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#1 Jan 28th, 2018, 11:15
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107-year-old Mohammad Hussain (centre) is the oldest living practitioner of pata hilana, an ancient martial art form of northern India. Photo: Sunaina Kumar

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For the people of the village of Basaud every Eid and every Holi, for as long as they can remember, has been marked by one rite—Bade Miyan, the oldest man in the village, performing for them on stage. Bade Miyan, whose real name is Mohammad Hussain, is more than a hundred years old. The last time he performed, on a winter afternoon, nearly two months ago, he appeared gaunt and a little lost, his eyesight not as sharp as it used to be. But when he came on to the stage, it was as if all the years had melted away. He whirled round and round like a dervish, his arms dexterously making wide sweeping circles with long wooden sticks, as the audience stood agape. They could hardly believe they were seeing a 107-year old man.

Bade Miyan is quite possibly the oldest living practitioner of pata hilana, an ancient martial art form of northern India. Once widely practised in the countryside upto the end of the 19th century, it has now all but gone extinct. Pata is the Hindi word for a gauntlet sword and pata hilana translates roughly to ‘brandishing the gauntlet sword’ even if the martial art form involves sticks and not swords.

Despite its relentless decline over a century, in Basaud, a little-known village located in the Baghpat district of western Uttar Pradesh, just a couple of hours from Delhi, pata hilana has survived the vagaries of time. Generations of men from almost every family brandish the stick. “This is the glorious tradition of our village, one that every generation has kept alive,” says Bade Miyan’s grandson, Samir Ahmed, an affable young man in his twenties, who has a job in the city. But in his spare time Ahmed rallies the young people in the village to learn and keep pata hilana alive.

Boys as young as eight show up for training, but it is not easy, says Ahmed. Most residents in Basaud are landless labourers. None of the prosperity of the surrounding villages in this rich agricultural belt, a hub of sugarcane production, is found here. And yet, this may also be why this martial tradition has stayed alive. “Maybe people will have less time and show less interest in it, if they start earning more,” he speculates.
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