Choking Men in a Man’s World

How to create strong women through Brazilian Jiu Jitsu in India.
September 3, 2018, 5:30am
Apeksha Kakkar sparring with Rodrigo Texeira.  

The art of a woman kicking a man’s ass in physical combat is highly romanticised in this age of feminism, and pop culture has further exaggerated this notion to epic proportions. Even more romanticised are CGI flying kicks and acrobatics capable of making the cut to the Olympics. All of which fails to answer this: How can a woman defend herself against a male perpetrator who outmatches her in strength, size and muscle mass?

Then there is another art. That of choking people unconscious in minutes. An art that has built itself on technique, not strength. It’s the ‘gentle art of Jiu Jitsu’.

In a country where martial arts is alienated from mainstream pop culture and where fake dojos sell self defence plans to women for Rs 1,000 per seminar, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) has carved a small niche. It is slowly enabling women to not only spar with men twice their size, but choke them too. While the traditional Japanese martial art of Jiu Jitsu was focused primarily on samurais and includes weapons, BJJ, a more refined version, is derived from both Japanese Jiu Jitsu and Judo, and mixes aspects of wrestling and sambo, giving it a more holistic approach on ground.

“The worst case scenario a woman can face is a rape situation where somebody is on top of you. No other martial art can help you when your back is on the ground except Jiu Jitsu, because that position is one of its primary positions called ‘guard’,” explains Apeksha Kakkar, a stripe four blue belt.

Uma Bagla in a 'guard' position.

It takes 10-15 years for a BJJ practitioner to receive his/her black belt, given that they train thrice a week. Apeksha has been training for four years at BJJ India in Delhi and currently holds the highest ranked belt for a female in the nation. For an academy to be recognised, it has to be affiliated to a BJJ black belt dojo anywhere in the world. India does not have a black belt. But BJJ India houses India’s highest belt, a stripe two brown belt in Arun Sharma, who has been training with multiple time world champion and black belt holder Rodrigo Texeira for the past 10 years.

A BJJ class of 90 minutes is usually split into three parts: A warm-up, a drill and a spar. The class usually starts with a warm-up of 15 minutes where students engage in various exercises pivotal to the art, followed by combat drill moves on the ground. The class ends with a 30-40 minute sparring session where each training partner spars for a round of 5 minutes with a gap of a minute in between partners.

The pivotal aspect that makes BJJ so unique is sparring on the ground. Sparring is a realistic simulation where a training partner goes all out to secure a win–mostly by tap, catching someone in a chokehold or an arm lock. Other martial arts might not indulge the sparring element as much, aiming to spar with protective gear a few times a month. But BJJ classes contain sparring in every session (for a 90 minute class) for more than half an hour, providing a reality check where your training partner has to engage you in ground combat.

“It is a close range art; it puts you in weird awkward situations so training with guys can get intimidating. That is the beauty of it. You are in a real life scenario where you are forced to overcome adversity,” Apeksha claims. “You can literally break your arm or go unconscious if you don’t tap.” “My training partners are like my brothers. We help each other and are like one happy family. I am not intimidated by them, but they are by me,” Damer stated.

Uma Bagla is a blue belt in BJJ and has opened her own academy in Dehradun called House Of Techniques. “I started learning BJJ in 2012 after the Delhi gang rape. I work a night shift for a multi-national company and that involves a lot of commuting in the dark. There have been times when someone grabbed me. My instincts and the BJJ techniques that I have learnt over the years helped me overcome that. I have literally thrown molesters on the ground and choked them.”

Apeksha Kakkar in the 'mount' position.

“As jiujiteiros (a practitioner of BJJ), that is what we're training for subconsciously,” states Asha Badrinath, a white belt, who trains at the Institute of Jiu-Jitsu in Bengaluru. “BJJ has given me the confidence to defend myself with ease. Most women seem to not want to train because it makes them feel uncomfortable. That is exactly the idea with Jiu-jitsu: Learning to be comfortable in uncomfortable situations and by putting myself out there every single day.”

There is no government training centre for BJJ in India, but private academies and dojos have been popping up ever since the sport gained popularity globally, primarily through Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC). So far metros like Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru have a few BJJ academies. More recognised academies are gradually coming up in cities like Shillong, Dimapur, Chennai and Dehradun.

The craze is not limited to young woman who see Jiu Jitsu as a practical approach to self-defence. Girls as young as 12 see it as a medium to find themselves. Training at Happy Red Rooster Academy in Shillong, Damerbha Rumnong, a year shy from her teens says, “BJJ has helped me overcome my mental health problems and made me very confident. I was diagnosed with depression and fear psychosis, but since I started training it has been a revelation. All I want to do now, is train and become a black belt.”

Googling ‘Jiu Jitsu Federation in India’ will lead you to a couple of fake websites all claiming to be the premier federation promoting the art in India. There is no official governing body in the country. “Nations like the UAE are providing free BJJ lessons to kids, and it is a great tool to use for self development and self defence. If our government can provide free BJJ lessons, it will change the way women are perceived,” states Apeksha.

BJJ is one of the sports listed in Asian Games 2018, in Jakarta, Indonesia. With no participant from India for the BJJ contingent, perhaps it’s time the government identifies it as a sport. In the meantime, it works as an opportunity to build a nation of strong and confident women. That’s not half bad.