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Traditional Indian sports like mallkhamb, kabaddi and kho-kho are doing their best to be recognised and gain wider appeal.
An unwitting victim of the storm that rocked last year’s Commnwealth Games in Delhi was mallkhamb, the traditional Indian form of gymnastics performed on a wooden pole or rope. “Suresh Kalmadi had agreed that mallkhamb would be showcased at the inaugural and closing ceremonies,” says Uday Deshpande, general secretary of the Mallkhamb Federation of India (MFI) and head coach at the Shree Samartha Vyayam Mandir in Shivaji Park, Mumbai, where around 500 children learn mallkhamb. “We had even sent information about the players that the organising committee had asked for. But for some reason it didn’t happen; perhaps they thought Bollywood-style entertainment was better,” says Deshpande.
Deshpande’s disappointment is understandable: showcasing mallkhamb at the Commonwealth Games — the first international multi-sporting event on Indian soil in 28 long years — would have been wonderful publicity for the sport that traces its history back to the 12th century and was revived and given its modern form in the 19th century by Balambhatta Dada Deodhar, physical instructor to Bajirao II, the last Peshwa of the Marathas. Even today mallkhamb has large following in Maharashtra and centres of the erstwhile Maratha empire such as Ujjain, Gwalior and Vadodara; it is also practised by the Maratha Light Infantry’s 1st Battalion. In the past decade or so, the sport has spread its appeal further afield to Punjab, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal. Annual mallkhamb championships are being held since 1962, and the sport is “recognised” by the Railways and banks. Mallkhamb was a demonstration sport at the 1994 National Games in Pune, although it hasn’t yet made it to the competitive category.
These have been through the efforts of MFI, formed in 1980 and recognised by the Union sports ministry and the Indian Olympic Association, with 29 state associations affiliated to it. Such recognition is important because it brings with it the funds to hold national-level championships — according to the National Sports Policy of 2001, MFI gets Rs 4 lakh a year for junior-level meets, Rs 6 lakh for the sub-junior level and Rs 2 lakh for the senior-levels. “That’s enough for us,” says Deshpande, “since most of our players come from lower-middle classes and are happy with second-class train tickets.”
In recent times, mallkhamb has also been showcased in mainstream entertainment — it was performed by actress Isha Sharvani in the film Kisna (2005) and the Lokmanya Tilak Group performed mallkhamb to come second in the first season of India’s Got Talent in 2009. “Mallkhamb is the most complete exercise for the human body and brings unparalleled fitness and flexibility,” says Deshpande. Lately, many countries such as Germany, USA, Japan, France, Portugal, Malaysia and Singapore have started to recognise this. A few months ago, Deshpande was in Munich for nearly 30 days, conducting mallkhamb workshops for nearly 100 children — in the course of the last eight years it has become a yearly assignment. Mallkhamb workshops are also held in various cities in the USA since 1997; in February 2002, the sport was included in the World Yoga Championship held in Brazil. “Our goal,” says Deshpande, “is to form an international federation and seek affiliation to the International Olympic Association.”
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International Olympic affiliation is also the ambition of Suresh Sharma, secretary general of the Kho-kho Federation of India. Of course, kho-kho, another traditional sport which traces its roots to ancient India, has greater visibility and institutional recognition than mallkhamb in India and abroad — kho-kho has had national championships since 1959, it’s been a part of the inter-university tournament since 1952 and, in 1985, it was introduced in the National Games. Kho-kho was an exhibition sport way back in the 1936 Berlin Olympics; in 1982, it was demonstrated at the Asian Games, and, in 2005, at the first Afro-Asian Games. It didn’t make it to the competitive level in these games, but an Asian kho-kho championship is being held since 1996, not very regularly, though, rues Sharma, for lack of sponsors. The Asian Kho-Kho Federation was formed in 1987, which has eight members now — China, Korea, Mali, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh and Pakistan, besides India. Plans are afoot, says Sharma, to institute a federation in Bhutan as well. (There were talks initially to include it in the demonstration sport category at the Delhi Commonwealth Games but the talks came to naught.) “Did you know,” asks Sharma, “that cricketer Kiran More played in the kho-kho national chamiponship as part of the team from Vadodara? Sandip Patil, Sachin Tendulkar and Sunil Gavaskar all played the sport in their school days. In fact, Yuvraj Singh was playing kho-kho to warm up in 2006 when he was seriously injured.”
The plan ahead, says Sharma, is to have a kho-kho league, just like the Indian Premier League for cricket. “Kho-kho has a huge following, especially in rural India,” Sharma explains. “I was at Pangaluru, a small village in the Prakasam district of Andhra Pradesh where the National Kho-kho Championship was held in May this year. There were enthusiastic crowds of 25,000 people who came to see the matches every day. The villages nearby had raised the money to pay for all the arrangements and the medals, which were made of real gold and silver.”An IPL-like tournament for kho-kho might not be a bad idea at all, considering that in June this year kabaddi had a “premier league”.
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Kabaddi is, of course, among the best known of all the traditional sports of India, and has come furthest along the road to acceptability as a bona fide sport. Kabaddi has been a competition sport at the Asian Games since the 1990 Beijing edition; it has an international federation with 31 members, including countries such as Chinese Taipei, Turkmenistan and the West Indies that you would never imagine played the game; a World Kabaddi Championship is being played since 1995 besides an international women’s tournament sponsored by Nike. Kabaddi is also played as a professional sport in Canada, the USA and Britain, primarily by expatriates from Punjab who have settled in these countries in large numbers.
Eight teams, each with dashing names to rival those in the cricket IPL — Delhi Dashers, Lanco Lions, Hyderabad Horses, Dr Anand Ongole Bulls, etc. — played at the first Kabaddi premier league in Vijayawada, a nine-day event. “We had fixed Rs 25 lakh as the price for each of the franchisees, but single sponsors were not willing to shell out so much; so the teams went to groups who pooled in,” says Jagadeeshwar Yadav, the general secretary of the Amateur Kabaddi Federation of India. As for the booty, it was a handsome Rs 10 lakh for the winner, Rs 5 lakh each for the runners-up, Rs 1 lakh to the player of the tournament, and so on. But that pales in comparison to the Rs 1 crore that the Punjab government offered the winning team of the first Kabaddi World Cup, a tournament that had numerous corporate sponsors such as Parle-G, and real estate companies Omaxe and Pearl’s. At this year’s tournament, which begins on November 1, Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Singh Badal has announced the prize money will be doubled, to Rs 2 crore. Also, Shah Rukh Khan is slated to perform at the opening ceremony.
Where does kabaddi go from here? “Our goal,” says Yadav, “is to include kabaddi in the competitive category in the 2020 Olympics. Already the game is played by 31 countries; we need another 19 countries and are doing our best to promote it.”