Indian game ‘Kabaddi’ goes mainstream

This ancient Indian sport can appear mystifying.

Bengal Warriors players try to catch a Dabang Delhi player (10) during their Pro Kabaddi League match in New Delhi, India on August 6. AFP Photo
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NEW DELHI // A “raider” walks across a line into enemy territory. Having drawn a deep breath, he mutters “Kabaddi kabaddi kabaddi” non-stop while trying to tag as many of his seven rivals as he can. As his breath runs out, he tries to dart back to safety in his own camp.

To those unfamiliar with the ancient Indian sport of kabaddi, it can all appear mystifying. Once relegated largely to dusty fields or ignored playgrounds, kabaddi is now finding a glamorous new life in modern stadiums and arenas across the country.

The Pro Kabaddi League (PKL), a television-friendly version of the sport, is in the midst of a successful debut season. Bankrolled by an Indian industrialist, and with teams owned by Bollywood stars and sports management firms, the PKL is playing to rambunctious crowds.

On the opening night, July 26, 22 million television viewers watched the Mumbai-Jaipur game — 10 times more than the number that watched the first match of the Brazil World Cup. The final will be played on August 31.

Each game lasts only 45 minutes, ensuring that the two 20-minute halves of play are quick and full of action. Players need not only breath control but also agility, speed, and the instincts of a soldier as well as those of a wrestler. The physical act of tagging players, or of restraining a “raider” from returning to his half of the tennis court-sized pitch, gives the games the thrill of a contact sport.

Fireworks, laser lights, throbbing music and crowd-rousing announcers lend the games the air of a gladiatorial contest.

“I didn’t even properly know what kabaddi was until this league began,” said Aditya Krishnan, a 10th-grade student in Chennai who has been hooked on the games televised live each evening.

“It’s such a fast and exciting sport, and it has been packaged very well for television. It’s impossible to switch off the television when a game is in full flow.”

Kabaddi is believed to be thousands of years old, but its precise history and development are unclear. One theory traces its origin to the great Indian epic the Mahabharata, in which a young warrior fights his way on to enemy turf but is surrounded and killed before he can break back out.

The first rule book for the sport was formulated in 1923, by a gymkhana in the town of Baroda. In 1944, the Amateur Kabaddi Foundation was set up, and there are roughly 10,000 formal and informal kabaddi clubs across the country.

The sport made brief appearances on television in Great Britain and Canada during the 1990s, and although it has never made it to the Olympics, it has featured in the Asian Games since 1990. For a long time, though, it struggled to break out of its rustic image. Bare-chested men played it on muddy ground in Indian villages, it was thought, and there the sport would languish.

But this was only a perception, said Charu Sharma, managing director of Mashal Sports, which runs the PKL. The sport was invisible in the media but adored by the multitudes.

A veteran broadcaster, Mr Sharma worked as a kabaddi commentator during the 2006 Asian Games in Qatar and noticed that it was the first sport to sell out at the event.

“It was jam packed,” he recalled. “And then when I started reconnecting with the game in India, I was flabbergasted at the groundswell of popular support it had at the grassroots. And yet it was completely ignored by the media.”

Smitten by the sport’s “gut-wrenching attraction,” Mr Sharma began to put together the PKL about three years ago. He got funding from Anand Mahindra, chairman of the Mahindra Group, a multibillion-dollar conglomerate.

Star TV, owned by media magnate Rupert Murdoch, also invested in the venture and has broadcast rights. No figures have been released about the financial commitment of either party, although media reports have suggested that Star TV will spend about US$100 million (Dh367m) on the PKL in the next three years.

Most of the PKL’s eight teams are owned by sports management companies or other corporations, except for the Jaipur Pink Panthers, owned by the Bollywood star Abhishek Bachchan.

The PKL offers a total of 10 million rupees (Dh605,000) in prize money.

Porush Jain, the chief executive of Sportskeeda, a crowd-sourced website of sports writing, said he was “amazed” by the number of readers logging on to read about the PKL.

“We expected a thousand or so readers per article, but it has been four times that or even more. Some pieces have gone viral,” Mr Jain said. “And we’re seeing strong team identities. When the team from Pune wins a game, our readers and writers from Pune are ecstatic that their team won.”

Although popular, the KPL draws just an eighth of the TV audience for a match in the Indian Premier League cricket tournament.

But Mr Jain said comparing any other sport to cricket in India was “unwise”.

“Kabaddi can never have that kind of scale. But I think it’ll have its place. It’ll have a following. It’ll fill an important niche.”

By coincidence, a kabaddi tournament called the World Kabaddi League kicked off in London on August 10. Eight teams — with names such as Punjab Thunder, California Eagles and Vancouver Lions — are vying for a prize of $570,000. The final is to be played on December 14 in Lahore, Pakistan.

THE RULES

Each team is comprises seven players. A team earns a point when one of its raiders tags a rival player or when it traps a raider on its own turf. Raiders must, without drawing fresh breath, chant “kabaddi kabaddi kabaddi” non-stop.

Teams take it in turns to send raiders into rival camps, and the various players of a team go on raids in rotation. At the end of two halves, the team with the most points wins.

ssubramanian@thenational.ae