The setting is perfect — the sun is dipping low on the horizon, casting an orange-red glow over the ground of Junglee Ram Stadium at Nizampur village.
Two teams of teenagers, each comprising seven members, stand in a formation — some dressed in T-shirts, others bare-chested on both sides of the starting line.
Mohit Chillar, 16, the ‘raider’ in this kabbadi game, gets ready to foray into the opposition half called ‘defenders.’ One deep breath later, Chillar crosses the line and dashes into opposition territory. One defender rounds him up and roughly pulls his leg and twists his arm, but Mohit manages to wriggle out and returns back safely.
The raid successful, he now sits on a stone bench, huffing and puffing. His father, Krishan Kumar — a kabaddi player himself, who has been gleefully watching the proceedings — offers him a bottle of water and some advice on how he could have done a better job of untangling himself from the defenders.
Mohit comes to the stadium twice a day — at 5am and 4pm — for two hours each to practice kabaddi (for the uninitiated, kabaddi is a contact sports that features two seven-member teams facing off on a tennis court-sized pitch. A raider from each team forays into the rival’s half trying to tag one or more defenders in one breath before returning to his home half. The defenders in turn try and prevent the raider from returning to his side of the field).
Mohit, in fact, is not the only player from the village. Almost all children and young men play kabaddi in Nizampur, a village in north-west Delhi where the sport is a religion.
Nizampur has been a nursery for kabaddi players for many decades and has produced almost 100 players who have played the sport at both the national and international level. Rakesh Kumar, the captain of the national kabaddi team and an Arjuna award winner, and Manjeet Chillar, a member of the national kabaddi team, both hail from Nizampur.
The village was in the limelight recently during the first-ever Pro-Kabadi League, where as many as seven players from Nizampur bagged contracts to play for the eight teams along with various international players.
While Rakesh Kumar, who is as much a local hero as cricketer Virender Sehwag is in Najafgarh, bagged a contract worth `12.8 lakh to captain Patna Pirates, Manjeet was appointed the skipper of the Bangalore Bulls.
So, how does this village churn up so many Kabaddi talents?
Hoshiar Singh, 71, the father of Rakesh Kumar — widely known as the Kabaddi King of India — has an interesting answer. “A couple of years back, a Chinese team came here with the purpose of finding an answer to this question. They visited the local stadium, talked to players and their parents about their diet; they even took a sample of the soil of the village,” he said.
“But I believe it is a combination of all these factors,” he added, sitting at the village’s hookah’s adda with his friends. At the village choupal, all conversations revolve around kabaddi.
Nizampur is an affluent village — as you walk on its clean, cemented streets, you see a variety of SUVs parked outside three-storied houses — boasting of tacky architecture but, nonetheless, symbolizing an aspiration for the good life. The village has several schools that boast ‘public’ and ‘international’ suffixes. And both the children and the adults try talking to you in English.
The elderly are too eager to tell you that they are pretty well-to-do. “Unlike other villages, we have not sold our land; every family is into farming and has at least one member working for the government,” said Rajender Singh 56, a local resident who works for the Delhi Transport Corporation (DTC). “And kabaddi has made it all possible. A lot of people have been getting government jobs from the sports quota,” he added.
The growing reputation of the village as the nursery of kabaddi means many families here have to host children of their relatives from far and wide. They come here to learn the nuances of the game.
In fact, there are houses in village that serve as guesthouses for children from other villages.
“They know that there is now name, fame and money in kabaddi, and our village is the best place to learn the game. After all, kabaddi is a way of life here,” said Rakesh Kumar.
And the rush of children to Nizampur only increased after the six-week Pro-Kabaddi League — a glitzy sporting event replete with dance, music, lights, and Bollywood stars.
The league held in July-August this year had from players Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, Indonesia, Kenya and Turkmenistan and helped revive and recast the rustic game for urban Indians. The event, whose viewership was second only to Indian Premier League T20 tournament, turned kabaddi players into stars overnight.
“Whenever I travel, people want to be photographed with me and take my autograph, thanks to the League. While we were winning medals earlier too, no one knew us,” said Kumar.
His India teammate Manjeet Chillar attributes his success at the international level and the growing reputation of his village as the centre of kabaddi to the dedication of his senior players.
“Kabaddi has been passed down from generation to generation in our village. I learnt it from my seniors and now I am teaching it to my juniors. This is one of the reasons why we continue to live in the village; if we move out who will teach the younger generation? It is our responsibility to carry forward the kabaddi tradition of the village,” said Manjeet Chillar, sitting in the living room of his newly built house.
The wall of the room is covered with his pictures with medals won at various national and international events. A wooden case on the wall displays his medals, including the one he won at the recent Asian games in Incheon. His new SUV is parked on the porch.
“He wanted to be a wrestler, but while practising with us at an akhara, he got hurt and came back and took up kabaddi; but I think he would have been equally successful as a wrestler,” said Abdul Hameed, a wrestler and Manjeet’s long-time friend.
The village may have produced many players of national and international repute but it continues to lack basic sporting infrastructure. The running track in the stadium is broken at several points, the ground infested with overgrown weeds. The locals have cleared a patch where the mud serves as the mat.
“The village should have a proper gym, a practice mat and an indoor practising facility. The government should build proper infrastructure,” said Atul Kumar, a social activist who has been fighting for sports infrastructure in the village. Meanwhile, the sun has set, there is a nip in the air as Mohit along with 50-odd other kabaddi players head back home.