Mud on Your Face. No Disgrace

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Mud on Your Face. No Disgrace

Illustration: Akshita Monga/ Arré

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efore every match at India’s Pro Kabaddi League (PKL), a celebrity – a singer, a Bollywood star, a politician – is called in to sing the national anthem and asked the same question: Did you play kabaddi when you were young? Each person then proceeds to get a faraway, misty look in his eyes. The answer is always shockingly, yes. Always, yes.

Well, we all grew up playing kabaddi at some time in our lives, mostly as children. I did, too, and I remember my introduction to the game particularly well. My school in Abu Dhabi had taken us fourth graders to a nearby sports club, and we played on a makeshift mud ground in the May temperatures of 40 degree Celsius. My face was rubbed into the ground that hot afternoon more times than I care to remember and after the taste of hot mud, I was done with this rustic, village sport with as much finesse as an army of deranged gorillas.

But the sport wasn’t done with me.

Years later, my first job at a sports PR agency was to handle the PKL which was only a season old. As a sports fanatic, this was not the kind of sport I’d imagined getting involved with. My dreams involved footballs and racquets, smooth greens and cool strategies, and not full-grown men scrambling over each other like ill-behaved children. The idea of a league for this pow-wow game amazed me. How would a village sport like kabaddi ever become popular in India when wrestling, badminton, and tennis had all failed?

But where others failed, kabaddi succeeded. It just didn’t succeed. This Podunk, retro sport hit it out of the park – even without a ball. It was not only a huge hit on TV, but it also became India’s first homegrown sport to be adopted globally as a hot export. The viewership for the league in its inaugural tournament in 2014 alone garnered 435 million views, in 2015, it was broadcast across eight channels, and by 2016, Season 3 had reached over 100 countries.

Kabaddi’s narrative of “the new cool thing” has played up the cat-like reflexes of raiders, the brute force of defenders, and it didn’t hurt that some players looked like Greek gods.

Post 2014, if you didn’t know Rakesh Kumar, Anup Kumar, or Rahul Chaudhari, you were either living under a rock or hibernating in a cave. Everybody wanted to either be national gold medallist and U Mumba captain Anup Kumar, or his best friend. Suddenly, a “backward” and old game that you played just a few times in school had become a sensation leaving the Hockey India League or the erstwhile Indian Badminton League (now Premier Badminton League) far behind.

And I watched, not always from the sidelines, as the viewership grew at a crazy pace. Interest in the PKL spilled over into a more encompassing interest in the sport itself and on Saturday more of India than ever before watched from the edge of their seats as India clinched the Kabaddi World Cup title for the third straight time.

Kabaddi, the sport I had no faith in, like millions of others, suddenly become cool and it was my face in the mud all over again.

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The reinvention of this forgotten sport has not been easy. Apart from the aggressive marketing, the fancy set-up of venues with flashing lights and dhinchak music, the addition of Bollywood stars, and the tag line “India Ka Khel”, kabaddi also needed a reinvention of the original “village bumpkin” stereotype of the players. I remember taking the team that I worked with to the Mumbai branch of the plush men’s salon Truefitt & Hill – certified as the oldest barbershop in the world by the Guinness Book of World Records – for makeovers, and listened to the players squeal through the torture of pedicures.

The transformation then went from tracksuit-wearing lads to sexy men in dapper suits – some of the U Mumba boys did a photo shoot for GQ with designer Troy Costa, gamely sitting through the primping of hair and the make-up, and the tailoring of suits to fit their bodies like gloves. When the photo shoot actually began, no one knew how to behave because they’d never worn suits before in their lives and when the magazine came out with the photos they jumped in delight like excited children.

This unreal feeling hasn’t still left them. At a Mumbai event, this January, we’d gotten off the bus and were walking toward the venue when people around us realised who the players were and started hooting. The expressions on the players’ faces were priceless. “They recognise us? They’re going mad for us like we are cricketers?” Along with the rest of nation, the players, in their wildest dreams, never saw this coming.

Kabaddi’s narrative of “the new cool thing” has played up the cat-like reflexes of raiders, the brute force of defenders, and it didn’t hurt that some players looked like Greek gods. What kabaddi has been able to do is stir a sense of childhood nostalgia along with some patriotic fervour – a double whammy that has pulled us into tuning in along with the sheer viewing pleasure of watching athletes smashing into each other.

The fanatics might say that kabaddi was always cool and new fans nowadays are just glory hunters. That may be true, but the fact is that in a country like India where 75 per cent of the sports coverage in newspapers is dedicated to cricket, an indigenous sport is giving it serious competition. There has been a new standard set in India for kabaddi – while the true essence of the sport still remains, the just concluded World Cup and all the stories coming from players in the Argentinian, American, Australian, and other squads show how much this sport has arrived on the world stage.

Hopefully one day, the need for the “I played kabaddi in my childhood” stories will go away and be replaced by the genuine “My kids play kabaddi today” stories. Then the revival will be truly complete.

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