How a small Madhya Pradesh village is striving to keep kabaddi's legacy afloat despite institutional apathy

Six months ago, Rohna — a village about 10 kilometres away from Hoshangabad in Madhya Pradesh — was plunged into despair after the untimely death of a former kabaddi player. The youngster’s life had been cruelly snatched away after he fell off the roof of his house while asleep.

The jolt of the death was too overpowering. Yet, something surprising happened in its wake.

The Gram Sewa Samiti, an organisation working for social change in Rohna and neighbouring regions, took a decision to not go ahead with mrityu bhoj, a ritual organised to feed the whole village after a death in a family.

Rajkumar Rajput, one of the dozen or so national-level kabaddi players to have emerged from Rohna, says, "We all came together and decided that from now on, there will be no mrityu bhoj in our village. The ceremony costs over a lakh rupees, which has to be paid by a family already in a state of mourning. It’s an additional burden. Managing a lakh rupees is no child's play.”

The Samiti comprises of former national-level kabaddi players from the village. Its diktat has since become law in Rohna.

A reason why the villagers agreed to forgo a ritual that has been prevalent for centuries is that the decision was made by the kabaddi players of the village, who were part of the Samiti and get massive respect from the villagers.

In a way, it would not be far-fetched to say that kabaddi has brought about a small, but significant, social change in Rohna, which has a rich history of the sport.

Kabaddi as an agent for change

The year was 2017. The whole of Rohna had come together to organise a national-level kabaddi league almost all on its own. But before that story is told, it is important to know how kabaddi made itself at home in the heart of this village.

In the mid of 1980s, two members of the Gram Sewa Samiti — Harish Malviya and Munna Lal Sharma — introduced the sport to the village. They even formed a team.

Dhanraj Vishwakarma, a national-level kabaddi player from the village, remembers watching the elders of the village playing this sport, which was also attracting the attention of hordes of kids.

"I must have been 10 years old back then. In the year 1991 or 1992, the seniors started playing kabaddi on a regular basis. Whenever some team would fall short of players, one of us kids would join in. Slowly, the sport became a craze in the village,” he recalls.

The younger players soon formed a team.

“We started competing at the village, then tehsil, then district and even played at the state level. This continued for some years. By the early 2000s, our players had become so good that they started playing in the Nationals,” says Vishwakarma.

How a small Madhya Pradesh village is striving to keep kabaddis legacy afloat despite institutional apathy

Rohna team (in blue) attending a state kabaddi tournament.

In 2003, the team from Rohna finished second at the cultural and sports event organised by the state government during the Madhya Pradesh Yuva Abhiyan. A year later, they were third. The fervour for sport in the village was, by now, second to none.

Rohna soon began making waves on the state’s kabaddi circuit ― between 2000 and 2008, almost a dozen players from the village went on to represent Madhya Pradesh in different national tournaments.

Ground realities

Gopal Singh Rajput, who is popularly called Sikandar ― the Persian variation of Alexander, the legendary Greek warrior-king ― in MP kabaddi circles, played internationally against Bangladesh in 2005. However, unlike his namesake from history, his reign was short-lived. That sole game against Bangladesh remained his only outing in India colours.

Lack of opportunities, financial requirements of running the household and other hard realities of following a sport, which back then was as far away from public consciousness as imaginable, started haunting these kabaddi players.

From left to right: The men who made it happen. Rohna's former kabaddi players Rajkumar Rajput, Ganesh Singh Chouhan, Dhanraj Vishwakarma and Gopal Singh Rajput (Sikandar).

From left: The men who made it happen. Rohna's former kabaddi players Rajkumar Rajput, Ganesh Singh Chouhan, Dhanraj Vishwakarma and Gopal Singh Rajput (Sikandar). Image courtesy: Shubham Pandey/ Firstpost

Four kabaddi players who spoke to Firstpost said that they all wanted to pursue the sport, but had to quit because there was no scope for growth in it. All four of them have traded their starry-eyed dreams of playing for India with the humbling reality of ploughing the earth as farmers now. While some of them work on their own land, others find work as labourers on someone else's fields.

Vishwakarma, who now works as a labourer, lamented, "When the village kids look at us, they feel demotivated. They feel that if these guys played till the national level and yet could not make a career out of it, then it is better to not take up the sport."

Sikandar added, "We played Nationals for almost 10 years but had to quit because there was no job security. There was no opportunity in the state. In Haryana, if a player plays one National, the government provides them a job."

Despite the lack of opportunities and scope, the love for the sport has not diminished. Rajkumar said that they could have stopped playing around 2008. But they have not given up on kabaddi.

"We teach the kids here ourselves and continue our struggle for a kabaddi academy," he said.

The village

The budding kabaddi players currently train in the make-shift ground outside the village. Image courtesy: Shubham Pandey/ Firstpost

But when that dream of having a kabaddi academy in the Rohna will shape up into reality is anybody’s guess.

A reference point for most kabaddi players from the village, and even from the state, is Haryana, whose proactive sports policy has helped the state become a hub for sports like kabaddi.

"The state government has not given the sports its due importance,” said Ganesh Singh Chouhan, another kabaddi player from the village. “There is no motivation for the kids here who want to pursue the sport. Players from villages in Haryana and Punjab are playing at the national level because there is motivation and job security provided to them."

Just how much of an effect this disparity has can be gauged by the fact that only two players have made the cut into Pro Kabaddi League from MP ― Bhawani Rajput and Mahesh Goud.

Wanted: A kabaddi academy

The village’s kabaddi players have registered their own small academy called Astik Sports Academy, which holds a kabaddi training school in the village on a disputed patch of land. The village panchayat wants to use the land for running an aanganwadi or for other events.

The villagers want a stadium built nearby. "Our only wish is that the state government should build stadiums in villages. If we have one stadium for say 10 villages, it will give access to facilities to the players coming from the villages," Vishwakarma says.

With this goal in mind, they had approached the District Collector and the state government many times but have returned empty-handed. One of the biggest reasons given to the villagers is always the lack of space to build an academy. "The government cannot say that there is no place to build the stadium. There are many schools which have huge grounds. For sports like kho-kho, they have space to make centres of excellence. These school grounds have enough space," Vishwakarma added.

The former state assembly speaker Sitasharan Sharma had announced an academy for the village twice ― in 2015 and then again in 2016, but nothing came out of it.

"He (Sharma) never returned to see what happened," Rajkumar says.

Even today, as the sun settles down and the kids in the village return from schools, they quickly change and start their kabaddi drills in multiple corners of the village.

Villagers

In 2017, the whole village came together to organise a national-level kabaddi competition in their village.

But there was a time when the sport was staring at certain death in the village. It was then that Astik Academy decided, along with support from the villagers, to organise a kabaddi tournament. The hope was that doing so would grab the attention of the government and the media. They decided to reach out to the MP state kabaddi academy in Bhopal to explore such an opportunity.

It was then that they learned that the ninth edition of the National Professional Kabaddi League was to be organised in MP, but there were no takers for it.

This was the big opportunity they had been waiting for. But it brought about its own set of challenges.

Rajkumar recalls, "We told them that we needed two days’ time to decide how we would cope with organising an event of that magnitude in our small village. The budget required itself would be around Rs 50 lakh. We were unsure how we were going to arrange this much money."

Surprisingly, despite the monumental sum they would have to raise, the entire village gave the green-light for the ambitious tournament.

But they needed money to host it. Rajkumar and others first approached the state government for help. Through Sitasharan Sharma, they requested the government for a Rs 50 lakh fund. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they got only Rs 5 lakh.

"But there were well-wishers, friends and the rest of the village in the meeting. Some agreed to contribute Rs 50,000. Some agreed to give Rs 20,000 and so on. This is how we made the event possible," says Chauhan.

There were other obstacles as well, each as daunting as the previous one.

As many as 32 PKL players and Indian international players were to arrive in this village as part of different teams. The people of the village again rose to the occasion and divided work amongst themselves.

Around 50,000 spectators came to watch the matches from the nearby regions of Hoshangabad. Managing such crowds was a massive task. Managing superstars of the caliber of Ajay Thakur, Deepak Hooda, and Rahul Choudhary was even more daunting.

Over 100 rooms in three-star hotels in Hoshangabad and Itarsi were booked for the players and luxury buses were arranged to ferry them from Indore to Rohna.

"Yes, I still remember the event. Going to a village and taking part in such a big event was memorable. It was one of the best managed events I had been part of,” Hooda told Firstpost.

“The most striking feature of the event was the massive crowd. They all came to watch the matches and showed a keen interest for the game."

Ajay Thakur

India captain Ajay Thakur (third from right) receiving the trophy after his team Air India clinched the title in 2017. Rahul Chaudhary (first from right) can be seen pointing both fingers at the trophy.

Chauhan adds, "These kabaddi players, after all, come from villages only. There were days when you could find them having food in one house in the morning, lunch in other and dinner at a different house. They felt at home here."

Despite its roaring success, the event failed to wake up the authorities to the scope of promoting the sport and its practitioners. Players in Rohna still struggle to find a kabaddi academy. They still wait for resources to train.

"In kabaddi, you need a good mat, indoor stadium, and good coaches. Who is going to give these things to the kids in the village, knowing that kabaddi is a rural game?

"What we had done was remarkable. For the first time, such a national-level tournament was organised in a village, that too in Madhya Pradesh. Around 50,000 spectators came to watch the event from all over the state to this village," said Vishwakarma.

The reactions to Rohna's success story were effectively muted. The event did not find extensive coverage even in the local media. Even the Chief Minister did not arrive for the event despite agreeing previously to the organisers.

The incident left a bitter taste in the mouth. After all, these villagers had collected a sum of Rs 50 lakh to organise a kabaddi competition so that the sport could grow bigger in the region. Rohna's story could be tale of any village in this country, where sporting talent waits for an opportunity to arrive.

Rohna is a dot on MP's map. However, it has the potential to become Haryana's Balali from where the Phogat sisters burst onto the international wrestling stage. It could have become a Bhiwani, which became the breeding ground for the best boxers in Haryana.

"When this kabaddi event happened, it gave a new spark to the sport in the village and nearby villages. Kids these days nickname a good player ‘Ajay Thakur’ or ‘Rahul Choudhary’ in the village," chuckled Chauhan.

Two years back, sports minister Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore launched the Khelo India programme, purportedly to spot sporting talent from various parts of the country when athletes are still in their formative years. The programme's blueprintnt, as mentioned on their website has two key points ― Community Coaching Development and State Level Khelo India Centres.

In MP, till date, only two academies have been set up under the Khelo India program. “There are only two centres set up under Khelo India. One is the Archery Academy in Jabalpur and another is the shooting academy in Bhopal,” said Rajinder Singh, Regional Director, SAI Bhopal.

He also informed that kabaddi barely features in Khelo India's scheme of things in either state or national levels, even though SAI has set up Khelo India centres in Dhar, Tikamgarh and other such districts.

Chauhan however, said that there is no policy that communicates with the talent in the villages on a larger level. "There is no scheme that facilitates a sports stadium for a group of 10 villages or even a district. There is no stadium in Hoshangabad even. I can say this for the other villages in the whole state," he said.

Would Rohna get its own sports academy? Nobody knows. But even as the state of limbo continues, the sport continues to hold fort in the hearts and minds of the people from this village.

Firstpost is now on WhatsApp. For the latest analysis, commentary and news updates, sign up for our WhatsApp services. Just go to Firstpost.com/Whatsapp and hit the Subscribe button.

Updated Date: Mar 15, 2019 15:53:50 IST

Also See