“KABADDI! Kabaddi!” goes the chant that gives the game its name. For hundreds, maybe thousands, of years, small teams of Indians have taken turns hopping back and forth over a patch of earth, tagging and grabbing at one another while the call goes up. A player must repeat the word to prove he is not drawing breath as he makes his raid over the boundary line. The play is quick, strenuous and requires no equipment.
Cue swirling lights and cut to the spotlit purple floor of the National Sports Club of India in Mumbai. Sparklers fire from darkened corners and loudspeakers thump out riffs. The spanking-new teams of the Pro Kabaddi League (PKL)—the Patna Pirates, the Telugu Titans and six others—face off before a cheering stadium. Kabaddi has been turned into slick fare for television, rife with opportunities for sponsorship. The model is Indian Premier League cricket, where a sped-up game has made the league into a commercial juggernaut. Most strikingly, in PKL matches, raiders no longer mutter “kabaddi” to show they are not drawing breath. Instead, an overhead screen counts down 30 seconds. New India has claimed a bit of timeless India for its own.
The producers, Star TV and the Mahindra group, are drenching the new league with star pulling power. The first matches saw Ronnie Screwvala, a media mogul who owns the Mumbai franchise, sitting opposite a film icon, Amitabh Bachchan, whose son owns the Jaipur Pink Panthers. Smart TV ads give a nod to the sport’s village background. The new celebration of kabaddi takes a certain pride in its Indianness. Charu Sharma, a PKL organiser and celebrity commentator, predicts that foreign brands wanting to become locally strong will associate with the new league.
At the same time the PKL wants kabaddi to look at least somewhat international. Each team must field three players from non-Indian countries. So players from Japan, South Korea, Turkmenistan and Britain make their appearances—if only from the benches. One day they might bring the word back to their own countries—thus spreading this game’s international appeal.