For now, Synergians have identified five traditional sports under their project for promotion
It hasn’t been long since the urban Malayali left the joys of homespun recreation and heritage sport neatly packed in his cellar of all things past. Stuff that whips up nostalgia about home, about a happier time but a thrill too simple and straight for the playstation generation.
The measured flick of the finger and that glassy click of colliding marbles. Girls hopping on chalk-stroke squares on the sidewalk. A bunch of noisy, young men at a seven-tile game on the temple ground. The images are integral to the collective Malayali imagination, often
air-brushed for effect in popular culture, including cinema. Now, a group of management professionals is trying to take variants of these indigenous sports beyond the trappings of romanticised tradition and turn them around into competitive, revenue-generating sporting disciplines.
The men behind the NGO Synergians (www.synergians.com) have identified more than five traditional sports, including goli kali (goti/marbles), akku kali (Hopscotch), naadan panthu kali (a local ball game) and kuttiyum kolum (gilli danda), under the project. The Synergians are fresh from the success of the Cochin Open Professional Goti Tournament held earlier this month. The event – a first of sorts in these parts of the country – had 43 participants, including 10 women, battling it out on the field. The group has lined up goti tournaments in the southern and northern districts of the state during the next year.
The Kochi-based NGO that has passenger rights as its focus area turned to
heritage sports after members realised that India, unlike stronger sporting nations, needed a more streamlined approach in helping its sporting talents to become professionals. Soon, they realised that the grand plan was hard to execute for a small bunch of driven enthusiasts. “It was tough to break into a scene that was run by powerful sports bodies and associations. That’s when we started thinking about the immense wealth of traditional sports that we had.
During research, we realised that all major sports had rustic originals before the urban elite adopted them and made them popular. That was a start,” Sijin B T, co-founder of Synergians, told Deccan Herald.
Most of these heritage sports are still played as competitive events in Kerala’s rural pockets during festival seasons, including Onam. The Synergians, however, are working towards stripping the sports off these tags of tradition and rustic charm. For starters, they are revamping the players’ gear and devising a more contemporary rule-book terminology. The goti players come with snazzy golfer gloves and Key-In is the sport’s new term for the conventional toss of the coin. The old glass spheres have also made way for multi-coloured marbles. The idea is to dispel notions that this is entirely village-centric recreation and introduce heritage sports to a generation familiar only with the thrills of gaming on the couch. The sport of marbles – despite being played in international tournaments – has not gone much beyond the stature of street recreation in India.
Apart from professionalising these sports and generating revenues by promoting them as spectator events, the organisers are wistful of initiating efforts to create healthier generations. The Synergians are also promoting Hopscotch as a sport to battle lifestyle diseases.
“It’s a sport you can play anywhere; all you need is a piece of chalk to sketch the squares. For children, it could also double up as lessons. You can have numbers,
alphabets or words in the squares and children could learn new things while playing,” Sijin said.
The NGO is aware of the challenges ahead in keeping the drive afloat. The biggest barrier to break is the apprehension in endorsing anything that’s new or unconventional. It will be long before sporting bodies in the country that promote Olympic events take a step forward in popularising indigenous sports. The efforts to engage potential sponsors and investors in indigenous sport events have not been successful either; the default response has been – Will people watch this? The Synergians are countering apprehensions with practical wisdom – Everything needs a start.
“We have to look at options, including refundable grants and loans, to build on the start that we’ve made. Without them, we can’t sustain the promotion of these sports as a commercially viable proposition,” Sijin said.
During the goti tournament in Kochi, the organisers had an unexpected visitor in 74-year-old M B Joseph, a retired Fisheries Department official. It was a return to childhood for him as he played in front of an appreciating crowd. If enthusiasm is the yardstick, Joseph could be a default choice for an ambassador for the sport. It, however, will take a lot more than enthusiasm to make it a popular, professionally-run fixture in the country’s sporting
culture where desi also means deprived.