Fighting fit: Four indigenous martial arts get a Khelo India boost
Prepare for four surprises as the Khelo India Youth Games (KIYG) open in Panchkula, Haryana, later this year. India’s Sports Ministry has inducted four indigenous martial art forms, Kalaripayattu from Kerala, Mallakhamb from central India, Gatka from Punjab and Thang-ta from Manipur into the championships. It reinforces the idea of India as a multi-sport nation, despite our unabating love for cricket.
The hope is that the new classification, from martial arts to sports, will offer the practices a boost. And in many ways, it already has. Kalaripayattu, the rhythmic form that includes 18 warfare techniques, a mix of skill and strength, sword and shield play, traces its origins back to the 3rd century BC. It was banned by the British, and floundered somewhat. Then, in 1958, it was affiliated to the Kerala sports council, an autonomous body under the Kerala government, and given status as a sport. The move helped. The Indian Kalaripayattu Federation began establishing itself by organising national-level championships. By 2015, it was recognised by the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports as a National Sports Federation.
“What the Khelo India platform does is pave the way for international recognition of the sport,” says Poonthura Soman, IKF’s secretary general. Formalising an ancient game or activity into a sport often bring a loss of its unique identity. Many martial-arts forms aren’t guided by rules or even geared for competition. In the case of Kalaripayattu, a form attributed to the Hindu deity Vishnu, there is also a strong spiritual character and strict moral and ethical codes. Soman says the essence of Kalaripayattu remains intact at the national-championship level. “The rituals of worship are still there. We used to light either a candle or an oil lamp, that still continues.”
Practitioners of India’s ancient martial arts see the Khelo India platform as a mark of legitimacy.
“By equating an indigenous sport such as Mallakhamb to other international sports, it changes the people’s perception of it,” says Ramesh Indoliya, president, Mallakhamb Federation of India. “Earlier Mallakhamb athletes were invited to give demonstrations at the Khelo India games, today we are part of the main games, which is a giant leap for us.”
The art form is now also part of Khelo India’s school and university-level competitions, to get athletes from across India hooked at a young age. While most widely practised in Maharashtra, it was developed as a state sport four decades ago and became the state sport of Madhya Pradesh in 2013.
In the case of Manipur’s Thang-ta, which translates to the art of sword and spear and features a specific set of kicks and punches, a formal recognition as a sport 25 years ago has helped. Five international championships and 25 national ones have been held since. Thang-ta is played in 21 countries, including Uzbekistan, Philippines and South Korea. And Vinod Sharma, secretary of the Thang-Ta Federation of India says Khelo India will bring more chances to let athletes play internationally, perhaps even the Asian Games.
“People want to participate only if it’s a recognised game, not if it’s a traditional sport,” he says. Some 700 children have tried Thang-ta since Khelo India scholarships were given out in 2019, with equal participation from girls. “I suppose it’s because we had a uniform designed for girls when we adapted this into a sport,” says Sharma.
Gatka, a martial art of Sikh warriors that uses wooden sticks and leather shields, is played between two or more participants. Players wear traditional garments for ritualistic dance performances. For the sports format, they follow the same techniques, but in track pants and T-shirts. At the National Gatka Association of India, president Harjeet Singh Grewal says he doesn’t fear the essence of the artform being lost to sport. “If anything, it ensures its longevity of what was once considered a diminishing art by UNESCO,” he says. He hopes Gatka’s association in Khelo India makes it more popular across India and overseas.