Passion fuels this show, rain or shine

Steady rain has hit Kodagu’s Napoklu over the last ten days. It isn’t good news for the fans of hockey but that isn’t the only problem faced by the most popular sporting fiesta in the region this time. The Kulletira family, which is carrying forward the rich tradition of the popular Kodava Hockey Festival, has had to tackle the challenge of raising funds for the annual extravaganza. But two weeks since its commencement, the tournament has managed to trigger its typically tremendous response, underlining the fact that whatever be the hurdles, if it’s about playing hockey, the show must go on in Kodagu!

“We have advanced the timings of the matches to beat the rain. Apart from the two main grounds, we have one extra ground as a backup option,” says Pavin Ponnanna, the chief coordinator of the meet. “We had to put extra effort this time to garner funds,” continues Pavin. “The Department Youth Empowerment and Sports provides Rs 30-40 lakh for the tournament but due to the State Assembly elections’ code of conduct, we didn’t receive the money. We managed to gain sponsorship from many corporate companies and also from many individuals who are die-hard hockey lovers,” says Ponnanna.

The festival has entered its 22nd year and is still going strong in a region that is considered one of the cradles of Indian hockey, having produced many an international. The tournament started as a platform for players to display their talent in 1997 and it has gradually become the most respected event of the Kodavas. A brain-child of Pandanda Kuttappa, a first division hockey referee, and his brother Pandanda Kashi Ponnappa, the festival has grown in grandeur, bringing a huge number of Kodava families from across the country under one roof. This year, the tournament came close to entering the Guinness Book of World Records.

“We have 334 teams participating this time, the highest ever the tournament has witnessed,” says Pavin. “We missed out on entering the Guinness World Records due to some technical issues. We need to inform the GWR officials two months in advance but we had around 14 teams registering during the last week of the meet. Last year was special as the festival entered the Limca Book of Records after 323 teams participated,” Pavin explains.

The tournament had a rousing start this time, with India internationals Devesh Chauhan, V R Raghunath, Deepak Thakur and the Walmiki brothers –- Devindar and Yuvraj -- playing in an exhibition match. The final, scheduled on May 13, is expected to draw thousands to the venue. “On an average, we have 10,000 people hitting the stadiums every day. But once the meet reaches the knockout stage, the number will increase. We are predicting a total footfall of five lakh people,” says Pavin.

The positive feedback from the international stars has thrilled the organisers. “Deepak Thakur spoke highly of the festival. He told us that interest in the locals here is more than what is seen in hockey World Cups hosted by India. He called the festival a paradise for hockey fans. The Walmiki brothers were impressed by the way we treat each and every player during the festival. We are giving odikathi, the traditional Kodava sword, to every player. The total prize money for the event is Rs four lakh,” says Pavin.

For Indian striker Nikkin Thimmaiah, the festival was the starting point of his career. The 27-year-old recollects how it spurred him on to play the game. “I have been going to the festival ever since I was a child. It motivated me to play hockey and I am sure it has done the same to many Kodagu youngsters. The tournament teaches us to respect the game,” he offers.

Over the years, the quality of the game has changed for the better, feels Pavin. “The game has become faster and it has turned more professional. The main reason behind this is the interest shown by youngsters in the families. Earlier, the teams had a good mix of young and old but now 80 percent of the team is filled with youngsters.”

National Hockey Academy CEO and former Indian captain M P Ganesh was the chief guest at the inauguration. The Olympian was disappointed that Kodagu, once a regular supplier of players to the national team, has produced a lesser number of internationals in the recent past. “Of course things have changed. Decades ago, Kodagu, Haryana and Punjab were the three States famous for hockey. But the growth and visibility of the game increased over the years and the competition to enter the national team has become tougher. The Hockey India League has produced many talents from different states. We have to accept the reality,” reasons Pavin.

Pavin feels certain kinds of changes are required to add more value to the festival. Greater publicity is needed to bring attention to the event, he points out. “Apart from one documentary (Hockey In My Blood) and a Star Sports special programme, there has not been much visual coverage of the festival. Television must support the tournament. Also, Kodagu needs more artificial turfs. This will help us spend less on the maintenance. These changes will push the festival to the next level,” asserts Pavin.

Stress on education and career have resulted in a steady outflow of Kodava youngsters to different cities. The situation though is nowhere near grim, as far as the future of hockey is concerned in the district, says Pavin. “Kodagu is famous for coffee and hockey. These two things are dear to all the Kodavas. Hockey lies in their blood and wherever they go they come back home for the game,” he says.

Nikkin too isn’t worried about the scenario. “It’s the game that matters and it is above all of us. If you love the game, you will always make time for it. Kodagu though needs more quality hockey clinics. That will go a long way in helping to preserve the hockey culture in the district,” he says.

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Passion fuels this show, rain or shine

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