The earthy, furiously hard sport is now dressed up in a dinner jacket and Wayfarers and beamed out live on prime-time television thanks to the Pro Kabaddi League.
A couple of months ago, the State Kabaddi Association had considered approaching the organizers of the Pro Kabaddi League with an offer of help. “We thought we’d bus some schoolchildren in to their games,” one official reveals. “Nobody is going to come and so let us fill some of the stands up, we felt.”
It is Sunday night and Bangalore’s Kanteerava indoor stadium is bouncing to a bracingly new tune. There are strobe lights and roman candles; there’s House and Bollywood music; and there is not an empty seat in the arena. As Bengaluru Bulls’ Ajay Thakur walks up for another raid, the roar is positively deafening. He is quick on his feet and he dives out of enemy territory in a flash, towing three defenders behind him. The crowd is singing his name now, and at the end of the match they serenade him again. Thakur is recovering from a fever but he says the supporters carried him along with their energy. He waves out to them at the presentation ceremony, to raucous cheers. Thakur is a genuine hero.
In the stands are women and children, film stars and politicians, all equally enthralled by the spectacle. Tickets sold out in advance, as they have across the country this last month. “This,” the middle-aged official says, sweeping his hand over the banks of throbbing seats behind him, “we were not prepared for.”
This is the Pro Kabaddi League – India’s old, earthy, furiously hard sport now dressed up in a dinner jacket and Wayfarers and beamed out live on prime-time television to the nation’s millions. This is kabaddi that is suave and sophisticated, without compromising on its inherent toughness. The broadcaster, Star Sports, claims the league received 288 million viewers for the first 15 days, figures usually associated only with cricket.
Its success has not just changed perceptions of kabaddi; it has perhaps, indelibly, changed the sport itself. “People recognize me at airports now,” Thakur says. “They know who Anup Kumar is. They know who Rakesh Kumar is. It is as if we are Virat Kohli and Sachin Tendulkar.”
Charu Sharma, popular sports broadcaster and Managing Director of Mashal Sports, the tournament’s organizers, wears a look of benign satisfaction. “I’m very pleasantly surprised (by the response),” he says. “The spectators, I always knew (would come). But on TV, it has surpassed everyone’s expectations. It is humbling.”
This is not to suggest, though, that kabaddi has just appeared out of the ether. It has always been widely followed in India; only, it didn’t have the glamour or the attendant money. “Kabaddi was always there; it was just underground,” Sharma says. “Because it’s watched by so many in such an enthusiastic fashion, why would it not work when we scaled it up? I knew it would; I had belief.”
That it was a rural sport is a myth, Sharma feels. “There are 450 kabaddi clubs in greater Mumbai. The sport is extremely alive in urban India. It just became a sort of underground movement.” The seeds of the idea for the league were planted in Sharma’s head at the Asian Games in 2006, he says, and work began some three years ago. “I realized what a powerful, energetic game it was and how much pan-India popularity it enjoyed. I knew instantly that this was a game that must do better.”
The key to popularizing it lay in taking it to people’s homes on television. “Urban India follows what it sees on TV. Sport thrives on live TV coverage. And what was the coverage for kabaddi before this? Virtually zero. That gap has been plugged.” This coverage, Dharmaraj Cheralathan of the Bengaluru Bulls team admits, has brought him joy. “My parents tell me that everyone in Thanjavur (his hometown) is glued to the television when the matches are on.” There are many such stories from dhabas on the Mumbai-Pune highway.
“What happens from here? I hope we never lose the plot,” Sharma says. “We iron out all the errors we made in season one, and make sure that there’s zero tolerance of any mess-ups in the league.” He is aware that a number of professional sports leagues have sprung up in India after the IPL, only to run aground in a couple of years’ time. “My two main concerns were finding good television and good team owners and we’ve done both,” he says. “So I’m confident.”
For now, though, there’s no denying that kabaddi has caught on. In the crowd at the Kanteerava stadium are three 12-year-olds, all beside themselves with excitement each time Thakur steps up to go on a raid. One of them asks for a sheet of paper to seek his autograph. “We like this,” he says. “Nowadays at school we play kabaddi during the lunch break.”