Jaipur Pink Panthers and U Mumba players in action during the final of the Pro Kabaddi league in Mumbai.As Jaipur Pink Panthers’ captain Niketan Gautam stepped into the ballroom of the after-party hosted by promoter Anand Mahindra in honour of the Pro Kabaddi League winners (PKL) at the Four Seasons’,Jaipur Pink Panthers and U Mumba players in action during the final of the Pro Kabaddi league in Mumbai.As Jaipur Pink Panthers’ captain Niketan Gautam stepped into the ballroom of the after-party hosted by promoter Anand Mahindra in honour of the Pro Kabaddi League winners (PKL) at the Four Seasons’ Hotel, Mumbai, he could not help but break into a dance with his trophy. He hugged people with it, grabbed hors d’oeuvres with it, shook hands of corporate honchos, air-kissed socialites with it, and headed to the dance floor with it.His teammates, stylishly attired in pink and blue and gathered around star player Mani, aka Maninder Singh, followed suit, awkwardly spreading out in a space they were clearly not used to. Jasvir Singh, sledger par excellence on field, grinned nervously. As the runners-up, U Mumba, shyly filed in, ushers pushed them out away from entering via the dining area and through the main hall, where they downed their drinks too quickly, and stuck to the sides of the halls. Rajesh Narwal, 24, the raider from Ridhana in Haryana, bent to touch the feet of team owner Ronnie Screwvala and his wife Zarine Mehta as they entered. By 1 a.m., a busload of Puneri Paltans joined in, and by 3 a.m., the Patna Pirates were tearing each others’ shirts off. At the first afterparty of the first PKL season, coveted by corporate well-heeled, the boys from baulk lines, its stars, were finally cool.And it’s taking some getting used to. Rahul Choudhari, star raider for the Telugu Titans, and one of the most stylish players in the league, has been overwhelmed. “I am not able to sit, in a bus, on a flight, without people coming up to me,” he says. At 26, he is watching his mother being inundated with marriage proposals. But more than anything else, where some 70 clubs played kabaddi in his hometown of Bijnor in Uttar Pradesh, he says, over 250 have mushroomed. The story repeats, from Patna Pirates captain Rakesh Kumar, who is from Nizampur in Delhi, to Anup Kumar, who is from Palra in Haryana and leads U Mumba. Where the IPL had 453 million viewers in the first 15 days, and the FIFA World Cup attracted 129 million viewers, Star Sports says the PKL hit 288 million viewers.advertisementIt’s what founder PKL promoters and brothers-in-law Charu Sharma and Mahindra call “bringing kabaddi out of the shadows and into the sunlight”. Sharma, leaning excitedly into every stand in the finals, accedes his sun is now shining brightly indeed. They’ve just announced a women’s league and a World Cup. He says as a franchise they kept expenses low and generated revenues reasonable enough to allow them to dream of breaking even. At the start of the season, Sharma kept telling team owners not to sell to people who would make them wait two days in their offices. Today, he says, they are welcomed, but no one is selling. There is faith that profitability will come.The myth that kabaddi is a rural sport is broken. The 415 professional kabaddi clubs in Greater Mumbai, the highest of any city in India, are increasingly relevant, catapulted from being leisure clubs to prime-time TRP base and potential consumer base to sell merchandise. Mahindra’s association with the sport has been to use his visibility and those of team owners such as Jaipur Pink Panthers’ Abhishek Bachchan and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan to grab the eyeballs.Non-Bollywood team owners such as Rajesh Shah of Mukund Steel, who owns Patna Pirates, have gone the whole hog. Shah has enlisted the presence of friend Vivek Oberoi, and created a theme song ‘Dhool Chata De’ written by Prasoon Joshi, composed by Aadesh Srivastava and sung by Kailash Kher to make the bang bigger. Kabaddi is a sport that has spanned urban, suburban and rural categories across income groups because it needs no equipment more than a 13x 10 sq m piece of land. In schools and towns across India, it is played on mud, derivative of the akhadas, often barefoot, and is one of the few sports that is played equally by both genders.In commercialising and hyping the sport, Sharma admits the promoters have merely tapped into an “underground” movement that has always existed. Collaterally, they have triggered a trickle-down effect that is making kabaddi popular in the gullies. Communication on the field is physical, it is in the tease of a gait, in the aggression of the slap of a thigh. This allows a vocal Indian, unhandicapped by status, dialect or gender, to win. The single largest reason for its connect is this Indianness, this negotiated tradition, says Future Group CEO Kishore Biyani. Over the past few years, top players across sports have emerged from Tier-II and Tier-III towns, and an India that once thought that to be western was cool is increasingly comfortable with the idea of being Indian. “Where we were taken by surprise is with the connect with the younger generation. We simply didn’t expect it,” says Biyani. More than just popular, the players admit, kabaddi has made being Indian, being superstitious, histrionic, emotional, physical and aggressive, incredibly cool.advertisementAlso uniting the players is the newfound pride in the humbleness of background. The burly captain of Puneri Paltans, Wazir Sing, 27, is from a farming family in Ponkheri Kheri in Haryana, works as a policeman and plays for India. He wears his antecedents of struggle and humble origins like a defining badge. All players, in fact, have government jobs. Navneet Gautam has worked with BSNL and ONGC, while Anup Kumar has worked with the CRPF, Air India and is now with Haryana Police. For many families, says Ajay Thakur, the lure of kabaddi was initially in that it was a chance to get a secure government job and pay cheque. These are not players who have had the luxury of endorsement deals. That there is now money in it, a simpler number of lakhs of rupees as opposed to an IPL player’s crores, which they receive as fee for the tournament as per the auction, is a bonus that they never saw coming. Kabaddi, the game of the soil, is making unexpected heroes of the sons of soils.Mitti ki Kasam, or the vow of the earth, is a ritual all kabaddi players follow, as they touch the earth before they enter the pitch and hold it to their eyes and heart in worship. “To us the mitti, the motherland, is everything” says Rakesh Kumar, a railway chief ticket inspector. Despite the shift from earth to synthetic rubber mats, used internationally and introduced in PKL to stylise the game, Kumar doesn’t believe players will ever lose the touch of the soil. “The mats here may be synthetic but back home, we play on mud, so we would never lose that contact. It is what gives us strength,” he says. His teammate, Tae Deok Eom, a star defender from Korea, who speaks little English and has spent his evenings after matches writing every move his rival players make, also touches the earth before entry now, though it is not a practice in Korea.Butter roti, butter naan, tandoori chicken and maa ki dal, he rattles off his newfound favourites. At first his teammates helped him avoid spice, but now he eats what they do. “Why just Mitti ki Kasam, he also shouts ‘Jai Bajrang Bali’,” his teammates tease him. In time spent training in Gujarat, Eom has acquired an Indianness about him, seemingly essential to blend in with the team. For players such as Eom, Waseem Sajjad of Pakistan and Dovlet Bashimov of Turkmenistan, kabaddi has been an introduction to all things quirkily Indian.advertisementThere is a sense of comfort among the players about being able to carry small-town India worldwide. This confidence stems from India topping the kabaddi worldwide rankings. Anup Kumar, captain of U Mumba, admits the changes-30-second raids, players wearing shoes, mats-have been difficult to adapt to. “But you know that if a change is introduced in India, it will soon be introduced worldwide. So you want to be at the forefront of change” he says in Hindi.Kumar, as also several other players, is also comfortable requesting his interviewers to speak in Hindi. The comfort of owning a game invented in India, unlike the adaptation required of those who tour with emerging football or cricketing teams, is intense. It allows Kumar to choose not to struggle with unfamiliar English. They can use a translator, he says. Foreigners on the teams also adapt, picking up Hindi. Kumar is also known for always wearing sunglasses, even off field and at night. He decides his own cool; trend-makers can take it or leave it.U Mumba team owner Screwvala warns against assuming too soon that India has become a leader in kabaddi by being the first to popularise it. “Let’s also remember that there are very few players worldwide. It isn’t great to be on top of those rankings yet. Having said that, more people play kabaddi today than they do even cricket, and cricket itself is on the wane worldwide. I would focus on the fact that we are popularising it within India, rather than internationally, and see where we can take it here,” he says.But India’s influences, as small as they may be, are unmistakably real. David Tsai, a 26-year-old raider from Taiwan, is the first ever professional Kabaddi player from his country, and is studying towards a PhD in kabaddi at the National Taiwan University. He started out by learning kabaddi from YouTube videos of Indian players at the Asian Games matches. “My aim here is to not just play, but to learn new things from India and take them back for my team at home and teach them.” On his return, he will buy regulation game shoes, and pass on techniques that he’s learnt in training.India sets the standards for what gets carried back, he says. There’s greater emphasis on muscle building and weight training in the Southeast Asian countries, he says, but it is every kabaddi player’s dream to come to India and train in technique. “Back home, they call this the Indian NBA” he says. To read more, get your copy of India Today here.