The purple and gold of the Knight Riders may be the reigning colours of the Eden Gardens, but at the Netaji Indoor Stadium next door it was all red and blue on Wednesday night as Calcutta warmed up to kabaddi, franchise-style.
The music blared and the disco lights danced amid banners, balloons, pyrotechnics, placards and some jet-speed action as the city cheered the Bengal Warriors like it would Shah Rukh Khan’s Knights.
The Bengal Warriors, partnered by The Telegraph, was in the ring with the Bengaluru Bulls in their second match of the Pro Kabaddi League, where eight franchises representing different cities are battling it out for the prize.
More than 2,000 people trooped into the stadium, the majority of them turning up around one-and-a-half hours ahead of the start of play at 8pm (in picture, right, by Amit Datta).
And if you thought a kabaddi audience would be mostly male and macho, make no mistake. From a mom with a three-year-old son on her lap to a curious Englishwoman who is in the city on work, the crowd couldn’t have been more IPL-like.
True to the carnival atmosphere borrowed from franchise cricket, there were also musical interludes in between the kabaddi raids. The shake-a-leg tracks included Lungi Dance, Hookah Bar, Party All Night and even Tolly foot-tappers such as Mon Mane Na and Usha Uthup’s Uri Uri Baba.
The stars of the evening were, of course, the players. The Warriors and the Bulls arrived to a red carpet welcome, complete with fireworks and loud cheering by the enthusiastic audience.
“The atmosphere here is scintillating. I had never thought kabaddi would see such a day,” said 29-year-old Paritosh Haldia, a former national player from Bengal who was in the stands.
The man from Chandernagore used to play alongside Rajesh Mondal of the Bangalore franchise, the one rival player who had the home crowd on his side. A round of applause had reverberated through the arena in the second minute of the match when the “local boy” first stepped into the Bengal court as a raider. Befittingly, he opened the scoring for Bangalore by snatching a bonus point.
But a hush soon fell on the stadium as the visitors raced to an 11-1 lead within minutes. It was left to another local lad, Shyam Kumar Sha, to restore some pride for the home team by deftly “tagging out” two opponents during his raid.
Each time the likes of Shyam, Nitin Madane or South Korean import Jang Kun Lee won a point or two, the Bulls immediately hit back to wrest the initiative. The Bengal Warriors trailed 13-25 at half time and had been “all out” twice by then.
The decibel level didn’t taper down despite the scoreline because, technically, it was still possible for Bengal to claw back into contention.
Hannah Reynolds, a London-based executive of PricewaterhouseCoopers, was at the stadium with fellow Londoner Shev Bains and Kaushik Nath, a colleague based in Calcutta. The trio said they were drawn into the stadium by the buzz around Pro Kabaddi.
Since Hannah and Shev hadn’t the slightest idea about the sport, it was left to Kaushik to educate them about kabaddi.
“Well, from what I have gathered this seems like a sport the English people back home would enjoy because of the physicality and pace involved. The atmosphere in the arena is electric and makes for exciting viewing,” said Hannah, speaking loudly to make herself heard above the din.
“We had read about today’s match in the papers and it seemed very interesting, so we thought this would be a uniquely Indian experience for my colleagues,” said Kaushik of the decision to give his colleagues from London a look at kabaddi.
In another section of the crowd was a group of budding kabaddi players from Chandernagore, who keenly followed every step and tackle in the middle. While most were loyally backing the home side, the group of five formed an oasis of Bangalore supporters. “Our Dada, Rajesh Mondal, used to play for our club. He is in the Bangalore team and we want to see him do well,” said Ranojit Santra, 16.
His friends Abhradip, Ranadip, Chandan and Mangal, all of whom play kabaddi for Nawpara Nitai Sheeti Sangha in Chandernagore, cheered the loudest every time Rajesh was on a raid. “It is a great learning experience for us and gives us hope for the progress of the sport,” Abhradip said.
For the home fans, however, hope quickly faded in the second half as the Bengaluru Bulls continued their domination. “Pa ta japte dhor na (Grab the leg),” shouted a face in the VIP stand when the Bengal defenders seemed reluctant to attack for fear of losing by a bigger margin.
The scoreline read 46-30 in favour of the Bulls in their second straight win. For Bengal, it was the second consecutive loss, but the spectators did leave the stadium humming the tunes of the “new IPL”.