The girl who dares - Will Kambala accept Chaitra Bhatt, the first female runner?
Can girls chase buffaloes in slushy kambala tracks? 12-year-old Chaitra Bhatt is the pioneer of women's representation in the sport, but centuries of prejudice and the unexplained sale of her buffalo are blocking what will be a historic debut.
Karkala (Karnataka): Chaitra Bhatt set the world of kambala on fire when she led her pair of buffaloes to the starting line at the Lava-Kusha Jodukare Kambala last season.
The sight of anyone who is not a man at the helm of a team is unprecedented – women were not allowed to even watch kambala until a decade ago. This year, inspired by the farmer's daughter's path-breaking act, the Kambala Academy had planned a separate race for women - but question marks hang over it despite the season having begun already.
Chaitra, a Class 6 student who says her idol is 'India's Usain Bolt' Srinivasa Gowda, was set to be the star attraction of the special women's race, but centuries of misogyny and her 'buffalo being sold to a neighbour' seem to be the roadblocks the young talent faces before her race debut and the opening chapter of women's kambala.
"It may be difficult for me to race this year but I will keep training harder than anyone so that I can soon be the greatest runner in the whole of Tulu Nadu," said the 12-year-old Chaitra.
"I had bought Chaitra a young buffalo, Ganesha, two years ago, who she was training with. But we have recently sold that buffalo, so it will not be possible for her to race this year," said Chaitra's father Parameshwar Bhatt, who added he plans to buy another buffalo for his daughter soon.
Parameshwar has reared racing buffaloes for the past two decades and Chaitra was a natural at the sport.
"Chaitra is my first child. She is extremely passionate about the sport. Sometimes I feel sad that women do not participate in kambala. I cannot tolerate it when someone says women cannot play kambala. I feel proud of my daughter," said Parameshwar. But questions on why he had to sell his daughter's prized 'teammate' are left unanswered.
In kambala, where runners and buffaloes have equal fame and footing, such an act is strange to place.
Especially seeing that Chaitra has been a regular at kambala training sessions in Miyar for the last two years - since the 'Usain Bolt' bug made kambala runners instant superstars in Dakshin Kannada.
This season, she is conspicuously absent from the pre-season training session, even though her father is present. The word in the air is that she has school to attend.
'Chasing buffaloes not woman's work'
The sudden sale of a buffalo is not the only resistance aspiring girl kambala runners are facing. While there is no ban on women or girls being present in kambala stadiums any more, the prejudices remain. Kambala runners, team owners, members of the audience and even the Kambala Academy are all united in their confusion on questions of 'safety code' and 'dress code' – which come up with reminders that the world of kambala is entirely built of men.
Shekhar Shetty, the co-owner of one of kambala's most prestigious teams, who employed Srinivasa Gowda last season, is a powerful man who is adamant that women cannot run in this sport.
"It has not happened till today. Chasing buffaloes is not a woman's work. Of course they can enter the track, but they cannot run. This is a divine matter after all," he said.
But strangely, Shetty adds that it is the women of his family who take the lead, wake up at dawn and check up on their prized buffaloes.
'Women's participation necessary to showcase kambala at global level'
While most in Miyar would like to avoid the question of women's participation in the sport, Chaitra and her invisible ilk have Gunapala Kadamba, convener of the Kambala Academy, who made the announcement regarding women's kambala earlier this year, on their side.
"If kambala has to be showcased at a global level, women's participation is necessary. Women are now in each and every field. Volleyball, basketball, cricket all have women's teams. Kambala should not remain a male-dominated sport," said Kadamba.
But the fact that Chaitra, who lives in the northern half of Udupi (a region dominated by Kannada speakers) and does not speak Tulu, is visibly far from the action is not lost on Kadamba, often called the 'godfather and guardian' of modern kambala.
"I will speak to the Bhatts and try to convince them. Chaitra is the pioneer and we are trying to introduce something new this year. When I decided to include women in kambala this year, I got a threat. But it is my firm decision that a women's kambala race will happen this season," said Kadamba. He added that a final decision on the matter will be taken by the end of this month, refusing to elaborate on the 'threat', its nature and who sent it.
Kadamba, who has championed a resurgence in the interest in kambala over the last few years - his latest decision being allowing women to enter the slushy tracks - finds hope in slowly-changing perceptions on the role of women in other realms in the region. "Already, women are allowed in Yakshagana, which had for a long time remained male-only art form. Why not kambala?" he said.