Driven by dreams of winning medals for their country, two dozen girls and young women train to become wrestlers in a cluster of white one-storey buildings set on a dusty track winding through farmland on the edge of a north Indian village.
Run by a husband and wife convinced that sport can fuel aspirations and build confidence, the Altius wrestling school in the village of Sisai in Haryana state, about three hours’ drive from the Indian capital, aims to change perceptions.
“There is no value of a woman in a village,” Usha Sharma, India’s first female wrestling coach, told Reuters. “In a village, an animal has more value than a woman, as an animal gives milk and there is a cost attached to it.”
Whether or not they become champions, the girls from humble families receive rare lessons in female empowerment during their training at the residential centre Sharma set up in 2009, along with her husband, Sanjay Sihag, a sports teacher.
Sharma, 50, is a serving police officer, and her stark comments indict rural society in a country where poverty, tradition and conservative attitudes hinder women’s rights.
In the nearby fields, village women, covered from head to toe, graze cattle. Some of the students could have shared that destiny, but for the chance of a different life that the school has given them.
“When I opened the academy and we started getting medals, it felt nice to know that the same girls who used to graze cows and buffaloes were now being favoured by the men in the family,” said Sharma.
Her husband manages day-to-day affairs at the academy which provides a safe space where students, aged between eight and 22, build a strong sense of sisterhood, honing the skills and resilience needed to succeed in wrestling and later life.
Tamanna, 18, and her teammates exercise during their morning fitness and practice session at The Altius Wrestling School in Sisai, Haryana, India, Jul 10, 2023.
State government funding covers training, while parents pay about 9,100 rupees ($109) a month for board and academic tuition, which is provided by a school next-door.
“Hostel is like a family. We work, play and also study together,” said 16-year-old Swati Berwal, preparing for a training session. “We also fight with each other just like families do, but we get support from each other.”
Facilities are basic.
The girls, some of whom come from neighbouring states, sleep in two rooms, sharing beds and mattresses but often cram into the one with air-conditioning. They wake at 4 a.m. every day except Sunday and cook meals together.
They use a stone grinder to make a groundnut paste that is mixed with milk and strained through muslin for a “protein drink”.
Morning exercises include jogs, sprints, squats, push-ups and ramp work, with evenings spent on mat work and bouts.
Medals hang inside a cabinet on a wall at the Altius wrestling school in Sisai, Haryana, India, Jul 9, 2023.
As a defence against hair-pulling by opponents, almost all wear pageboy cuts.
On Sundays, they call home, passing around an old mobile telephone, since they have no access to the internet.
Some women earn prize money, but competing at state level can also bring them government jobs, and Sharma takes pride in seeing former students carving out careers, buying cars and moving ahead.
Wrestling is popular among Indian men, with thousands of training centres nationwide.
But a new generation of women was inspired by the triumph of Geeta Phogat, who became the first female Indian wrestler to win a gold medal at the Commonwealth Games in New Delhi in 2010.
Indian women won three bronze medals at the recent Asian Games in China, and last year a former Altius student won bronze at the Commonwealth Games in Britain.
Another Altius student, Sonu Kaliraman, 27, represented India before suffering a serious injury. She now coaches there. Her story is emblematic of the journey of its students.
Kaliraman remembers yearning to be among the girls she watched exercising in the schoolyard on her way to work in the fields each day. And she recalls the thrill of her first glimpse of an aeroplane when she competed overseas.
Women are changing conservative attitudes by winning medals and proving they can be world-class athletes, she said.
“We have progressed a little and we will keep progressing further,” said Kaliraman, seated on a bed in her village home, as her proud mother tenderly stroked her head.
India’s national wrestling federation is going through troubled times. In August, the global governing body for the sport, United World Wrestling, provisionally suspended it for not holding timely elections.
And a former federation chief faces legal proceedings after accusations of sexual harassment by several top female wrestlers this year.
The sports ministry, which oversees the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI), said every effort would be made to improve safeguards for female athletes.
“When a woman has to stand up against a strong power then she has to put a lot of things at stake, her career, her life,” Sharma said, commenting on the controversy.
Sharma’s husband remembers telling his sister, also a wrestler, how to respond: “You protest and slap first and then leave, and don’t think about medals.”