ANURAG MALLICK discovers Punjabi grit and unbridled testosterone at the unique Kila Raipur Sports Festival near Ludhiana
The divine symbol of Omkar emblazoned on the blue painted stone shone in the late afternoon sun as Jagdev Singh, all of 76 years, lifted the 80 kg stone with relative ease. His feet were firm and his knees didn’t buckle as the crowd broke into rapturous applause. A veteran farmer from Sangrur and teetotaller, his eight buffalos back home provided him a daily diet of 4 litres of milk, 250 g butter and an equal measure of desi ghee. And that was the recipe for his longevity and superhuman strength.
There were many local heroes at the Kila Raipur Sports Festival, yet there was no better mascot for Punjab’s legendary ‘Rural Olympics’ than the much-loved Jagdev Singh. There were others of course, each performing their trademark stunt or idiosyncratic feat of bravery. Resham Singh from Moga pulled two full-grown Sikhs and a kid on a Bullet motorcycle with his teeth. Harvinder Singh from Jakopur Kalan village tugged seven people atop two motorcycles with a clamp tied to his ear. Bhindar from Bhamiyan Kalan, a bare-chested sardar lifted a 2.5 quintal sack with a kid perched on top! Inspired by such amazing feats, Gurnam Singh, a 75-year-old resident of Ludhiana jumped into the fray ten years ago. A state record holder for walking 5km in 38 minutes, his skill was lifting a bicycle with his teeth!
What started off in the 1930s as a local village festival has transformed into an iconic event. It was the brainchild of S Inder Singh Grewal, founder father of Grewal Sports Association to galvanize local youth into sports. Punjab’s Doaba belt, the fertile tract between ‘two rivers’, saw farming through the year and agriculturists had no time to interact with each other. With prosperity came vices, so after the harvest, a social platform was created. Held on the first weekend of February, the festival celebrated its 76th edition in 2012.
Almost everybody from Punjab who has represented India at the Olympics has graced the Kila Raipur arena. From Col Gurcharan Singh, 1936 Berlin Olympian from this village in whose memory a 6-a-side hockey tournament is held, to all India record holder in pole vault S Lakhvir Singh or discus thrower Parveen Kumar, better known as ‘Mahabharat da Bheem’, the list of luminaries is long and their photos grace the makeshift office.
Sukhwinder Singh from Morkareema village was stricken by polio from birth but wanted to do something in life. In 1990, he pulled a scooter with his teeth for the first time. When he graduated to a Bullet motorcycle, it spurred him to raise the bar. Today he tows a Maruti Van weighing 5 quintals! His only source of income is what he earns through his performances and ‘on-the-spot’ philanthropic donations. He flashes a smile saying ‘Earlier my teeth used to pain a lot but with time, I’ve got accustomed to it. It isn’t so bad now’. And with the same verve, he pulled a Maruti van over 40 m within 2 minutes.
Even the specially-abled don’t sit by the ringside. Polio-stricken Gurmel Singh supported his entire body weight on one bottle. Bhajan Singh from Moga, who lost both hands in an accident, ran a scorching 100m race. I had heard somewhere how critical hands were for running; otherwise a runner could lose his balance. Amazingly at Kila Raipur, strength far outweighed science and nothing seemed impossible. A loud cheer went up for the latest showman who would display his skills with the… mouth organ? Mouth Airgun, it was clarified. Using his patented instrument improvised with a steel pipe and some duct tape, Amandeep Singh from Patiala blew darts over a 100 m.
Anchoring the proceedings were a bevy of lively commentators. Jagbir Grewal or Jaggi Paji, Executive committee member and our wonderful host in Ludhiana explained that they were traditionally maraasis or professional stand up comedians who accompanied the maharajas for their amusement. Recounting a popular legend about a partridge hunt, Jaggi Paji spoke of how one evening over drinks, only the maharaja and his guests were offered partridges, not the maraasi. When the king asked him why he was sitting glum, the maraasi replied that he was wondering why these teetars that flew around so much in the morning couldn’t fly from the maharaja’s plate to his! The king got the message and the maraasi, his share. In keeping with their traditional occupation, the festival commentators kept the audience in splits with their wisecracks and comic timing. ‘Nasha chhaddo, khel kheddo’ was a constant refrain, trying to wean away Punjab’s youth from drugs to sports.
There were regular track and field events like high jump, long jump, shot put, javelin and races, but nothing was as popular as freestyle kabaddi, a cross between full-contact wrestling and homicide. Burly men sporting tattoos of tigers, lions and Sikh icons like Baba Khadak Singh scrapped with each other in a show of testosterone. Suddenly, the assembled crowd ran helter-skelter as a blue-clad nihang on a horse ran amok swinging his lance. The nihangs, a martial group of mystics, defenders of the faith, were getting impatient to showcase their daredevilry on horseback. Maghar Singh and his band had been waiting three days for their chance but an endless stream of competitive events, contortionists and tug of war battles had pushed them to the sidelines.
Out came a seasoned nihang standing astride two galloping horses, the rope clenched between his teeth. The next one, a young lad, took a tumble causing gasps of horror in the audience, but he soon returned to grab his glory. A round of tent pegging followed, before they eventually circled the stadium in a grim procession. Harvinder Singh from Bathinda made his horse dance to the beat of the drum. The MRSPPA Team of motorcycle daredevils from Phillaur (the site of Maharaja Ranjeet Singh’s fort) put on a range of bike acrobatics –riders in various formations, biker reading newspaper while riding, another lying down on the seat and one doing balle-balle while riding. It was insane.
On the sidelines was a boisterous Malwai gidha performance. A folk dance of Punjab’s Malwa region, it was usually performed by veteran bachelors and included teasing other people in their folk boliyan (songs) to the accompaniment of folk instruments like the tinkling chimta, the single-stringed tumba, the percussive dhad, ghara or earthen pitcher, algoza a twin flute, the familiar dhol and the unusual sapp chikka, a wooden jack-in-the-box clapper and bukchu a stringed rattle-drum.
Finally it was time for the star races. First camels and elephants, then bullock carts, tractors and khachhars (mules)… The racing bullocks had a special diet and required extra care. With big bucks riding on this Desi Derby, the skilled riders were no different from high-paid jockeys. Often the sheer momentum resulted in racers overshooting the finish line and hurtling into the fields. Understandably, the Grewal Stadium was not a totally enclosed space but open on two-sides! However the most inspiring spectacle was the 100 m race for 80-year-olds. Hirsute graying granddaddies well past their prime took off like bullets. It was electrifying, admirable and humbling at the same time.
Chief Organizer Sukhbir Grewal or Gary Paaji, past Olympian and a hockey talent scout with Pargat Singh shared his thoughts. ‘On the surface, it’s all fun but actually a logistical challenge – we take care of everything from food, transport, stay, etc for all participants, who hail from remote villages across Punjab. There’s also a sizeable NRI population from Canada, US, UK, Germany and Italy! Then of course, there’s the media contingent, our sponsors and dignitaries. We want everyone who comes here to go back happy, content and with a feeling that he’s part of something special.’
Much of the fund-raising and promotion was thanks to sports media professional Mahesh Ranka, who has been associated with the festival for the last 7 years. ‘When I came in, though the base was already there, it was literally free-for-all. My task was to work out a proper structure, hammer out the commercial implications and market the event. Now we have regular sponsors like Maruti Suzuki and Ambuja Cement.’
Sharing his vision for Kila Raipur, Gary Paaji mentioned ‘Going forward, we want the infrastructure of our rural training centre to be functional all year round to coach kids in volleyball, hockey, etc. We’re pushing it to be a week-long national event with craft, culture, food, folk music and of course, sports.’ As I rode back from the festival past mustard fields enveloped in mist, it seemed that somehow India’s aspirations at the Olympics lay in nurturing grassroot traditions like Kila Raipur.
Author: Anurag Mallick. This article appeared on 12 February, 2012 in Deccan Herald (Sunday edition).