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How the Punjabi community popularised Kabaddi in the UK

How the Punjabi community popularised Kabaddi in the UK

Vivek Chaudhary

Published: 17 Feb 2019 6:31 AM GMT

From the fields of Punjab to the parks of England, kabaddi has been carried by large numbers of Punjabis who came to create new lives in the country during the post war period.

As they set about establishing themselves in an alien land, the sport was used as a way to reconnect with their culture and reaffirm identity, giving birth to a professional kabaddi scene that attracts thousands at tournaments up and down England each week. 

Kabaddi by Nature by Vivek Chaudhary explores how this came about and the wider significance of the sport to the UK’s substantial Punjabi community.

If kabaddi is India's national sport then Punjabis are its principal export.

We are a migratory people. They say that there are two Ps that can be found all over the world – potatoes and Punjabis. A popular joke goes: when Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, a Punjabi taxi driver came up to him and said, ‘Kithe?’ In reality, the same question will probably greet you while pushing your trolley out of Toronto airport: ‘Kithe?’ Where?

Southall is the unofficial capital of the UK's Indian community and the spiritual home to diasporic kabaddi. When people like my father set up home here in the 1960s, they brought with them a desire to succeed and a love for kabaddi.

Just why so many settled in a shabby corner of west London has never been properly established but the (unsubstantiated) theory goes that it was because of its proximity to Heathrow Airport and prompted by a pervasive fear: ‘If the goras ever kicked us out, it would be easy to get on a plane and return home.’

The truth probably is that it provided ample job opportunities (leading to another local joke about how India begins at Terminal 3), as did many of the other surrounding factories. Officially, it has the largest concentration of Punjabis outside of India, justifying its unofficial name ‘chhota Punjab’. The Land of the Five Rivers, according to another wisecrack, is made up of 22 districts and Southall being the latest addition is known as No. 23. Punjabis are known for their robust humour.

The emergence of UK kabaddi was driven by the gurdwaras that sprang up around the country in response to more Punjabis arriving.

The Singh Sabha Gurdwara in Southall, which was established in the early 1960s, formed one of the first teams. It also organised the UK's first tournament in Southall in 1969. These were three-day affairs lasting from Friday through Sunday and were more a celebration of Punjabi culture than promotion of the sport in Britain. Watched almost exclusively by men, the weekly kabaddi matches that took place in local parks provided a welcome relief from the drudgery of 12-hour working days and the pressure of sending money back home to support relatives, buy land, livestock and agricultural machinery (Mahindra tractors being particularly popular).

The kabaddi matches were a chance to renew common bonds and share future hope with the sporting action accompanied by bhangra performances, songs and recitals of Punjabi poetry. In many ways the tournaments have changed little over the years, apart from the fact that they are condensed into the course of a Sunday afternoon. They continue to combine culture with sport and are still exclusively watched by men.

In 1972, Singh Sabha organised the first UK Kabaddi Championship which also took place in Southall. The home side was crowned inaugural champions; not surprising given that Southall had at the time, a larger pool of players to choose from than most of its rivals.

Founded on the site of an old dairy, for many years it was a tatty, single-story brick building, recognisable as a place of worship only by a giant yellow flag embossed with a khanda, the emblem of the Sikh faith. Today, a giant gold dome, surrounded by eight smaller white ones adorn its roof, forming an incongruous presence in the skyline as they compete for attention with a nearby blue gas tower and a shabby brown block of flats.

Gleaming when the sun shines, the £20 million building (opened by Prince Charles in 2003) is a radiant, ostentatious testament to the Punjabis’ collective progress from a community that initially carried out manual roles in the British labour force to an upwardly mobile social group now enjoying the fruits of its toil in business and the professions. A stunning stained-glass window is embossed with calligraphic Gurmukhi, the language of the Sikh holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib. White marble steps lead up to two giant ornate wooden doors creating a regal front entrance to an edifice that is a fabulous sight, visible from an aeroplane as you land at Heathrow Airport.

Most kabaddi clubs still carry the name of the gurdwaras they were formed by and they continue to play a pivotal role in the sport but the responsibility for organising and funding teams has now been assumed by prominent local business families like the Randhawas. For 20 years they have run Randy’s fast food takeaway on King Street, famous for its spongy chicken burgers and over-spiced masala fish, which nurtured a generation of school children and tipplers. These trademark culinary offerings apart, there are two other things that have earned the family its name; first: Mrs. Randhawa holds the British record for failing her driving test the most times – 48. Then the Southall kabaddi team.

Randy's was named after Randy, the Randhawas’ eldest. With his Buddha belly and double chin, at school the boy was the butt of jokes about how he was a walking advertisement for his father's business and that he possessed all the physical attributes to play one day for the Southall kabaddi team. Not surprisingly, Randy never made it as a player but he did inherit the family business and his father's position as the Southall kabaddi patron. Only this year, he has not done well. The Southall tournament is just days away but there is just one problem; there is no Southall team, mainly because of in-fighting within the kabaddi club committee, which he attributes to the belligerence Punjabis are known for.

‘What do two Punjabis discuss when they sit down together?’ he asks good- humouredly. ‘Well, what they are going to argue about.’

Also read: Kabaddi and the Nazis

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