India's indigenous sports finally on the rise

Mumbai: It has been over 70 years since India’s independence, but its age-old and home-grown sports, kabaddi and kho kho, have only started to break-free from the clutches of their commonwealth cousins.

Majority of today’s mainstream sports – cricket, field hockey and football – reflect the nation’s colonial legacy. The Britishers went to any and every extent to tame the masses and make sure no rebels grew up from the ghettos.

We Indians, on our part, have also traditionally seen ourselves through the prism of regionalism.

But thanks to a growing middle-class population, and digital boom in rural areas, India witnessed the improbable inceptions of Pro Kabaddi League in 2013 and the upcoming Ultimate Kho Kho League – a phenomenal story of redemption for indigenous sports whose roots can be found way back in Mahabharata.

“These sports are played with great enthusiasm in schools and rural areas,” says India’s kho kho captain Balasaheb Pokarde, who until recently was an unknown figure in his locality. There are many like him who have put a lot of ‘blood and sweat’ to take their respective indigenous sport to note its rise across the country.

“Most of our sports are based on physical contacts and risks of injuries are higher than the others,” he says.

Even cricketers like Yuvraj Singh, who is known to reform Indian team’s fielding in early 2000s, used Kho Kho in training to improve his fielding and flexibility. In one instance, the southpaw injured his knee while playing Kho Kho and had to sit out India’s must-win game against Australia in 2006, a matter of fact.

So naturally, as Pokarde explains, “for the teams to excel and become successful, professional players need access to proper support staff, medication, physiotherapy and so on.”

This, however, requires a stable flow of money through sponsorship deals and ticket-sales.

Pertinently, India’s indigenous sporting events have always drawn huge participants as 20% of the nation’s population involves rural youth. While kabaddi and kho kho are famous nationwide, boat racing, archery and many other sports like mallakhamba, kushti, different forms of martial arts, are specific to certain state or region.

Despite this being the case, the sport hasn’t flourished to it’s fullest, thanks to the rich and poor divide.

Drawing comparisons between India and that of major sporting nations like US, UK and China -- who boss their indigenous games of basketball, football, and athletics financially -- Mumbai-based martial arts coach Umesh Morkar, explains the struggle of meeting the monetary needs.

From the slums of Dharavi, about 100 kids come to Morkar every day for martial arts training.

“It’s not easy,” says Morkar, whose life, since 1998, has been revolving around martial arts and his students.

“Every time I want to enroll my students for state or national competitions, I have to knock on the doors of several businessmen, politicians, industrialists, and other very-rich society icons for funds.”

Here, one can imagine the plight of martial arts academies in a cricket-crazy India where kho kho, kabaddi and other local sports are still fighting for their space.

“In fact,” he says, “Most of the kids get the mat experience only when they compete in tournaments like these,”

“Until then,” he adds, pointing out at the marble floor, “This is their mat.”

While Morkar chuckled summing up the plight of martial arts in the country, there are still many coaches like him who often go unreported under the shadow of ‘elite’ sports.

No denying the fact that sports like kabaddi and kho kho are beginning to unshackle themselves, but, going to 2020, the country still has a long way to go before it earns the right to be called -- a ‘sporting nation’.

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