’t have a son, he used to make us, his five daughters, bout with each other at home,” she said.
“When I was 15, he dropped me at a wrestling academy – not this one – and subsequently three of my sisters followed me. Now four of us are here training together.”
Aashu Beniwal, 19, came to Yudhveer last summer from another academy in Haryana where she had trained for three years. “I believe not every girl who is going to an academy is serious about the sport,” she said. “Some of them are taking it up as an excuse to escape from home and village, but I don’t judge them.”
Some of the girls at Yudhveer continue to attend school outside, but most of them finish their coursework remotely and only ever leave the academy to participate in competitions. So for the five to 10 years they spend in training, aside from their coaches – who also act as their de facto guardians while they’re at Yudhveer – they have only one another.
The students help one another practice techniques, massage one another’s sore muscles, cook together on Sundays when they get a break from their strict training diets and dance to Punjabi music in the evenings.
“Friendship is everything for us,” said Anjali Pawar, 16.
Kharb said the students didn’t spend much time on boys or fashion.
“No point doing that when all we wear are T-shirts and shorts,” she said.
They all sport matching crew cuts, given to them when they arrive. The girls put aside friendships for one thing only: bouts.
“There are no friends on the mat,” Kharb said. “But as soon as the match is over, everything is back to normal.” — The New York Times