| Doreen Fiedler |
New Delhi (dpa) – A fighting game that Indian boys have been playing for hundreds of years has arrived on television screens and the Indian public is delighted.
It’s called kabaddi and all it used to amount to was two teams of young men, shirtless and barefoot, facing off on some dusty road and then racing against each other, tackling, grappling, tripping and throwing their opponents to the ground.
Over the past few decades, the martial-style game was played mainly by youngsters. When they grew up, it lost its importance to them.
That was until Indian television discovered kabaddi.
It turns out that the game could have been invented for enjoyment on a TV screen. That’s the view of one avid fan, the writer and columnist Aakar Patel. There’s constant action, he says, the stress is on physical prowess, and a match is over quickly – two halves of 20 minutes.
It’s a far cry from India’s national sport of cricket, where the action seems minimal and matches can last for hours, or days, and where, Patel contends, an “out of shape and pudgy” player like Sachin Tendulkar can be a superstar, scoring points on his talent alone.
Now there are two professional kabaddi leagues. There’s the international league too that recently was launched in London.
Many stars of the Bollywood film industry as well as billionaires in Mumbai love the game.
“It looks pretty fascinating,” twittered superstar Amitabh Bachchan. His actor son Abhishek Bachchan and steel industrialist Rajesh Shah together own a kabaddi team.
Indian TV viewers are likewise wild about the sport. On the opening day of action of the national Pro Kabaddi League, 22 million people in India tuned in to the television broadcaster Star India to watch.
For comparison, this was ten times as many as the Indians who watched the opening match of the football World Cup in Brazil in June. In the initial weeks of broadcasts since the season opened, audience ratings have beaten every other sport except for cricket.
Now, suddenly, even among the ornate beds of flowers in the best-kept parks in New Delhi, you can see Kabaddi wrestlers at it.
“We used to play this as children out in the countryside,” one young man said, taking a break in Lodhi Garden. “Now we want to try it out again.”
It’s a breathless game, literally. In the Pro-Kabaddi version of it, the action takes place on a court about half the size of a basketball court. Two teams of seven players face off against each other.
Then a raider moves towards the opposing side where he must touch an opponent with some part of the body. However, the attacker may take only one breath of air beforehand. To prove to the judges that he is not inhaling, he must repeatedly call out out “Kabaddi! Kabaddi! Kabaddi!”
The opponents either try to avoid being tagged by the raider, or else, if they do get tagged, to catch him and prevent him from getting back to the mid-line before he has to start breathing again.
Often the rough-and-tumble play resembles rugby, with the raider being tackled or wrestled to the floor. After this raid has either succeeded or failed, it is the other team’s turn to send a raider.
A point is awarded for each raider who succeeds in getting back to his half of the court. The team with more points is the winner.
“The game is action-filled and we can show it close-up, from many camera angles,” says Raman Rajeha, managing director of the international Wave World Kabaddi League. “It’s really great for reaching a young audience.”
The timing is also perfect, Rajeha adds, coming at a point when many Indians are again proud of their country and want to follow up on the cultural achievements of their ancestors. He says the game is 4,000 years old, was mentioned in the ancient Indian epic Mahabharata, and that even Lord Buddha played it.
“This is a local, an Indian game. Not like cricket, that was brought here by the English.”