Forgotten on social media moments after 'breaking Usain Bolt's record', Srinivasa Gowda's legend lives on
Born in and moulded by Dakshin Kannada's muddy fields, kambala runner Srinivasa Gowda's fame in national media as 'India's Usain Bolt' may have been fleeting, but his legend lives on in his part of the world.
Moodabidiri (Karnataka): Srinivasa Gowda was on the back of a truck in Dakshin Kannada's Moodabidiri in February 2020 when he first received a WhatsApp message that one of his races from two days ago was being celebrated as having 'broken Olympian Usain Bolt's 100m record of 9.58s'.
The world may (or may not) remember Gowda's burst into national headlines, but ahead of the 2021 kambala season, the man himself is keen to draw attention to the land from which this peculiar news emerged and the sport rather than his own celebrity status.
"I am nothing by myself. I am only as fast as the buffaloes I run with," says Gowda, a 29-year-old farm hand, who while slightly uncomfortable with the Bolt comparisons is also grateful for all that has happened in the last two years. One of the things it has done is to allow him to leave his off-season job as a construction worker and spend more time on Dakshin Kannada's farmlands.
He points to the mountains on the horizon and remarks: "Western Ghats. That is mine."
From here, Jamaica feels a lifetime away.
"Bolt is someone else entirely. I have seen him on TV many times. He has spikes, I have my sole," adds Gowda, pointing to his feet and flashing an infectious smile.
The rest of the world may have moved on from Gowda's record, but his record-breaking spree has not stopped, according to records kept by the Kambala Samiti. Earlier this year, he became the first to break the 8-second barrier, improving on his '100m time' by an incredible 0.59 seconds in one year.
"I don't know how I became a celebrity. Actually, I still don't feel like one. I was always a normal person and am still happy being a normal person, taking care of my family, living with people and growing with them," said Gowda.
The celebrity status is hard to miss though. Gowda is the new mascot for kambala, the favourite sport for centuries in Tulu Nadu, a region encompassing southern Karnataka and northern Kerala.
Kambala is a traditional race involving a pair of buffaloes and a man holding on to them, who have to outrun a similar man-animal team. At stake are pride and token prizes.
Posters announcing the schedule for the season at prominent crossroads now give equal space to his face and the list of dates. When commentators herald in Gowda, or even Moday or Munna or Puttu - some of the buffaloes who were part of Gowda's 'record-breaking' runs - a hush falls over the 20,000-strong crowd.
At the season's opening race, Gowda is one in the crowd of runners but stands out. His yellow mundasu (headgear) is tucked in with folds unlike anyone else's. He seems to know more people than anyone. He waves to some of them from a distance, bows and flashes his famous smile at some others, and for some other special people, he gets up and clasps their hands in reverence. He poses with selfies with the air of a man used to them, he speaks with a smile to children who trot alongside him as he enters his race lane - moments before his face contorts in effort as he works to bring his buffaloes into synchronization with his own body.
A blood-curdling cry then splits the air. There is an explosion as the nagarbetta (stick/whip) comes down and two men and four buffaloes shoot off the blocks. The muddy water, still a moment earlier, splashes over to the bravest spectators. The cries increase in intensity as bare soles glide over rough soil, elbow and shoulder muscles straining from the pull of having to hold on to two buffaloes running at around 50 km/hr. The crowd roars. The two jockeys let go of the ropes as a green laser line signals the finish line but still get pulled forward by momentum, two teams of buffalo attendants wearing jerseys run in to stop the buffaloes, some of which feel less obligated to stop at the finish line than others. A cloud of dust, kicked off by stomping feet, envelopes the entire stadium.
"I was very happy with my win (which had been calculated to have been faster than Bolt). Representing your team in kambala and getting gifts is no small achievement by itself, it's all people like us dream of growing up. Moreover, that kambala was being recognized globally also gave me pride. My owner was also happy, the buffaloes - Moday and Bolla - also became celebrities in the villages, the people taking care of them were also very happy," says Gowda.
Moday's owner Anees is one of those from the minority community in Tulu Nadu to have been catapulted into local stardom through this traditionally upper caste sport via the peculiar 'Usain Bolt' analogy from two seasons ago.
"After Gowda's win, a procession was held in my village and my buffalo was taken around in a truck. Nobody knew me or my village Hirmund before. Now they come to take selfies with Moday. We have become famous because of Srinivasa Gowda's hard work," he said.
The buffalo whisperer mistaken for a track athlete
As the news of Gowda's record spread in January 2020, the Indian government was quick to offer him a trial session at the SAI Bengaluru centre. The local legend did go to Bengaluru, where he also met the Karnataka chief minister, but bowed out of a chance at a career in athletics at the age of 27 by saying he wanted to finish the kambala season and that he was carrying an injury. Sports Minister Kiren Rijiju had explained later that the main reason that he had called Gowda was to appear hands-on. "...Even some of the professional people, some of the businessmen, some of the renowned people of India stated that now this guy will bring Olympic gold in 100m...If I don't respond then they will say the sports minister is silent," he had said.
"When SAI invited me for trials, I did consider going for a day or two, but then decided I was not ready. I am just a farmer who loves running in the mud, playing with buffaloes. Who am I compared to Olympic athletes?" said Gowda, whose refusal to entertain SAI's offer has not affected his stardom in Dakshina Kannada.
Some of Gowda's fans travel miles for an Instagram selfie with him. He is at ease with them too, but seems happiest when he is with Kaala and Chakka - his new buffalo pair for the 2021/22 season.
"People of Tulu Nadu love buffaloes - taking care of them, living and growing with them. Our people actually love buffaloes more than the runners. My childhood sports were giving them baths in the river, swimming with them. I still wake up at dawn every day to take them for a walk near my house. They have to get exercise too," he said.
Gowda was introduced to the world of kambala through a neighbour around twenty years ago, who took him to races on the weekend. He studied at a nearby government school till Class VIII, but when he had to drop out to help his family, kambala became his life - his biggest source of joy and the best chance he had of big winnings. Now, owners hire him for up to Rs 5 lakhs a season. He raced for three owners last season. This has helped him provide more comforts to his family - one parent and four siblings - but he remains grounded.
Those associated with this sport are loath to see him as anything less than a source of pride.
When 75-year-old Gunapala Kadamba, the godfather and guardian of the kambala tradition, founded the 'Kambala Samrakshane Nirvahane Tarabeti Academy' in Karkala ten years ago out of concern over the dying art of kambala jockeys, Gowda was one of its first students. Now the academy is a premier institution and he is its undisputed star alumnus.
"My seniors Rajesh Manna, Anand, Jai Karmadi, Kabettu and Raghuram are my idols. I started riding buffaloes with them in the academy in 2011. Now after 10 years, I think I can finally say I have learned," says the man who may have given a new lease of life to what Kadamba feared could have been dying.
Rajesh Manna, who will be Gowda's teammate for the Moodabidri New Padhiwals this year, seems to understand his reservations with the Bolt comparison. "I have won many times. Srinivasa Gowda, who trains with me, has also won many times. But he is known everywhere as Usain Bolt," he says.
Vishwanath Devadiga, who currently holds the second fastest time in kambala - 100m in 9.15 seconds - strikes a similar tone when he says, "Srinivasa is just one of us, even if he belongs to a rival team. His fame has not changed him. We all work on the same fields for the whole year. Kambala is just the time of festival."
Gowda did watch the Tokyo Olympics but not closely enough to tell who he thinks could be the new Bolt. "My village and the whole of Tulu Nadu will be proud if the sport of kambala is included in the Olympics one day. It will be a proud moment for our entire nation as well," he said.