Why you should care
Because fight-dancing with swords is both beautiful and risky.
When Rajinder Singh first wanted to learn gatka, a traditional martial art originally from India’s Punjab state, his mother discouraged him, worried he might injure himself. “But my father supported me fully,” recalls the 25-year-old. “He told me, ‘You go play, learn.’” In 2008, Singh’s father convinced his mother and then helped to get him accepted to New Delhi’s Teg Sikh Martial Art Academy, a premier gatka training facility.
It’s true that it can be dangerous, but that’s not surprising. Combining acrobatics with swords, gatka was created as a form of warfare in the late 17th century during battles between Sikhs and the Mughal Empire. However, in the 19th century, it was banned by the British, who saw the practice as a threat. The sport then largely evolved to stick-based fighting, which helped the Sikhs convince the British to allow gatka once again. The sword-based version, meanwhile, continued privately in people’s homes and was passed on through the generations.
Today, gatka competitions take place in around 30 countries, and the sport is played at the international level in India, the U.S., Canada, the U.K., New Zealand and Australia. Currently, the Teg Sikh Martial Art Academy is working as part of a broader global campaign among the international Sikh community to elevate gatka’s profile — with the aim of getting it into the Olympics one day.
Gatka is a sport of precision and discipline. Each team is required to showcase 24-25 routines in a span of eight to 12 minutes. Weapons can’t fall on the ground or come in contact with the feet, and each weapon must be targeted at a specific part of the opponent’s body. For example, the sword must be aimed at the throat of the opponent. Target any other part of the body and get a penalty.
There’s no hard data on injuries, but there have been several instances of moves going wrong — in one case, in 2016, an accidental head injury resulted from a blindfolded stunt at an exhibition. The potential for bodily harm has led to calls — as much from within the Sikh community as from outside — for more regulation and better protection for participants, such as requiring that moves be restricted to those with adequate experience.
Despite the risks, it’s a sport that brings its athletes a sense of accomplishment and feeling of respect. “One of the finest things I love in this martial art is the art of salute [to the weapons and to each other] demonstration,” says Singh. For him, it’s all about making the right moves.