In the summer of 1997, the head of the Kuttappa family, Pandanda Kuttappa, hosted the first Kodava Hockey Festival in his village Karada in Coorg. The first edition of the hockey “tournament” for the Kodavas — a martial-tribal community that belongs to Coorg — had 60 families competing for the title. In the 18 years since, the annual event has grown to become the largest hockey tournament in the world, with over 200 Kodava families taking part in it.
It was in 2012 that National Award-winning documentary filmmaker Sandhya Kumar first heard of this tournament. While the subject intrigued her, it wasn’t until she visited Coorg for a wedding later that year that she decided to explore it through her work. Kumar then got on board Deepti Bopaiah, a Kodava keen to chronicle what had come to be a tradition among her people, and began research for her next project. After close to two years of work, the 52-minute documentary, Hockey in my Blood, is now complete. “India doesn’t offer much scope for releasing non-fiction films. So I hope to tie up with sports and educational organisations to screen it across venues in India apart from taking it to festivals,” says the Bangalore-based filmmaker whose docu short O Friend, This Waiting!, on Devadasis, won the National Award in 2013.
In Hockey in my Blood, Kumar tells the story of the tournament chiefly through the extensive preparations the Kodavas put into organising the festival. One of the key voices, therefore, is a member of the family that has been selected to host the festival in 2013. Considering it a big honour, he has quit his job four months ahead of the festival to oversee the preparations, such as sponsorships, readying the ground and other nitty-gritties. “The month-long event takes place every year between April and May. It’s soon after children’s exams and also when the work on coffee plantations is minimal. So it allows the Kodavas to practise and also attend the matches,” explains the 33-year-old.
The timing is important because the Kodavas living away from their ancestral land travel from wherever they are — even foreign shores — to Coorg in order to participate in the festival. Each year, close to 220 teams (family clans) participate in the tournament for a cash prize of Rs one lakh and the trophy.
Kumar says the national hockey team, over the years, has had over 50 Kodava players, and some have even been Olympians. “But how did hockey emerge to be such an important sport in Coorg is a question no one could answer, it’s as if it’s always been there,” Kumar says.
That there is no age or gender bar to participating is one of the biggest highlights of the tournament. This is captured in the film through the voices of 16-year-old Prajwal, considered one of the strongest players on the Palanganda team, and Priya Bopanna, who was made the captain of her team the very first year she participated. Kumar adds that married women, in fact, have the option of playing for their paternal or husband’s team and can choose their side every year.
However, most importantly, the documentary conveys that the festival, although taken seriously by the Kodavas, is mostly a means to have a good time, losing isn’t a big deal. “Many of them return to Coorg for the festival. It’s a way for them to strengthen their bond with their extended family and the ancestral land,” explains Kumar who is open to screening invitations through the titular Facebook page of