Sangrur (Punjab)/Rohtak (Haryana): Driving down the old National Highway 10 between Delhi and Haryana’s Hisar, one comes across the Master Pahalwan Akhara standing amid fields of yellow mustard. Even at 7 o’clock on a cold January morning, one can see nearly a hundred young men — mostly in their early 20s and some as young as 13 — sweating under the watchful eye of their coach, 50-year-old Ravindra Balhara, better known as Master Pahalwan.
Master Pahalwan’s akhara doesn’t just train the youngsters in traditional grappling — its speciality is circle kabaddi, a rural sport played in Punjab and Haryana that’s a cousin to the nationally recognised version of kabaddi. Despite its lack of recognition, the sport comes in second only to the de facto national sport, cricket, for its players, coaches and enthusiasts.
Locally, players are as famous as some international cricketers, and thanks to the inflow of bundles of cash from NRIs and live-streaming on social media, the sport has become lucrative as well, offering huge prizes like cars and even a Harley Davidson motorcycle.
Master Pahalwan’s boys are practising for a small tournament to be held in Haryana’s Dadri, which has managed to excite anticipation in players and fans. It is being seen as another step towards a return to normalcy for this fledgling business that was hit badly by the Covid-induced lockdown. The coach said tournaments were held until March 2020, and only resumed in September at a much smaller scale — organised at the panchayat level with small prizes, which saw good turnouts.
“By that time, villagers concluded that coronavirus had nothing to do with them, so the players were back at the akharas,” he said.
He is also thrilled that the boys are training, despite the farmer protests that have rocked Punjab and Haryana and made their way to the outskirts of the national capital, in which many players are participating.
Vinay Khatri, a star player who has inspired many of the trainees at akharas, said: “Most big players are sitting at Singhu and Tikri borders, so the big tournaments such as Major League Kabaddi, Saidowal tournament and Mathadda tournament have been postponed. The Punjab government hasn’t yet issued a notification about the annual world cup. Another tournament was held in Panipat recently, but fewer players participated.”
But now, green shoots are beginning to appear in this part of the rural economy too — a tournament to be held in February in Nangal Ambian, Punjab, has announced a Harley Davidson motorcycle for the best player.
The rise of kabaddi
The launch of the Pro Kabaddi League in 2014 and its broadcast on Star Sports fuelled a rise in interest in the sport across India. The tournament has attracted big bucks, and even expanded to 12 franchises with some big-name (co-)owners such as Abhishek Bachchan and Sachin Tendulkar, and business houses like Adani and Jindal groups.
Broadcast Audience Research Council’s 2019 annual report said kabaddi had become the most-viewed mass sport after cricket in India.
Circle kabaddi has key differences to the ‘national’ version of the game — such as the shape and size of the playing area (a circle with a 22-metre radius versus a rectangle of 13 metres by 10 metres), the number of stoppers allowed to go after a raider (one stopper in ‘circle’ versus seven in ‘national’) and weight limit (80 kg in ‘national’ versus no limit in ‘circle’).
While kabaddi is popular at national and international levels, its cousin has remained a rural sport. This despite the fact that the Punjab government has been hosting a circle kabaddi world cup every year since 2010, in which teams from Argentina, Australia, Iran, Tanzania and the US participate, and cash prizes are sometimes Rs 1-2 crore.
Gurmail Singh, a 14-time champion, summed up the differences between the two kabaddis as: “Both are intense sports, but the respect rural society gives to circle kabaddi players is much more than the fame of national kabaddi. You can get a government job as a national-style player, but there’s less thrill. That’s why some national-style players participate for years, secure jobs, and return to circle kabaddi.”
A case in point is Haryana’s star player, the aforementioned Vinay Khatri. The 23-year-old played national kabaddi for two years before joining circle kabaddi in late 2015.
Glitz and glamour
While the Punjab government has rewarded some circle kabaddi players with state government jobs in the past, a major part of its modern rise is thanks to a huge inflow of cash from non-resident Indian fans. In Haryana, the funding comes from panchayat committees.
Satpal Singh, who is from Punjab’s Dirba, the ‘Mecca’ of circle kabaddi, and has been a commentator for the last 20 years, recounted the rise of commercialisation and glamour in the sport, thanks to social media, the Punjabi music industry, and a mushrooming number of leagues.
Karan Singh, a Dirba native now settled in Canada, said: “I contribute at least Rs 20-30 lakh for the local tournaments. There are no returns on investment here, but we do get to advertise our business in foreign tournaments.”
Now, big corporates like Pepsi, Airtel and HDFC Bank have also started sponsoring major local competitions, such as the Shaheed Bachchan Singh tournament, resulting in big prizes for the top players.
Vinay Khatri, for example, has won a Murrah buffalo, 33 motorcycles, four cult-classic Royal Enfield Bullet motorbikes, two tractors and even some cars like a Maruti Suzuki Alto, and has more than 18,000 followers on Instagram.
Karan Singh added: “The ‘glamour’ was a result of cars and big cash prizes. In 2005, we gave a car to Bittu Duggal in the Shaheed Bachchan Singh tournament, which set a trend. Now, the star players earn in crores and an average player also makes Rs 5-8 lakh every year. Earlier, this sport only won them accolades, but now it has become more professional.”
Gurmail Singh pointed to the contribution of Punjabi popstars in adding glitz to the sport. “The Punjabi music industry’s contribution is also huge. When the first big tournament was held in Dirba in 1973, the singer was given Rs 720. But after the year 2000, every top singer you can name has performed in the top tournaments in Punjab,” he said.
Gurmail fondly recalled that first tournament in Dirba in 1973. “Around 50 villages participated, it became a matter of honour to win. More than 15,000 people gathered to watch that tournament. People came on cycles, buses and some even walked. Those who won were welcomed with desi ghee tins,” he said.
TV and social media broadcast
Interest in circle kabaddi has been boosted thanks to its broadcast on major Punjabi language TV network PTC since 2010.
Satpal Singh said: “When PTC broadcast the 2010 World Cup for the first time, the urban population of Punjab got to know about this sport.”
But since then, social media and live-streaming have become the major route to increase the fan base. Now, organising committees invite YouTubers to live-stream the tournaments.
A committee member in Bahu Akbarpur, Haryana, who did not wish to state his name, said: “Our committee was constituted in 1997, when there was no TV or social media. But now, we pay the YouTubers some amount — Rs 5,000 to Rs 15,000 — depending on the number of subscribers they have.”
According to former circle kabaddi player Sandeep Nyoli of Haryana, there was hardly any presence of circle kabaddi on the internet before 2014. “I once searched for famous players on the internet, but found none. I then created a Facebook page called Kabaddi Haryana, having noticed the demand from the rural audience. Then, I started the first channel in Haryana that live-streamed tournaments,” Nyoli said.
Now, Kabaddi Haryana has more than 3,50,000 subscribers, and a cumulative 93 million views. Around a hundred other YouTube channels dedicated to circle kabaddi have sprung up, including Haryana Sports, Sports Live Kabaddi, Khel Kabaddi Live etc.
Kabaddi365.com is the most popular YouTube channel based in Punjab, with around 1.6 million subscribers and nearly 498 million cumulative views.
A Kabaddi365 team member, who didn’t want to be identified, recapped how the business had suffered under the lockdown, but is now recovering. “Since the tournaments were cancelled in the initial days, we started streaming the old matches. The viewership was less than the normal days, but after September it again came back on track,” he said.
Nyoli concurred. “Viewership was affected, but the popularity of the sport is still intact. The presence on social media has witnessed a significant rise in the last five years.”
And according to Ram Mehar Singh, an Arjuna awardee for kabaddi and deputy director in Haryana’s sports department, it is certain that “circle kabaddi will grow in the coming years”.