“Welcome to the game of our land,” read the sign at the arena entrance. Inside, LCD screens flashed the names of corporate sponsors: domestic brands of incense, motorcycles and tea biscuits.
Bollywood songs blasted from speakers as packs of slim, mustached young men filed into the cheap seats. In the section below, demure young women wearing strands of jasmine in their hair sat quietly next to their more enthusiastic husbands, clad in home-team colors and hooting for the cameras.
Strobe lights flashed in disco hues and the fog machines belched plumes into the air. An announcer boomed, “Lights, camera, kabaddi!”
An ancient sport born on the Indian subcontinent, kabaddi (pronounced ka-ba-DEE) is having its modern moment. From a game played mainly by schoolchildren on patchy fields, kabaddi has graduated to a staple of prime-time television in India, with a glitzy professional league drawing homegrown and international stars, glamorous owners and hundreds of millions of viewers.
To a novice, kabaddi looks like a faster, more bruising version of tag or Capture the Flag, familiar to generations of Boy Scouts, where one side tries to steal the opposing team’s flag (or other object) without being touched.
But in some ways it’s even simpler: kabaddi has no flag, protective gear or equipment of any kind – just two halves of a playing surface, with seven players on either side.
The teams take turns sending across one player, known as a raider, to tag as many opponents as he can. Defenders must tackle him before he can return to his half.
Each tag earns a point, as do tackles that stop the raider from getting back to his side.
India’s 12-team Pro Kabaddi League, launched in 2014, adapted the game for TV by limiting raids to 30 seconds, like the shot clock in basketball, and introducing instant replay.
But the game feels intimate, squeezed onto a rubberized mat slightly smaller than a volleyball court, in arenas with no more than a few thousand seats. The action is by turns balletic – as raiders shuffle and hop to throw their opponents off-balance – and ferocious, with lithe defenders launching full-contact, rugby-style tackles.
It is hugely fun to watch.
The league’s sixth season kicked off this month in Chennai, the southern coastal city formerly known as Madras. On a sultry night during the opening week of play, yellow motorized rickshaws deposited spectators outside Jawaharlal Nehru Indoor Stadium, a drab arena decked out in the blue and gold of the home team, the Tamil Thalaivas (a Tamil word that means “boss”).
The first of two matches on the card featured teams from Mumbai and the northern city of Jaipur. A blue mascot in gold armor cannon-fired T-shirts into the stands and fans clapped inflatable thunder sticks. The only thing missing was a kiss-cam.
Moments before the players took the court, a murmur arose from the lower bowl. A crowd strained against the railing, craning cellphone cameras to capture a couple and their 6-year-old daughter, all dressed in identical white and pink track jackets. Aishwarya Rai, an actress and former Miss World, and husband Abhishek Bachchan – son of India’s most legendary actor and owner of the Jaipur Pink Panthers – took seats in the second row and acknowledged the fans with smiles.
Rai watched politely, balancing daughter Aaradhya on her knee. Bachchan leaned forward in his seat, eyes fixated on the match. He stood and cheered when Jaipur raced out to an early lead and held a 15-13 advantage at the end of the first 20-minute half.
In the front row, wearing the opposing orange jersey, U Mumba team owner Ronnie Screwvala tapped his foot nervously. An entertainment mogul and philanthropist, Screwvala never played kabaddi as a kid but thought owning a franchise would be fun.
“This is as mass a sport as it gets in India,” he said before the game. “It’s fast, it’s instantly recognizable and we thought it was going to be big.”
Mumbai’s star rookie, 6-foot-3 Siddharth Desai, was plucked from a farm in western India and has become one of the league’s top scorers. Desai possesses the brick-like shoulders of a linebacker – towering over other players, who have compact soccer builds – and was camera-ready with a fresh fade. (Mumbai’s players get professional haircuts because, as Screwvala put it, it’s television and “the guys have to look a little hot.”)
Late in the match, trailing by three, Desai embarked on a raid deep inside Jaipur territory. He danced from side to side, then unleashed a judo-style kick that lashed one defender.
The arena sucked in its breath.
The Jaipur players raced to tackle him, but Desai turned and overpowered his way back across the center line, pushing a smaller defender with him like a wheelbarrow.
Moments later, Desai led a three-man tackle that snuffed out one of Jaipur’s last chances to score and helped Mumbai secure the comeback win. In the stands, Screwvala and Bachchan clasped hands.
At the start of the second match, featuring the Tamil team and an opponent from Bangalore, 32-year-old Jay Pradeep explained the rules to his wife and 2½-year-old son, both taking in their first professional sporting event.
His squad fell behind early, but Pradeep, a blue Thalaivas bandanna wrapped around his head, leaped to his feet at every home score and implored his son to dance. His wife looked on, bemused.
“I was a raider in school – I was pretty good,” said Pradeep, a technologist at a paint company.
He brought his son because he watches all the games on TV, Pradeep said. At less than $10 a ticket, kabaddi was more affordable for spectators than India’s hugely popular professional cricket league.
Practically every child in Tamil Nadu played the game, but the league’s best players now come from northern India. (The league also has a few players from Iran and South Korea.) The professional game demands the strength and speed of wrestling, said Nathan Athi, a 38-year-old bank employee watching with his wife and two sons.
“It’s not like soccer, where the referee saves you,” he said. “Here, almost everything is allowed.”
Just then, a Bangalore player was tackled by a swarm of blue and grabbed his calf. His 9-year-old son grimaced, but Athi clapped when the player came back into the game.
“In this game,” he said, “you have to be very tough.”
Shashank Bengali is South Asia correspondent for The Times. Follow him on Twitter at @SBengali