Kabaddi, more than a Game of Courage

A traditional display of Tamil manliness in modern Singapore.

Sometimes in life, we go searching for one thing, and end up finding something better. This was how we chanced upon Kabaddi.

Five men in bright blue jerseys and tight shorts walked past us, drawing our attention to a ring of people that had formed nearby. Raucous cheers were emanating from the crowd.

Our curiosity got the better of us.

“ Kabaddi is a traditional Tamil game. It is a game of bravado. Men show off their prowess during Kabaddi. You don’t get this excitement and frenzy when watching cricket. In my hometown the game is serious matter. It even leads to violence at times. But here in Singapore, it’s under control. ”

Paandi (right) | Puthukottai, Tamil Nadu, India

Do you play Kabaddi or other sports in Singapore?

“ No. I don’t want to risk getting injured. There will be no one to look after me, I would spend money for medical bills and not be able to earn in the mean time. But back in India, I love playing. ”

The guys from the fishermen community are great Kabaddi players. They have a lot of practice playing it. Fishermen generally go out to fish before dawn and are done with fishing by morning. So, they will be free for the rest of the day. They then play Kabaddi on the beach as a past time. Most of the players here are from the fisherman community. ”

Kabaddi is a logistically simple contact sport. There is neither a ball, nor a goal post, or a basket. Just lines on the ground marked by raffia strings, nailed into the muddy earth.

Team A sends a raider (red jersey) across the mid-line. His goal is to touch as many members of Team B (black jerseys) before retreating into his half of the court.
If the raider touches anyone from the opposing team, they will prevent the raider from re-crossing to the mid-line.

Kabaddi reminded us of a hybrid sport of rugby and wrestling. We were surprised by the willingness of the migrant workers to engage in such an injury-prone activity.

One wrong move could land them in the hospital, incurring serious medical bills and probably even a termination of employment.

Notwithstanding their week of hard labour, they return to the court, again and again. That was the most surprising.

Raja, 48 | Madurai, Tamil Nadu, India

“ I have been working in Singapore for 16 years. I follow all the rules and regulations set by my company and the Singapore government. If you do that, then you can work and live peacefully in Singapore. I am now a supervisor at Jurong shipyard. I have a lot of men working under me. ”

Do you play Kabaddi?

“ I used to play when I was young. In fact, I was quite good. Even now, there are legendary tales of my skills in my village. Now however, I am old and I can’t play. I still have the skills, but not the energy. You need to have that vigour that only youths possess. This is a sport for the young ones. ”

Raja introduces us to his relatives who also work in Singapore.

(After taking the photo.) “ Tomorrow got problem? ”

Players from the blue team come from Keeranippatti in Tamil Nadu while those from the grey team are from Pattamangalam.

Why do the players have identical words on their jerseys?

“ It’s the name of the village they’re from. Often, players from the same district come together and form Kabaddi teams. Some of them have even represented their state in competitions. ”

The dusky evening was dotted with brightly-coloured jerseys. Yellow and purple, blue and orange, these were the antagonistic colours on the jerseys. Maybe it’s true that men don’t have that great colour coordination. Or maybe the loudness of the colours serves to highlight their pride for the team and the sport.

Kabaddi has a inherent cultural aspect that is less prominent to an outsider. This manifests in the form of village names, emblems and rituals.

Within his team emblem is the name of a Hindu deity.
Before a game begins, each team parades around the perimeter of the court. This is followed by a symbolic gesture where players touch the earth as a mark of respect. After which, a coin toss commences the game.
Tensions are high throughout the game. The attacks and counter-attacks can get rough, but not violent.
Once the whistle is blown, there is no resentment towards each other, just good ol’ sportsmanship.
Sivakumar, 24 | Poompuhar, Tamil Nadu, India

How was the Kabaddi game?

“ It was good. ”

What is one tip that you would give?

“ Always warm-up properly before the game. Spend a good amount of time warming up. The other day, I rushed my warm up and ended up injuring myself during the game. ”

Watching Kabaddi is like watching a theatre performance — the uniform, the audience, and the dramatic tackles.

This is a game that cannot exist without the spectators. The players draw their energy from them, and the spectators are in turn riled up by their performance. Hence, the players are conscious of the crowd’s presence, and don’t want to let them down.

The players continually slap their thighs, and make tsk-tsk noises throughout the game. These gestures are used to taunt the opposing team, the way a matador teases the bull.

There is also no physical boundary between the spectator and the players. Hence a spectator has to be involved in the game. One can’t just be a by-stander. Anytime, a tackle could send the whole team hurling in your direction.

Maybe not the best place for leisure reading.
The umpire keeps count of the score on a planner.

Looking back

There was no need for publicity, resources or prizes. It just needed men with passion for the sport of Kabaddi. The kind of passion which eclipses fatigue from a week of hard physical work.

In a country where migrant workers are often invisible, Kabaddi provides a public platform for them to fight for something they love.

Through this display of power, they feel respected again.

Further Reading

Waiting for Lorry is two guys’ effort to highlight the stories of the builders of Singapore. Do Recommend and Share if you appreciate this project. You can also connect with us on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter or email us at waiting4lorry@gmail.com .