Image: Pro Kabaddi League (www.prokabaddi.com)
It is both amusing and heartening to see that the decidedly working class Indian sport of Kabaddi is attracting loads of showbiz glamor and corporate muscle with the launch of the Pro Kabaddi League (PKL). I say amusing because it reminds me of my childhood where Kabaddi and Kho-Kho were the two predominant and uniquely Indian games that we scoffed at. These were not mandatory sports in school but were strongly encouraged in the face of a gradually growing stranglehold of cricket on our sporting choices.
If we played Kabaddi at all, it was mainly to mock the game. One of the ways we ridiculed the game was this stupid little line in Gujarati that went “Kabaddi Kabaddi Kabaddi, Tari Chaddi Bagadi Bagadi Bagadi” (Kabaddi Kabaddi Kabaddi, You pooped your pants). The line had no meaning other than having a minor poetic virtue of rhyme. The game was also called “Hu Tu Tu Tu”, a sound that merely reinforced our low opinion of the sport. It would be tempting to describe our derisive rejection of these two quintessentially Indian sports as an illustration of a colonized mindset except that we were born much after India’s colonization had ended. I think it was nothing more than prejudice that prevented us from warming up to it. The simple fact is that I did not see much to like in the game where players from the two rival teams take turn to raid the territory of the other even while breathlessly chanting “Kabaddi Kabaddi” or “Hu Tu Tu Tu”. The idea is for the raider to go deep inside the enemy territory and touch a particular line without being felled and trapped by the rivals. In the event that the raider is trapped he or she has to do everything thing to somehow touch the dividing line between the two sovereigns.
Kabaddi is a physically taxing game in the sense that it demands great physical agility even as it requires sound breathing techniques because the raider has to keep saying ‘Kabaddi’ all through their duration inside the enemy territory. Any interruption or trailing off in the Kabaddi Kabaddi chant and you are out. At least that was the rule when I was growing up. One did not understand then that it is an ingenious sport whose evolution was unique to India where a vast majority had no access to expensive sporting equipment or grounds. The same goes for Kho-Kho, which I do not feel like describing in detail here. Suffice it to say that Kho-Kho too is also a very physical game that demands great agility and ability to run the gauntlet from the rivals.
From left, Aamir Khan, Anjali Tendulkar, Sachin Tendulkar and Amitabh Bachchan at the Mumbai Vs. Jaipur Match 1
Now that Kabaddi has come under corporate, television and showbiz patronage it is bound to emerge as a hot ratings property. Star Sports has begun live broadcasts of the league matches. I would not be surprised if Kabaddi acquires a huge national profile and becomes a highly valued franchise like the Indian Premier League for cricket.
While watching the highlights of the first season I was comparing the conditions of the sport in my childhood with what we see as part of the league. It was played out in the open on a rough ground that was often full of rocks which frequently bruised the players’ knees and elbows and every other limb.The generally hot sun ensured that the bruises and cuts laced with dust and sand caused an agonizing pain. The league matches, in contrast, are played indoors in what seems like an air-conditioned court. It seems they use artificial turf of the kind used for badminton and other games. The graphics on TV screen are of the same slick quality as you see in any international sporting spectacle.
The players look well-fed and well looked after. Team members pose for group photos with their hands folded in front, wearing an expression of fierce determination, quite like what one recently saw during the FIFA world cup. There is a definite visual standardization of sports made possible by TV patronage and software technologies. The PKL matches look nothing like the working class sport that one grew up watching and playing occasionally. It has the glitz now which one would have never associated with it earlier. The fact that movie stars have bought PKL teams would guarantee that they enjoy glamor which Kabaddi had singularly lacked. Kho-Kho could well be next in line.