In the demise of legendary wrestling coach Guru Hanuman, Indian sport has lost one of its most colourful personalities. Born in anonymity, he died a hero, a year short of a century. Vijay Pal was born in Chirawa, a remote Rajasthan village, and migrated to Delhi as a young, unknown wrestler. He soon came into contact with industrialist K.K. Birla, a great patron of wrestling. The latter gave him land in his Birla Mills complex, and thus was born Birla Vyayamshala in 1920. Today, the Vyayamshala is stuff that legends are made of, having produced two Padma Shris - Satpal Singh and Kartar Singh - besides eight Arjuna Award winners.
A bachelor, the Guru christened himself 'Hanuman' after the celibate Hindu deity. He once said he would marry when he turned 100, but that was all in jest to keep nosy mediapersons at bay. My first meeting with Guru Hanuman goes back to 1970. As a young long-distance runner, I along with some fellow athletes was at the National Stadium just before the departure of the Indian contingent for the Asian Games in Bangkok. While almost all the other officials and coaches accompanying the team were busy collecting their money, ties and suitcases, the Guru was giving last-minute tips to his wards. From that day I knew that there was at least one person in India on whom wrestlers could depend.
Nearly a decade later, when I joined The Indian Express as a sports correspondent in 1981, I often found Guru Hanuman in front of me, asking me to cover some wrestling championship or the other. Surprisingly, neither the Wrestling Federation of India (wfi) nor the state unit ever bothered to inform us of any wrestling event.
Guru Hanuman's differences with wfi persisted through his long career as a coach. The wrestling establishment found his outspoken nature too hot to handle. Guru Hanuman never shied away from standing up for his boys if he ever felt that they had been wronged. Two years ago, he went on a hunger strike at Rajghat to demand an Arjuna Award for his protege, Sanjay, whose name had never been recommended for the honour. His act forced the federation to bow to his demands and Sanjay got the award the following year.
In true Indian guru-shishya tradition, Guru Hanuman was not a mere coach. He was a father figure to all his trainees. He was not 'like' a father to me; he was my father, says Premnath, one of his successful disciples. I don't even remember my age when my father put me under Guruji's tutelage. But I know that I never missed my father thereafter. Another Olympian, Sudesh, has similar feelings about the legendary coach. Both finished fourth in the Munich Olympics in 1972. The Guru was present in Munich to guide his wards. Naturally, we were sad that we had narrowly missed a bronze medal, but Guruji cried like a child. Today it's my greatest regret that I could not give him an Olympic medal, says Premnath, now a Delhi Police acp.
It wasn't just their wrestling skills that he honed. Guru Hanuman saw to it that his trainees were well-placed in life once they gave up the sport. He often requested the authorities concerned for their employment. Today, almost all of them are officers in various forces.Despite his hard, crusty exterior, the Guru obviously had a way with people.
His rustic ways, the manner in which he dressed in a dhoti and kurta and his general demeanour often led people to take the man lightly. They did so at their own peril. For, behind the simplicity was a mind that grasped every nuance of the sport with unmatched clarity. Even though he was a great advocate of the akhara style of wrestling in mudpits, he was quick to realise that if his wrestlers were to make an impact at the international level they would have to train on mats. And he beautifully blended the two styles to produce several Asian champions, both in the junior and seniors sections.
Guru Hanuman was a natural. He had no formal training as a coach and yet through his empirical methods, he produced excellent results. And despite the hordes of coaches churned out by the National Institute of Sport, later merged into the Sports Authority of India, he remained wrestling's lone winner of the Dronacharya Award given for excellence in coaching. With his lathi as his staff, he emerged as Moses for India's wrestling flock.
He often wielded his lathi on a trainee if he dared slip up during training. But behind that anger was a deep affection for his wards. Sometimes, visiting mediapersons to his akhara found themselves at the receiving end of his sharp tongue. But once the interview was over, he would be his normal self again. He never allowed journalists to go back without having a jug full of milk and almonds. In case somebody asked for a cup of tea instead, he would himself drink several of those jugs merely to drive the point home. All this when he was well into his 90s!
Lay visitors to his akhara often found the sight of young wrestlers in shabby and dirty kurta-pyjamas rather repulsive. But the Guru had a firm reason. He never allowed us to wash or press our clothes for weeks because he thought we would be distracted by girls, recalls Premnath. He was a strict disciplinarian, a hard taskmaster. The story goes that he once gatecrashed into a cinema hall where some of his trainees had sneaked in for a Hindi film after giving him a few sleeping pills. He literally pulled them out by the neck.
Now that Guru Hanuman is no more, there is a huge task ahead for his trainees - keeping the legend alive. They have to fulfil his dream of an Olympic gold. A bigger challenge lies ahead of the wfi and several of those coaches who always opposed him. If they want to prove him and his so-called rustic techniques wrong, they will have to match the scroll of top wrestlers produced from his stable. And that alone will be a fitting tribute to the Grand Old Man for whom wrestling was not just a profession but a passion.
(The writer is the sports editor of TVi)