BY ARPIT PARASHAR
Suman Lata and Sonia are in their mid-twenties and their parents are worried for their future in their chosen sport, kabaddi. Their anxieties revolve around marriage proposals, which have been fewer in the past year. This is Nada village near Narnaund town in Haryana’s Hisar district, where sport is not just about the playing field, but also the means to a government job. But the competition has seen a steady increase over the past decade, when the state government almost doubled the funding in sports, recognising it as a cultural lifeline.
Kabaddi, a sport with a dedicated following in the Indian countryside, spread like wild fire as every budding player who did well at the local level aimed for a government job by either cracking the national team or winning medals for the state at national events. Suman and Sonia are part of the same culture of rural Haryana, hoping for Class III or Class IV government jobs.
“It makes sure that apart from farming they move up in life and achieve something for their state or country as well as become the financial pillars of their families,” says Guru Ram, who coached the two in school.
Suman participated in the Kabaddi World Cup held in Punjab in 2011 and 2013, while Sonia was part of the Indian women’s team in 2012. It makes them eligible for Class III jobs. But they have been denied, the reason cited being that the league, or the Kabaddi World Cup as it was called then, was no longer recognised by the International Kabaddi Federation (IKF).
The young women have approached the Punjab and Haryana high court for help. They feel they will get their jobs, but government policy has changed since.
A senior state sports ministry official, who didn’t want to be named, said, “The numbers of sportspersons are so many now that the government is out of options even in terms of posts it can create to accommodate them in the system. That is the reason we have rejected several applications in the past few years.”
Suman and Sonia expect the court to come to their rescue. Their real reason for hope, however, is the drastic change in the fortunes of men’s kabaddi ever since the Pro Kabaddi League (PKL) came into existence in 2014.
“The coaches and even the men who have participated say the league for women is not far away and that the success of this year’s (third after 2014 and 2015) edition (held in February-March) has sparked talk of a women’s league too since female audiences have also increased regularly,” says Suman Lata.
As per the broadcasters Star Sports, around 435 million viewers watched the PKL in its first edition in 2014. They claim that almost half were women. That’s more than 215 million, a figure even popular television soaps would find hard to better.
The two are also enthused by an announcement from the league’s organisers—sports management company Mashal Sports and broadcaster Star Sports—that women would be encouraged to be a part of the fourth season. The league has started training camps across the country, encouraging young women from poor and rural backgrounds to take up the sport.
The organisers have decided to hold the league twice annually from this year. The fourth season started within four months of the third winding up, on June 25.
Even though women’s kabaddi at the international level started only in 2010, Suman and Sonia say they are physically and technically ready to show the professionalism men display in the game since the launch of PKL. This optimism epitomises the leaps that kabaddi has taken in just a few years.
PKL has surpassed the revenues generated by Hockey India League (HIL) and football’s Indian Super League (ISL), organisers say, while the critics have had to eat their words on its future when it started in 2014.
Mashal Sports is run by commentator Charu Sharma, the brain behind the idea of a kabaddi league. His company first approached broadcaster Star Sports, after which proposals went out to probable investors a few years before the league was to become a reality. Star had previous experience in league formation, having launched HIL and ISL in collaboration with government run sporting bodies.
In case of kabaddi, too, the International Kabaddi Federation (IKF)and the Asian Kabaddi Federation as well as the Amateur Kabaddi Federation of India came on board.
“The structure for players already existed and at local levels the game had immense following because of which everyone was eager to come on board,” says Janardan Singh Gehlot, president of the IKF.
Apart from the state federations and national teams there is a deep reach of the game at the amateur level. Villages and towns have their own clubs which participate in local competitions.
Star Sports, a part of 20th Century Fox network, has a 76 per cent ownership in PKL, and broadcasts the games to more than 100 countries, while the involvement of the International Kabaddi Federation encouraged other countries to allow their players to participate in the league.
“All players come through amateur federations in the beginning. Those who graduate to the state and national levels then move to the greener pastures of national competitions while others stay at the amateur level,” says Rakesh Kumar, former captain of the Indian kabaddi team and the highest paid player in the first edition of the PKL in 2014.
There is no real money at the amateur level; it is the passion for the sport that drives the men. This ready pool of players is what the organisers tapped into when PKL started. Based on recommendations of coaches and local performances amateur players were called for auctions along with those affiliated to KFI or state federations. After that, it is the experience that a team brings into its ranks in the form of coaches and support staff that helps it bid for and buy players.
For this, teams send their support staff and experts to scout talent in the amateur competitions in various states. For example, local administration in every district in Uttar Pradesh organises a kabaddi competition annually in the rural areas where the best players take part.
Mohit Chaudhary, a young player who joined PKL last year is a product of such competitions in Bijnor, also the home town of star player Rahul Chaudhary.
Since the league began, even local competitions have picked up and sponsors in the form of businessmen and industrialists have started coming forward. Attendance has grown manifold and players compete hard as a good performance gives them a chance to enter PKL.
From the present season, for example, all eight PKL teams have been allowed to pick and train three upcoming players in the age group 18-22 alongside their squads under a contract for two years. As a result of these initiatives the total pool of players up for auction for the fourth season rose to 198, of whom 96 players were finally selected.
As the PKL has gained popularity pay for players has gone up many-fold. A well-known player normally got Rs 1-2 lakh in top national or regional competitions. This season, Mohit Chhillar, the highest paid player in India was auctioned at Rs 53 lakh. Senior players like Jagmer Singh Gulia and Jeeva Kumar were bought by their teams for Rs 35.5 lakh and Rs 40 lakh respectively, while youngster Sandeep Narwal, who played a major role in the Patna Pirates becoming champion in the third season, was bought by Telugu Titans for Rs 45.5 lakh.
Player lifestyles have been transformed since the money came in.
The league treats us differently and we are paid well apart from becoming known around the country. I come from a farming family and with the money from the league I aim to have my 10-year-old son educated well and take care of my family’s future.
Manpreet Singh, the victorious Patna Pirates captain, put himself through a rigorous aerobics programme and diet schedule to shed excess weight. “The league treats us differently and we are paid well apart from becoming known around the country. I come from a farming family and with the money from the league I aim to have my 10-year-old son educated well and take care of my family’s future.”
This increase in bidding for players has happened as a result of growing incomes for the teams, made possible by widespread viewership. From 435 million in 2014, viewership increased 20 per cent in the next season. It increased by a further 35 per cent in the third season according to the broadcaster Star Sports. In the fourth it is expected to grow further.
The total money bid in the fourth season by teams was Rs 12.8 crore and is expected to almost double in the new season, now underway. Sponsorships have also increased four-fold since the first season, as per the ESP Properties-SportzPower report on sports sponsorships in India, released earlier this year.
India claims that kabaddi was developed and mastered by the people of the subcontinent—a combination of team athletics and techniques derived from wrestling which were both relevant in ancient times and helped prepare rural folk for warfare. The seven-member structure of the teams is supposed to have been derived from the battle formation in Mahabharata known as the chakravyuh, in which the Kauravas formed a seven-structured attack to entrap and kill Abhimanyu.
Iran, however, claims the sport as its own, and contends that Persian traders were the ones who spread it to the subcontinent. If competitions over the past decade are to be taken into account, Iran surely has given India a run for its money in three successive Asian games from 2006 to 2014 where title matches have been closely fought between the two nations, India barely managing to win on all the occasions. This was a deviation from the four earlier one when the team sailed through to the gold medals.
Pakistan has been the next most successful team, beating India in the final of Asian Kabaddi Championship earlier this year to take the title for the second time.
Ever since it was introduced in the Asian Games in 1990, where India won gold, countries like Japan and Korea along with other subcontinent nations like Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have risen in stature and are now considered worthy opponents. England, with a large Indian diaspora, Spain, Argentina, many African countries and America have taken up kabaddi.
The growing popularity of the sport across the world prompted the Punjab government’s sports department under the patronage of Sukhbir Singh Badal to fund, invite sponsors and run the Kabaddi World Cup on a grand scale in 2010. Actors like Shahrukh Khan, Katrina Kaif and others performed at the opening ceremonies. But the tournament was not held last year, due to what many in the fraternity say was lack of political patronage from the Badals.
The tournament also suffered a huge setback after the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) began a probe into the multiple scam-tainted Pearl Group which sponsored four editions of the competition from 2011-2014 and paid Rs 14 crore to the Punjab government as sponsorship fees. While the government claims the money paid was as part of a legal contract, CBI is also investigating whether a sum of close to Rs 6 crore was paid as bribes by the group to officials.
Another factor that was against the self-proclaimed World Cup was that the competition was held in the old style played in circular fields, where both sides have semi-circular halves, and that most of the players were either wrestlers or overweight athletes who play kabaddi on the side.
While it kindled public interest and sustained itself for the first few years, the long and boring format, where wrestling skills mattered more than athleticism, eventually told against it. When the competition was called off in August last year some players too got disillusioned.
Patna Pirates’ Manpreet Singh was a regular at the “World Cup” till last year. He was to participate in the fourth edition of the tournament which did not take place. It was then that he says he decided to shift to PKL.
The wrestle-mania format of the previous competition took its toll on him. He weighed 130 kg in August whereas the limit for PKL is 85 kg. In the six months he had before the season three, he reduced his weight to 84 kg—some 46 kg lighter.
“I used to weigh around 100-105 kg and gained weight only for the kabaddi competitions and some local wrestling matches,” he says at a hotel in Delhi where his team recently toured for practice sessions. Being overweight helps deter throw-downs or pushovers in wrestling and kabaddi and so it helped. He was a member of the team that won the Asian Kabaddi Championship in 2000 but was dropped in 2012 when performance started to dip.
When Patna Pirates approached him, he started training at the Sonepat Sports Hostel for at least six hours every day to reduce weight. “More players are now reducing weight and getting fit. The professionalism PKL has brought in has worked like a magnet for many retired players as well as budding players,” he says.
There is a darker side to the story that few players talk about: many have found jobs as sports coaches or martial artists and left the game while others have also taken to drugs and are either dead or have disappeared from the scene.
“I have heard a lot about players who suddenly disappeared from the domestic circuit. But since I am from Punjab I can say that it is not confined to kabaddi. Every sport has its share of people losing their grip on life and making wrong choices. At least now every player has a future since PKL gives them a competitive platform to try their luck and skills.”
The Indian team under coaches like Honnappa C Gowda, who was also the coach of Delhi Dabang in PKL, kept winning tournaments and medals including at the Commonwealth Games. Countries like Canada and UK also sent competitive teams, comprised mostly of South Asian expatriates.
“We have never had a dearth of talent in the country. State governments as well as central government departments and the security forces have nurtured players for a long time now. Our success has meant that more players have started taking the sport seriously,” he says.
The shorter courts, 13X10 metres, and focus on players who are fit while having trained in kabaddi and wrestling techniques has also helped the newer format pick up popularity over the last decade. “Players are now fitter and there is a bar on their weight (85 kg) which means the days when flabby wrestlers could also compete are gone.”
The growing popularity of the game in its mud court avatar in the hinterland as well as on the mat in the indoor format prompted the owners of Mashal Sports to think of a league on the lines of the IPL. It was an instant hit—among the owners of the eight teams in the league are Bollywood personalities like Abhishek Bachchan and Ronnie Screwvala. For the urbanites it was a way of connecting back to the game.
The most important reason is that it is a contact sport which requires both power and tactics. So a person with either one will not succeed but a person with a balance of both will be successful. This attracts children and adults alike. One cannot physically hurt the other person so even a weak guy can earn a point. It is a more balanced sport than any (other).
“The most important reason is that it is a contact sport which requires both power and tactics. So a person with either one will not succeed but a person with a balance of both will be successful. This attracts children and adults alike. One cannot physically hurt the other person so even a weak guy can earn a point. It is a more balanced sport than any,” says Gowda. What has also made it popular in schools is that it does not require any equipment, and is easy to understand.
The sport also has a quality to produce heroes, an essential trait for selling it to the masses. Sangam Kumar, a former coach of Haryana who now teaches students in Sonepat, says, “You feel like it is a battlefield, and that is how it was designed in the first place. One man enters the arena of the other alone and his team starts moving and thinking like him, pushing him on. It is that effect which keeps everyone hooked. This is why villages organise competitions among each other.”
In Haryana, often small fights between communities and villages are resolved with the panchayats holding kabaddi matches at times to declare who holds the upper hand—a show of strength, he says. After the match a community meal is organised and issues are amicably resolved by the elders. All grudges are buried in the mud pit of the kabaddi arena.
The signature style of a winner when he gets a point, which the organisers have given the name “thigh-five”, is a way of expressing that aggression and victory with a taunt—the player slaps his thigh and raises the other hand up pointing at the other team to signal stealing/scoring one or more points.
On most occasions, especially in Haryana, Uttar Pradesh (UP) and Punjab the shake of the head along with a grunting sound accompanies the thigh-five as well.
The organisers of PKL set out to give the sport a new look with fancy haircuts for players, jazzy merchandise and a revived focus on the physical abilities of the players, with videos of them working out on modern exercise machinery shown across various television channels. The teams also have mascots and technology has been used to create many more visual effects that help keep the television audience in the game and the younger audiences hooked.
Rakesh Kumar, among the highest paid players in PKL, says, “One has to accept that today’s sports channels are far better and their coverage and showcasing of the game is way ahead of others (like Doordarshan, the national broadcaster). Earlier, 90 per cent of the audience did not understand the rules but now kids even remember the names of the moves we make and have favourites. This has been possible because the game is taken to the people in a technically friendly manner where you can watch the game very closely and listen to commentary that is so fast that one is reminded of the radio commentaries on hockey that were so popular till some years back.”
Indeed, the hockey commentary on radio covering ball-by-ball movement had been a craze and is now a dying art. PKL has second-by-second commentary which enthralls the listener as well as the viewer, apart from the several cameras that are placed around the court to give the viewer a multidimensional look at the game in progress.
This combination of technology and popular appeal has produced stars who are often mobbed by fans. Being on one’s toes and scoring for the team was a trait that could not provide enough popularity to the players in the 80 years since the sport was first unveiled in front of the world in 1936 at the Berlin Olympics.
A small team of players and experts from the Hanuman Vyayam Prasarak Mandal based in Amravati, Maharashtra, demonstrated the sport back then and the All India Kabaddi Federation came into existence in 1950 as a result. Even though the sport was introduced in the Asian Games in 1990, its popularity was visible only when they played Pakistan, or in one of the finals of the tournaments they have so convincingly and so frequently won.
Out of the mat, nobody recognised the players.
“After the 2014 PKL season I was roaming around in a mall in Delhi and two kids came running to me for an autograph and their grandfather walked right after them,” says Rakesh Kumar who hails from Haryana.
“They asked for my autograph and said they watched all my matches together with family at home. Following them a lot of other people also mobbed me and started asking for ‘selfies’. I could not believe it at first and was joking with my friend whether they had mistaken me for someone else.”
Rahul Chaudhary, from Bijnor town in UP, says women often seek him out for autographs and selfies these days. He has been a star player for the Telugu Titans, and with his good looks and tall and hefty frame is marketed as one of the poster boys of PKL.
“We never go out alone now. Last year in winters I was mobbed at a mall in Ghaziabad and forced to literally flee the place since people started pulling and shoving around,” he says over the phone.
During a tour across Delhi ahead of season four, players of the Dabang Delhi team led by the Dabang Delhi Kabaddi Club (DDKC) were mobbed by fans across the city. While many were school students, others were local leaders and budding players who all wanted to be on the Kabaddi bandwagon for different reasons.
Rinku Singh, a 19-year-old from the Dyal Singh College in Delhi, says, “I played Kabaddi as a kid in my village while growing up but once I got into college it did not appeal to me anymore. It has a reputation of being a gaon walon ka khel (villagers’ sport) where you get your clothes dirtied in the mud. People in the city look down upon it but the mat game, especially after the PKL, has started becoming popular.”
Rinku now practises at his college with a group that also has what he calls “city boys”. Rinku and his friends visit the DDKC often to practice and consult coaches.
Sagar Bandekar, the coach of Dabang Delhi, says, “The response from the public has been so enthusiastic that PKL organisers have almost been forced to make the league a twice-a-year thing. Kabaddi has always been the most popular sport in rural India but it has now become the second most popular after cricket.”
The DDKC now also travels across many cities and towns in Punjab, Haryana and UP scouting for talent. Bandekar says so many young boys are competing for places that in time to come many more teams might be added to the list in the PKL.
That PKL has created wealth for players has been its big calling card. The highest paid player in the present season is Mohit Chhillar of Delhi, a clerk in North-Western Railway. He has seen an almost nine-fold increase in his earnings over 2014. He was picked up by Bengaluru Bulls for Rs 53 lakh, becoming the most expensive player in the league till date. The highest in the first season was Rs 21 lakh for Rakesh Kumar, captain of the Indian team then. At this rate there will be players getting a crore or more in coming seasons as the franchises also start earning more on a regular basis, says Bandekar.
This change in fortunes has also triggered an attitudinal change in the hinterland. At his village Malikpura in Sonepat, Sangam Kumar has been training close to 20 boys for local competitions, which are now played as per PKL rules, and every one of his wards is a winner, he claims. The boys chat away during a break while he is overhearing a conversation between them, sipping tea during a break. The court’s lines on the mud field are being redrawn by the younger players.
Some of them fight over who gets to draw the lines, hoping to impress the coach and the other boys with their work. After the conversation with me over tea, Kumar calls a player, a teenager, bare-footed and wearing only mud-soiled pajamas and asks him, “Kay bhanje thha re chhoreyan sammi? (What were you boasting in front of the other boys?)”
“You think you are going to be like Mohit Chhillar? You don’t even know how to grip a raider’s leg while pulling him back and you think you’ll be the top defender in the country!” he says, his eyes squinted in derision.
“You see, all these boys have started dreaming big without undergoing the rigours. It is important to keep them grounded lest they forget you have to be the best to get into PKL. And then getting jobs before sporting glory is important as these boys come from farming families and almost all are from poor backgrounds,” he tells me later later.
But the point Kumar seems to miss is that these boys now have heroes they look up to and expect that their coaches will put them through enough training to help them become like their idols. The main aim of all the clubs run by PKL team owners is not to only introduce the sport in various places, but to also produce young talent ready for the big stage. That is the way most players from other countries have benefitted in the PKL, especially those from Iran. Fazel Atrachali, auctioned for Rs 38 lakh, became the highest paid foreign player in the fourth season. His country mate Hadi Oshtorak was their highest export to the PKL in the third season’s auction, selling for over Rs 21 lakh.
Most of these players have jobs or run small businesses in their countries but have found place in the PKL due to their performances in various kabaddi competitions across the world. They take breaks from their regular jobs and come to India to earn decent money that the league has started offering.
Mohit Chhillar says, “I have a stable government job but take leave without pay when I make myself available for PKL. Similar arrangements can be made by employers in the private sector too. I am sure that with growing popularity more professionals will find space in PKL who could even have IT jobs or be scientists or businessmen,” he says speaking over the phone from Vishakhapatnam, where Bengaluru Bulls was practising ahead of the league.
In the near future, however, kabaddi is set to remain a rural Indian sport finding a foothold in the urban areas and in the sphere of professional sport. At least 15 of the players in the current season are from the Services, which comprises players from the army and the paramilitary forces, while a majority of the others have represented their respective states and hold secure government jobs as a result.
The ambition of these players still remains to represent their states and get jobs before they start looking for professional and personal glory in the PKL. Chhillar, whose village Nizampur is in Haryana, 30 km from Delhi, says while he was good at the sport from a young age, his parents saw it as his ticket to a job rather than sporting glory.
“If someone ends up playing for the country it is an achievement for the village as a whole but otherwise one is just a player who found his job through the sports quota and that will remain the main aim of young boys and girls in rural areas.”
Sangam Kumar sees this attitude every day in the parents of his wards. Parents of girls from his village have started approaching him demanding that he also start training their children from the village so that the talented among them can also aspire for a future with a secure job. “Most girls look at PKL and say they too want to play so their parents are taking interest. Others have a family tradition of sport. The PKL has given them dreams of becoming stars but reality on the ground is still the same,” he says.
In Nadia village in Hisar, Suman Lata and Sonia’s parents too are hoping for a favourable decision from the high court later this month when their case comes up for hearing. The girls, however, plan to travel to Delhi to support Delhi Dabang in the PKL.
“I am most excited about seeing women also become part of the tournament so that people like us can also compete and have decent incomes. Even if I get married later and do not have a stable job at least I will be augmenting my income every year by playing in the league or competing for the state or PKL team positions,” says Suman Lata, her voice full of hope and excitement about her future prospects in kabaddi.
They are also disappointed that there is only one team from North India apart from Bihar, represented by Patna Pirates, which is Delhi Dabang. “There should also be a team from Haryana and even from Punjab and UP where so much kabaddi is played,” says Sonia.
With a number of players from these states representing various teams in the PKL, this could soon become reality, increasing their chances of playing in one of the teams if, and when, a PKL for women also comes into existence. For now, they’ll enjoy watching PKL, the Indian sport set to go global.
(Arpit Parashar is a freelance journalist based in Delhi.)
(Cover story of the July 2016 issue of Fountain Ink)