The IPL-isation of the mill workers’ sport is sure to catch more eyeballs but as Shivani Naik finds out, kabaddi had never disappeared from Mumbai’s bloodline.
The stubborn ink mark on the back of the hand wouldn’t always wear off the next morning. A few wary wives — their own curiosity piqued — would scrunch up their noses, wondering if it came from the latest lavani-tamasha troupe in town, camped at Mumbai’s Girgaum.
Mostly, though, such fears were unfounded.
The men would simply have returned from a night of kabaddi and their revelries would stretch beyond dusk. They would discuss the kaichi (scissor-hold catch), baithi (toe-touch) and mule-kick deceptions of the day’s play, to rewinding how the game had panned out, even as dinner was gobbled up later at home.
Much before Mumbai’s music and dance scene morphed into nightclubs and discotheques frequented by men oozing cologne and women twirling in little black dresses, the ubiquitous hand-stamp was a gateway to another form of robust entertainment, during the 60s and 70s, in the chawls where mill-men and their brood resided.
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The blue-smudge branding on the hand wasn’t meant to be an exclusive passage into the cool confines of some groovy nightclub. It was a conveniently-budgeted stag entry-pass into the maidaans to watch kabaddi players do an athletic ring dance in mud pits, while avoiding the cost of printing tickets, and almost always using the same rubber stamps that were brought out to confirm donations for Ganpati mandals once a year.
Kabaddi has been slated for a makeover through the recently-announced Pro Kabaddi league promoted by Anand Mahindra, chairman of the Mahindra Group — albeit in his individual capacity — with some suave involvement of the country’s leading corporate houses, an ad-whiz and an uber high-end TV broadcaster. A financial windfall for the players this inter-city league may well be, but calling it a massive popular revival might be a touch misleading, given how the sport has never really disappeared from this busy city’s bloodline, even displaying some mind-boggling self-preservation through the years.
It resides along Mumbai’s arterial Central Line — Sewri, Wadala, Parel, Dadar up to Thane — and though the mills have disbanded, kabaddi continues to throb in nooks and crannies where large crowds still assemble under the long shadows of the very skyscrapers that have replaced rundown factories; the desi game almost defying the spectacularly shocking changes to the horizon.
Sons of soil
The Mahindra Group, itself, has sheltered this indigenous sport in its wake — kabaddi surviving at least three waves of budget cuts brought on by restructuring and recession. While the cricket and hockey teams were sent packing in the mid-90s, and football, despite having a successful side in the I-League, couldn’t fight back a further purse-tightening a few years ago, kabaddi has gamely survived owing as much to its low maintenance as to the support it receives from the company’s workers’ union.
“We were nervous when sports teams started closing across the city’s banks and industries but our workers union rallied behind kabaddi and the management recognised how close it was to the workers’ hearts. When things head down, sport is the first casualty, but the Mahindra management didn’t allow kabaddi to sink,” says Raju Sane, president of the All India Mahindra Employees Association. It remains the only full-fledged team from the Mahindras’ stable in field sport.
Kabaddi was what the lower middle-class Marathi boys have always played in their shrinking courtyards. It’s what those migrating into the big city carried from their rural hamlets — most of the chawl teams were named after family goddesses and gods. “For a lot of workers and their children, kabaddi is the only affordable sport. It’s our original sport and at Mahindras, the kabaddi teams filled trophy cabinets with their two-decade-long dominance from the ‘80s onwards. That performance lent momentum to our requests to the management to continue having the kabaddi team,” Sane adds.
Though the workers intervened every time the sports budget came up for review, it helped both sides that the 60-year-old union had kept a clean record with no strikes and the top management, including former chairman Keshub Mahindra and those that followed him, were particularly indulgent of this sport. “The team’s name was always in newspapers, so we were good for branding.
Though the union never interfered in selections, the workers were very proud of the team. When we requested the bosses, they never said no though now players are not employees, but on contract,” says Tarak Raul, a veteran who played the sport for 30 years, mostly with the Mahindras.
Anand Mahindra’s father Harish — a particular enthusiast — would spend time interacting with the players at both the Kandivali plant’s training ground as well as felicitations. It also helped that the Mahindras’ earliest positioning in the market hinged on big jeeps and tractors, a snug fit for workers and rural players who revered the association.
In fact, the Mahindra team at its peak was known to be the best pay-master, assembling the finest talent from across the state to keep the dominance going. “Cost wise, it was modest at Rs 20-25 lakh, even as players’ wages in football hit the roof in mid 2000s,” says Sagar Bandekar who was the last of the employee-players, after a circuitous career playing in the backwaters of Sawantwadi in Goa, to HAL in Karnataka, before Mahindras bought him to bolster a strong side.
Politicians across party lines have always piggybacked on kabaddi to strike a connect with the populace and particularly in Maharashtra, where they would out-do each other in announcing cash prizes and hosting tournaments. Mahindra might not be the all-conquering side of the past but the side is still the best entry-point for a young player. “Coach-cum-captain Vilas Jadhav keeps grooming youngsters who are on contract. We’re still in the Top 3 state-wide, but now our players are picked by others like Bharat Petroleum, giving them employment,” Bandekar adds. Currently, all 12 members at BP have been trained at Mahindra’s.
Much like artists who crave applause, Maharashtra’s kabaddi exponents played to entertain the masses, which deepened the connection with the sport in villages and cities alike. Crowds thronged maidaans for a glimpse of one hoodwinking maneuver, as even modestly-built and soft-spoken men turned into wily foxes warding off ambushes. The role model for every tiny player from the state was Madhu Patil, who at 5’5”, relished the brain-vs-brawn confrontations — studying rivals’ footwork and counter-attacking in the manner of Muhammad Ali in the final minutes of play after allowing for a lead. Shantaram Jadhav, a tall, handsome 6-plus footer, could jump over a ring of opponents from a standing position when cornered, while Vasant Sood was a stocky Milo-esque figure, who could effect feints and drag 4-5 players with him. (He still lifts heavy weights well into his 70s). Mahindra’s Shekhar Shetty was another lithe, towering figure, who, even in his late 60s, can put the most agile athletes to shame, while Tarak Raul was known for his shrewd, versatile entries.
Viju Penkar was a Jewish kabaddi player from Mazgaon who, after failing to make the state side, turned out for Railways and destroyed Maharashtra at the nationals. He would later go on to win body-building’s Mr India and play Tarzan in movies, while another kabaddi player-turned-body-builder Vicky Goraksha was Cinthol’s first model for their campaign, before Vinod Khanna and Imran Khan strutted around. “I was photogenic and had a good physique, so they chose me for the ‘Meet your personal bodyguard’ campaign with Ankush-actress Nisha Singh. But I was first noticed while playing when I had long hair. My style of a head band with a net was quite a rage,” Goraksha, now running a chain of gyms, says.
Even the city’s notorious had stints in kabaddi, with local don Arun Gawli having played for a club side and the tiny hustler Thapa, an infamous name in the underworld, known in kabaddi circles for his foxy agility.
Like the former Cinthol posterboy, though, many of Mumbai’s youth turned their attention to body-building, an infintely more lucrative sport. “If you are good, you can easily earn 7-8 lakhs from 5 competitions. Kabaddi’s always stayed modest in its expectations, so the local youth are attracted to pumping iron. It’s more showy anyway,” Goraksha says.
Whether it was the vanishing jobs or lower financial returns, Maharashtra kabaddi started losing its stronghold, even as Punjab, Haryana and Services and the big-built players came to the fore. “Players here had skill, now it’s a power sport with the paramilitary teams dominating, we need to buck up,” says Jaya Shetty, a state official and ex-player. The state’s first chief minister Yashwantrao Chavan had declared that the day Maharashtra would lose in the nationals final, the game could’ve been said to have broadbased across India. “Also, Balwinder Singh, the giant from Punjab who could haul 5-6 players at the same time brought in circle kabaddi (played abroad), and suddenly the game changed,” recalls Raul.
NSCI, where the glitzy Pro Kabaddi was launched at Haji Ali, is not too far from the gritty chawls of Worli where kids still take to the sport like Bombil to Mumbai’s sea waters. But speak to Shrungar Raul, the dapper college-going son of Tarak Raul, and he betrays no hint of the vernacular accent. “I’m into football really,” he says, “but I’m proud of what my father achieved in kabaddi.”
Like the invisible UV hand stamp ink at night-clubs, perhaps, kabaddi needs all the trappings of a glitzy league with disco lights to attract its old loyalists once again.