Mitti da Sher, but no takers on International Circuit

August 12, 2018 09:16 PM

Jassa mitti ka sher hai.”

Over the course of the last four years that Jaskanwar Singh Gill alias ‘Jassa Patti’, the heavyweight from Punjab’s Tarn Taran district, has become India’s unofficial No. 1 dangal wrestler, all manners of sobriquets have been used to describe him — from ‘Modern day Dara Singh’ to ‘Virat Kohli of Mud Wrestling’. But few, if any, encapsulate the phenomenon as well as “Mitti Ka Sher”.

This was the description used by a fan on Facebook after Patti lost at the Senior National Wrestling Championship in Indore last year, his umpteenth failure to make the transition from the mud to the mat. It can be translated as both “a lion of mud akharas” as well as “a clay lion” — one a compliment, the other a pejorative. And, depending upon which surface, natural or synthetic, you deem more important, both fit Patti to a T. There is love and respect for him on the former, indignation and scorn on the latter. In fact, the perceptions of him in these two worlds are so radically different that ‘Jaskanwar Gill’, his name on the mat, and ‘Jassa Patti’, as he is known in the dangal circuit, might as well be two different people.

It was this gap that was at play, this time on a world stage, when, on July 28, the 25-year-old Sikh wrestler exited his first international tournament after the referee demanded that he remove his patka (headgear) if he wanted to take the mat. Patti said no.

Considerable outrage has followed that incident in Istanbul, Turkey, which happened right before Patti’s first bout at the tournament. His rival got a walkover and he returned home by the next flight. The news has spread from Sangrur to Satara and Bathinda to Brampton — from wrestling hubs to the Canadian city where NRI Punjabis keenly follow Patti’s career.

Patti finds all this unsolicited attention rather vexing. “I am getting fed up with all these calls,” he says sitting in his living room in Tarn Taran, surrounded by the maces he has won. “Reporters come and keep asking the same questions. Where were they when I was wrestling in dangals and winning?”

Part of the frustration stems from the fact that Patti forego many lucrative dangals to attend mat-wrestling camps — even self-financing his month-long stay in Turkey for training before Istanbul’s Yasar Dogu International Wrestling Tournament, in a bid to jump-start his amateur freestyle career.

“I missed out on prize money of at least Rs 17 lakh as I brought down my dangal participation to the odd appearance here and there over the last three-four months so as to prepare for mat wrestling,” say Patti.

Last year, he earned around Rs 1 crore from dangal, taking together the cash and other things he received as prize, including tractors, Maruti Alto cars, Royal Enfield motorcycles and milch buffaloes.

For an overwhelmingly rural sport with zero corporate sponsorship, these are eye-popping numbers, including for Patti, whose only regular income is as a Constable with Punjab Police. The graduate from Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar, got the job in 2016 after winning the All-India Inter-University medal — his only significant title win on the mat so far.

Besides the money, there is the adulation showered on top dangal wrestlers — something that borders on the reverential for someone like Patti. Poems and songs have been written glorifying his achievements. In one, a fan chides his beloved for liking a “cute”, urbane Virat Kohli and proudly contrasts it with his own “pendu (rustic)” choice, Jassa Patti. The song goes: “…Motorcyle o nit jit-da aa, jit-haar te rabb de bas kude; tere Birat ji Kohli ne kade jhotti jit-ti tan das kude (Virat Kohli might have won a lot of things, but has he, like Jassa, ever won a buffalo)?”

This fan-following for Patti and his ilk is not merely a counter-culture assertion. There is also a deep religious-spiritual angle to it. The star wrestler, who is remarkably eloquent for a pursuit routinely stereotyped as all brawn and no brain, explains that villagers have traditionally seen wrestlers as spiritual conduits.

“Over the last two-three years, Jassa has become a phenomenon in dangals across the country,” says Kulbir Kainour, a ‘Colour’ commentator (a sports telecast term for commentators who have an exaggerated style and engage crowds, quite like in WWE wrestling). A long-time observer of the mud-wrestling scene, Kainour says, “Jassa has beaten all the top stars at least once, a feat not seen in recent times. And thanks to social media, his renown is spread far and wide.”

In Patti’s case, there’s ego too, not entirely out of line for a figure who is larger than life. “Right now, I am a Constable in Punjab Police,” he says. “I have to salute people whom I thrash in the akhara. I need to make it big on the mat.”

To understand Jaskanwar Singh Gill is to understand Punjab’s wrestling. Despite being a state with a rich tradition of producing international wrestlers, especially in the heavyweight category, it has been outshone by neighbouring Haryana in recent years. Since Kartar Singh, who won gold medals in heavyweight category at the 1978 and 1986 Asian Games and a silver in 1982, not many wrestlers from the state have made a mark at the international level — with the exception of Palwinder Singh Cheema, who won gold at the 2002 Commonwealth Games. This decline has also coincided over the years with politically and socially tumultuous times in Punjab.

Parna/Patka together are one of the three key ‘Ps’ that make Jaskanwar Singh Gill ‘Jassa Patti’. When he approaches a dangal, he first stands out in the crowd with his yellow parna, tied in the manner of a farmer. Anticipation builds. He first removes the parna and wears a patka, the informal headgear he prefers for wrestling. Next he takes off his exercise pants to reveal monstrous thighs or ‘patt’ — the second ‘P’. Now here is the thing. Unlike mat wrestling where you mostly see sculpted upper bodies, in dangal wrestling it’s the patts that the crowds swoon over. And Jassa possesses the biggest pair of tree-trunks in business today. Then comes the third ‘P’, patkhani, the finishing moves. When he sweeps his opponent off his feet with a ‘dhobi’ (move), and pins him with a ‘kunda’ (another move), the delirious crowd invades the akhara to get as close as possible to the action. Despite the people in the way, you can still see that distinctive patka in a sea of heads and turbans, nodding at people and soaking in the admiration.

Courtesy Patti, the headgear is cool, especially in Punjab. His followers can only aspire to have those patts and patkhani, but they can always tie a parna like him. “A lot of people ask me to teach them how to tie the parna like I do. I feel glad. This is my identity. There were times when I grew sick of my hair because it required so much care. All the dhool and mitti (dust) of the akhara would end up in my hair. It’s one of the reasons you don’t see too many Gursikh wrestlers,” he says, adding, “But I also know that it is because of my hair that I am probably here today. Back in Class 9, when I was hanging out with all those junkies, a part of me wanted the experience. Smoke up, you know… But I didn’t do it because I had hair, and because I wore a patka and identified as a Sikh.”

So, as much as he wanted to fight that day in July, taking to the mat in Istanbul without that patka wasn’t really a choice.

The disappointment is there, but Jaskanwar has no time to dwell on it. The dangal season has begun and ‘Jassa Patti’ needs to take over.

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