DERA, India — Fourteen players stood in formation on both sides of the starting line for their daily evening practice of the muddy ancient Indian game of kabaddi. They said a quick prayer at the temple in the corner of the field, touched their coach's feet and kissed the soil as they waited for the opening whistle.
Bare-chested and barefoot, Kaptan Singh muttered the words "kabaddi, kabaddi" menacingly under his breath as he crossed the line into the opponents' muddy turf in his village on the outskirts of New Delhi.
Singh, 25, is the "raider."
Seven opponents, called "defenders," knit their hands and circle Singh, ready to pounce. Singh's mission is to touch one of them and make it safely back to his side of the field. As he inches close, one defender roughly yanks Singh's leg, and another pulls his arm. As Singh flees, they chase and tackle him, falling on top of each other in a big pile. Singh is crushed in the sloshy, rain-drenched mud.
Turbaned village spectators cheered.
The renewed buzz over kabaddi in small villages such as Dera is part of a national revival of a rural sport that until recently was slowly fading into antiquity, overshadowed by the country's craze for cricket, rapid urbanisation and affluence, villagers say. The comeback kicked off with the just-concluded six-week professional kabaddi league, a made-for-TV tournament replete with thumping music, fancy lights, Bollywood stars, fashionistas and big money aimed at recasting the rustic game for India's urban middle classes.
"The boys have seen so many kabaddi champions on TV last month that they now feel they too can be stars," said Bijender Tanwar, 38, a coach in Dera. "This was a poor man's village game, wilting away in modern India. It has got a new breath of life."
But reimagining kabaddi and fueling a cultural revival of sorts was not easy. The game lacked media attention, stadiums and even a formal vocabulary for TV commentary.
"Kabaddi has deep roots and resonance, but the challenge was to present it for the urban middle-class Indians as a style and attitude statement. To get them to say 'Oh my god, kabaddi is actually quite cool,' " said Uday Shankar, chief executive of Star India, the entertainment and sports network that is a division of 21st Century Fox.
At the opening and the finals of the professional kabaddi tournament, an Indian who's who — including movie stars and the family of Mukesh Ambani, India's richest businessman — turned out to cheer for their favorite teams. They waved team flags, wore colorful team T-shirts, took selfies with each other and tweeted. The games generated more than 2 billion digital mentions. The razzamatazz in the matches was akin to the NBA Finals.
Opening night drew 10 times the number of TV viewers as soccer's World Cup this year, making pro kabaddi the second-biggest sport after cricket here, the channel said. About 426 million people watched the games over 36 days.
"This was possible only because there is now a new self-confidence among Indians to explore what is in their own back yard even as they chase what is cool abroad," Shankar said.
The template for the kabaddi makeover was the five-day gentleman's game of cricket that was turned into a three-hour TV event a few years ago replete with dance music, cheerleaders and celebrity team owners.
In Dera, the number of young children at kabaddi practice has tripled since the TV league. And now, villagers have set themselves the goal of producing at least four players for next year's pro kabaddi season.
"The pro kabaddi game drew such glamorous and powerful people. The league players even got police security as if they were VIPs," gushed Rohit Sharma, 23, a truck driver by night and kabaddi player by day. "This makes us feel so important. Nobody bothered about us until now. We were just dismissed as those who play in the mud."
On television, the game looked a bit different.
TV kabaddi was played on the mat, and the men wore shoes. The maximum weight is 190 pounds, slimmer than the Dera players.
"After seeing that the TV event used mats, our local politician has promised to buy us a mat too," said Pappu Pehelwan, a muscular 38-year-old coach. "My boys are saying, 'Give us a mat if you want our vote.' "
Players are enjoying the glamour but are also aware that it is a mixed blessing.
"The TV commentary was a bit too dramatic," Singh said.
"Hopefully, the glamour does not take away from the purity of the game later," another player said.
Until now, Pehelwan said, the biggest wish of players in Dera was to be picked by the government for a police or railway job because of their talent. But now they are also dreaming of TV fame and fortune.
"Kabaddi, the game of the soil, is making unexpected heroes of the sons of soils," said an article in India Today magazine about the impact of the new league.
Kabaddi was introduced in the Asian Games in 1990, and India has won gold each time. Indian immigrants in Britain and Canada also have organised kabaddi tournaments in the past decade.
But the game remained largely ignored by urbanised Indians.
In Dera, coaches reminisced about the game back in their day. In the 1970s, the prize at a kabaddi match was usually a vest and a wooden shield, they said. Then it changed to kitchen utensils and steel buckets. Then bags, radios and colour TVs.
"Then suddenly, out of nowhere, comes pro kabaddi and the champions win 65,000 euros," said Tanwar, the coach. "That tells you the story of kabaddi. Who knows, India may even forget cricket in some years. It is all destiny."
Rama Lakshmi – The Washington Post
Photo for The Washington Post by Enrico Fabian.