In parks and sporting arenas all over India, you’ll see young people, almost always boys, playing cricket, soccer, even rugby in their spare time or in competitions. But if you walk through certain public cricket maidans (open spaces) in Mumbai, you may see a rare and peculiar sight – a young, rather slight woman sumo wrestling with her brother.
Even more surprising is that twenty-four-year-old Hetal Dave (pronounced "dhaah-vay") is the country’s first competitive sumo wrestler, possibly the only one. No doubt the country’s only female practicing the ancient Japanese sport.
Dave started out learning and mastering judo before moving on to sumo, but not without quite a few obstacles. For one thing, India has no sumo rings for her to practice in or other female sumo wrestlers to practice with. She also comes from a very conservative Brahmin community in which anything unconventional is frowned upon, so imagine their reaction when she announced her new career. Fortunately, her immediate family has been encouraging and supportive. But while Dave practices regularly with her brother, it's been an uphill battle finding steady sponsorship to be able to travel abroad to compete against other women in international tournaments.
Occasionally, she is able to find a sponsor, such as last year, when she competed in Estonia, where she placed fifth. Not having her own mawashi, the cloth belt that sumo wrestlers wear, Dave had to borrow one from the Japanese, who then cheered her on at that competition. The Indian public, especially many young Indian women, have been inspired by Dave’s passion and singular ambition.
Sumo wrestling as a professional, competitive sport is observed only in Japan, where women are not allowed to play except at the amateur level. In fact, women are not allowed to even touch a professional sumo ring in Japan because of the "impurities" they may impart. As a result, it's not a sport that many women anywhere, particularly in Japan, choose to take up.
Not counting Dave though. If she can continue finding sponsors, she hopes to continue competing and improving her skills. In the meantime, she works as a part-time school teacher to support herself. Even as she keeps breaking down barriers – both in sports and in society.
Want to see Hetal Dave in action? Take a look: