I wrote this article for my newspaper ages ago, but for some reason, the story was rather unceremoniously dumped :-( A conversation with a colleague over a cup of hazelnut latte (quite good) reminded me that I could put the story here. It is rather long for a blog post, but read on. The story is set in my beloved Kodagu.....
The often heady, sometimes haunting notes of the 'vaalaga' (a type of wind musical instrument resembling shehnai) of traditional Kodava music wafts through the hot summer air, mingling with the slight breeze. It is a strange cauldron of sounds and smells at the venue of the Mandetira Cup 2007, the annual hockey tournament organised by Kodava families.
At once, the venue represents everything that Kodagu is known for. The enchanting smell of the freshly blossomed coffee flowers, almost milk white in a sea of deep green Robusta coffee plants intermingles with the traditionally made 'pandi curry' or deep fried pork. Visitors and players hang around a stall that sells authentic chicory-free coffee, taking in the aroma of freshly brewed coffee powder, even as they meet up with old buddies, make new relations, listen nonchalantly to the commentary in chaste 'Kodava-takk' or Kodava language and discuss the coffee blossoms and the monsoon or the lack of it. It is a strange mix indeed, but then, the event, unique in its own way, calls for such idiosyncrasies.
Kodavas or Coorgis are indigenous inhabitants of Kodagu, Karnataka with a culture and lifestyle of their own. The fast diminishing sect speaks Kodava-takk, a dialect that is a mix of most Dravidian languages. Each Kodava family belongs to a larger unit that functions under a patriarch. Each clan has a name and all the members go by it, usually prefixing their clan identity to their names. The 'Ain Mane' or family house is, for the entire clan, a sacrosanct place, the place where disputes are settled, festivals celebrated and generations lived.
If two words could say what Kodavas do best, it would be 'defence forces' and 'hockey'. Over the years though, both the number of youth joining the defence forces and those taking to hockey have diminished, aggravated by the prospect of greener pastures, IT salaries and a more urbanised manner of life.
It was a hunger for the 'good old days', the passion for the game and the practicality of keeping the clans together for basic survival that led to the conception of the annual Kodava family hockey tournament ten years ago by Pandanda Kuttanni.
The eleventh such tournament, an event that sees thousands of Kodava players and spectators participating, is currently underway in a little village called Kakotuparambu in interior Kodagu.
The tournament is organised by one family every year. This year, a relatively small family of about 180 members called Mandetira has taken charge. I climb up to an elevated area reserved for the media, the commentator and am instantly welcomed by the members of the family, in true Kodava style. The men, all wearing green shirts with their family names on them, enthusiastically explain the event to me. It is only when I tell them that I am a native of Kodagu myself and know about the event that they pipe down a bit.
Sunil Mandappa, a member of the Mandetira family explains that there are 186 families that are playing this year. Three years ago, 280 families participated and this record found a mention in the Limca Book of Records.
The Kodava Cup is said to be the only one of its kind in the world that is organised by clans at such a large scale. Each team that plays can have players in the age group of 8-65 years, although there have been younger and older players in the previous years. A team can have men playing with little boys, girls and married women too. Married women or 'Taamane Mudiyan' can play for both the husband's family and the paternal clan. The entire expenses of the tournament is borne by the organising clan, though sponsors pitch in too. Government aid is small, the utter lack of political presence welcome.
Months before the summer event, stadiums are built, ground cleared and players are trained by the Field Marshall Cariappa Trust. Another member of the family, Suresh says that the idea was to get all the families together and keep them united. A great deal of match-making also happens, he admits with a slight smile. The event helps to promote hockey too, he says, though adding, almost as an after thought, that he is a cricket player.
As we sit watching a match between the royal Apparanda family and Armanamada family, Suresh says that summer is the best time for the event, after the coffee blossoms and during school vacations. Looking back, he says that the event has seen several Olympians, national level players, amateurs, little boys and septuagenarians playing. Several have gone on to play professional hockey too, their hockey skills landing them in jobs elsewhere.
The stadium, with a seating capacity of 17,000 plus, is sparsely occupied. The exciting matches are yet to begin. Meanwhile, for the families, it is a festive time. Many live outside the district, many in bungalows buried deep within the folds of coffee estates, many in villages with thatched huts and a little government primary school where students do not often see cars. This is one time of the year when they meet, gossip, party and forge bonds. Hockey seems just a very good excuse.
As they sip coffee, sample the pork and talk of the weather, the commentator announces that the Armanamada family has won the match. The players shake each others' hands, there is polite applause. In the backdrop, the 'vaalaga' soars and culminates on a high note, reminding the clans for a moment of their warrior antecedents. And then the clans get back to the business of catching up with each other. There is, after all, a lot to talk about.