India's rural Olympics

India's rural Olympics


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.

Active : Participants at the Kila Raipur Sports Festival. photo by author

His feet were firm and his knees didn’t buckle as the crowd broke into rapturous applause. A veteran farmer from Sangrur and a teetotaller, his eight buffaloes back home provided him a daily diet of four litres of milk, 250 gms of 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 10 years ago. A state record holder for walking 5 km 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 galvanise 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 (but pushed to February 9-12 this year due to the elections), the festival celebrated its 76th edition this year.

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 six-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.

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 100 m 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.
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. 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. Graying granddaddies well past their prime took off like bullets. It was electrifying, admirable and humbling at the same time.

Chief organiser 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, it is 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. 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 grassroots
traditions like Kila Raipur.