Traditional Indian game gets makeover
Despite years as one of India’s top players of kabaddi — a traditional contact sport that mixes tag and wrestling — Ajay Thakur remained relatively unknown in his homeland.
He became an overnight sensation in July 2014, however, after the high-profile launch of a new Pro Kabaddi League, with live television coverage, corporate sponsors and brightly colored spandex uniforms. The professional league has given new life to kabaddi, played in sandy backyards across India for generations. “It feels great when kids ask me for an autograph,” 27-year-old Thakur said after a game with the Bengaluru Bulls, one of eight teams in the new league. “It is all new to me and makes me hungry for more of all this.”
Although the sums involved represent only a fraction of the funding that cricket attracts in India, commercial sponsors are transforming the game’s once dowdy image — and the lives of its players. “I never thought sponsors would put money on kabaddi,” said Thakur, who weighs 80 kilograms and is now able to afford the food he needs to perform at his best.
Kabaddi features two seven-member teams facing off on a tennis court-size pitch. A “raider” from each team dashes into the rival half and touches players from the opposing team without being tackled, before escaping back to safety on their sides of the court. Players traditionally chant “kabaddi” repeatedly to prove they are not breaking the rules by drawing breath during that time.
Other versions of the game come with a high-tech flair. At the Thyagraj Indoor Stadium in New Delhi, the screaming fans have booming music, pyrotechnics and plumes of smoke, while colored spotlights focus on the players’ tight spandex outfits. There are no shouts of “kabaddi.” Instead, an overhead screen provides a 30-second countdown, turning the sport into a slick show for audiences in the stadium and at home. Team owners include a media mogul, a top industrialist and a popular Bollywood star. The league is inspired by the Indian Premier League (IPL), cricket’s cash-rich Twenty20 tournament.
Charu Sharma, a veteran commentator who devised the new league, said the comparison only goes so far. “We do not have that kind of money. But the IPL did make us realize that sport works well if you package it better.”
The top kabaddi player is paid nearly U.S. $20,000 for the two-month season. By comparison, the Delhi Daredevils cricket team paid U.S. $1.4 million for England star Kevin Pietersen in the 2014 IPL.
Sharma got the idea after seeing kabaddi’s popularity at the 2006 Doha Asian Games. “The world hasn’t yet woken up to the charms of this game,” he said, adding that it would be a shame for India, the homeland of the sport, to ignore such a cultural gem. “If we don’t give due respect to it and don’t take pride in our achievements, it’s a shame.”
The game is played in about 35 countries, including Bangladesh, Pakistan and South Korea, but India has won all seven gold medals at the Asian Games since kabbadi’s introduction in 1990. Local media reported that 22 million people tuned in to watch the first day of the season in July 2014.
Radha Kapoor, entrepreneur and owner of the Delhi franchise, said it was time India saw the potential of its indigenous games. “I am sure a lot of people have doubts, but that is where the opportunity lies,” she said. “See what the U.S. has done with baseball and American football.”
A World Kabaddi League launched in August 2014, targeting the large Indian diaspora, with a first leg in London and stops in the U.S. and Canada, among others. “It is like a kids’ game being played by grown-ups,” Francis Britschgi, a teenage American and recent convert, said in Delhi. “It has all the elements that make for a great spectator sport.”