London-based photographer Vivek Vadoliya sees Mumbai as his second home. Before the pandemic, he was visiting friends in Shivaji park, a public area renowned for its cricket. Then one day, Vivek stumbled on something magnificent – breathtaking even – as he spotted contorted, twisted and limber bodies in the near distance. It was practitioners of the Mallakhamb.
The Mallakhamb is an ancient martial art form dating back to the 12th Century, where those in training will manoeuvre into unfathomable positions. And now, it’s been given new life by a group of youngsters in the park. Vivek was mesmerised by his findings that day, so much so that he began photographing and has now turned his works into a new book named Mallakhamb, published by Antihero Press. Within the tonal pages of the dusty Indian sunlight, viewers are able to learn of Mallakhamb, which translates to “wrestler-pole” in Sanskrit. “There’s something so expressive and poetic about it,” Vivek explains. “It combines yoga moves and holds with wrestling poses. There’s something so inherently beautiful with how it connects the mind and body; there’s a braveness and a confidence these people have when they perform the Mallakhamb.”
A practice formed of dedication, craft, acrobatics and beauty, the Mallakhamb beholds a community-like spirit that sees performers utterly supported and committed to their training. They practice early each morning and late at night to avoid the scorching rays of Indian sun, meanwhile their teacher, Uday Deshpande, would guide the group through their practice. The early risings, though, make for more-than-perfect circumstances for Vivek – who, when enquiring about the shoot, was surprised to hear that the group were happy to be photographed before school. “It was very collaborative,” he adds, “and that’s what I love about the images. They really wanted to show me what it was about.”
A clever use of sequencing is what gives Mallakhamb a refreshing and buoyant edge. Vivek decided to structure the series this way in order to illustrate the dynamism of the practice, to denote the movement and lively (yet very agile) nature of the Mallakhamb – one that’s dominated by fast-paced body gestures, strength and tenacity. In one picture, for example, there’s a girl performing a bow-and-arrow pose in the sky, placed in front of a green, bushy backdrop. Vivek recalls this moment as being “powerful”, which aptly describes not only the subject’s performance but also the way it’s shot – through his artful lighting and clever composition.
Meanwhile, the more dynamic photos are paired with the static. The picture of two boys posing in front of a coloured wall, for instance, is another of Vivek’s favourites. “Their skin tone, the light, the way it’s formed; there’s so much confidence in them,” he says. “They’re holding their breath, as if to say, ‘I’m strong and powerful’”. What’s visually interesting is the manner in which their bodies appear in front of the lens, almost elastic like plasticine, as if they could just about warp into anything – anything. “It makes me smile,” he continues of the photo. “I love it for that.”
There’s no denying that the project serves more purposes than one. Besides the illustrious visuals, Mallakhamb sheds light on a practice that was nearly lost, enlightening the viewer to the vitality and commitment of those who choose to practice it. But equally, it’s been been westernised across the globe, which Vivek says isn’t necessarily a bad thing. “It’s an incredible practice of how people can connect their mind and bodies,” he shares. “[The project] is a celebration of the brown body as much as the roots and the language that comes from the Mallakhamb. I hope that people see the power of the body and what it’s able to do. I hope they see the brown body and how I’m celebrating it; I hope people also see what Mallakhamb is.”
GalleryVivek Vadoliya: Mallakhamb (Copyright © Vivek Vadoliya, 2022)
Vivek Vadoliya: Mallakhamb (Copyright © Vivek Vadoliya, 2022)
About the Author
Ayla is currently covering Jenny as It’s Nice That’s online editor. She has spent nearly a decade as a journalist, and covers a range of topics including photography, art and graphic design. Feel free to contact Ayla with any stories or new creative projects.