For a festival of its size and uniqueness, the banners announcing the mid-April start of the Maneyapanda Twenty Ten were both few and hard to find.
In sport loving Kodagu (Coorg, South India), it was the latest edition of a then thirteen year-old annual ritual using field hockey to preserve a tradition of closely knit families. Started in 1997 by a former senior manager of the State Bank of India as means to reinforce family ties, the festival had since grown to be the world’s biggest field hockey event. It was recognized for its scale by the Limca Book of Records. The Guinness Book eluded it reportedly due to its exclusivity – you have to be a Kodava to participate. But that didn’t take away any sheen from this festival, for the region had for years been a major talent pool for the national men’s hockey team. Family teams sometimes included former members of the Indian squad, even Olympians. Both men and women played alongside. An unmarried woman played for the family she was born into; a married woman played for the family she married into. The youngest player may be just out of his or her teens. “ This year the oldest players could be B.A. Nanaiah and C. Vasu, both nearing eighty. They used to be good hockey players,’’ S. Appaiah, Chairman, Sports Committee of the Maneyapanda family, said when I met him.
In Madikeri, C. A. Karumbiah’s office sat next to the greenest spot, a patch of astro-turf. Formerly with the Indian Air Force, he was now Administrative Officer of the local Sports Authority of India (SAI) complex. In his prime playing years, he had been in the national hockey camp. He had also played thrice – with son and daughter – for the family he belonged to, Chandapanda. The roughly 150,000-strong Kodava community maintained its roots in family. Everyone was traced back to a male ancestor and there was a tradition of ancestor worship. Men had names with two initials, the first denoting family and the second, father’s name. There were no historical records to explain the genesis of these patriarchal family names, called manepedas. So when engineer turned writer C.P Belliappa, who became a coffee grower at Athur near Gonicoppal, dwelt on the topic in his book, “ Tale Of A Tiger’s Tail & Other Yarns from Coorg,’ he dipped into imagination for a delightful little chapter. Suffice to say, family ties were very strong in this hill province. Disparities in well being aside, most families had a large ancestral house that served as a magnet for periodic get together. When these meetings happened twice or thrice a year, a hundred to two hundred blood relatives may congregate. The house also reserved quarters for those in a family who had fallen on hard times.
Like the origin of their family names, the Kodavas I spoke to were hard pressed to explain why hockey of all games became so popular in the area. An explanation for the prominence of sports could be attributed to the British influence in these hills inhabited by a warrior community, the area later becoming the center of coffee cultivation in India. If you look around, vignettes of British influence in the region surface, ranging from Kodagu’s love of sports to similar tendencies in Malabar down to a quaint two hundred year old tradition of playing cricket in Thalassery ascribed again to the region’s coffee planters.
“ In our community there was always respect for the soldier and the sportsman,’’ Karumbaiah said. At Madikeri’s `Coorg Cuisinette,’ recommended locally as an eatery to visit for traditional food, I ran into young Subbaiah and Varun Cariappa, the former proceeding from third to the fourth standard, the latter, from eighth to the ninth standard. “ We go for hockey practice at five in the morning,’’ Subbaiah said, pointing to a tradition of elders proficient in the game coaching youngsters. When reading up for this article, I also came across a news report of Kodavas in the US forming a hockey team. Karumbaiah reeled off the names of several Indian hockey greats from Kodagu – M.D. Muthappa, M.P. Ganesh, B.P. Govinda, P.E. Kalaiah, M.M. Somaiya, K.M. Kusha, Ammanda Vasu, Chengappa, M.S. Monnappa, A.B. Subbaiah, Vinod Chinnappa, Koothanda Poonacha, B.K. Subramani, Chepudira S. Poonacha. More recently there have been Arjun Halappa, Len Aiyappa, S.V. Sunil, Hariprasad, Raghunath and Vinayak. Some of these players returned annually to play for their families.
The man who tapped this talent to create a huge family festival was 74 years old when I rang him up. “ I am very happy the way this festival has evolved,’’ Pandanda Kuttappa said over the phone. According to Belliappa, the former bank manager’s idea was a brilliant one. “ By March, the harvest here is over and people are generally free till monsoon. That’s the ideal time for a hockey festival,’’ he said.
There appeared to be an estimated 700 to1000 families in the Kodava community. In the first inter-clan (okka) hockey tournament held in 1997 at Karada and funded by Kuttappa and his family, 60 teams showed up. In 2003, participation peaked at 281 teams. “ The family-hockey link works well because it is a team sport. It won’t work that well in something more individualist like athletics,’’ former international athlete Ashwini Nachappa said. Since it was an affair exclusive to the community, the festival’s administration was vested with the Kodava Hockey Academy (KHA) which had nothing to do with government agencies in the field. The umpires for the matches came from the mainstream Coorg Hockey Association. However, they too belonged to the Kodava community. Just as in international events, by the time one edition ended, the host family for the next edition was already identified and at work. While Kuttappa, who was President of KHA, had to dip into his own funds for the first edition, the tournament now had sponsors. But its implementation stayed ad-hoc and partly so for strong reasons.
At the government school in Ponnampet, where two hockey grounds were being prepared for the month-long festival, the mood was both professional and community service. Brigadier Devaiah oversaw preparations for the Maneyapanda family. According to him there was a reason for the festival shifting venues every year and not locating permanently at a fixed venue which would have made infrastructure efficient. In the distance one saw the Kunda Hill, sacred to the Maneyapanda family whose members lived in the vicinity. Many in the family had studied at this government school. “ It doesn’t have proper water supply. Alongside organizing the festival here, which would obviously need water, we also hope to leave behind a water supply infrastructure for the school,’’ the Brigadier said. On the other hand, every host family started its preparations from scratch. The KHA received several bids and usually selected the host family on the strength of prominence and capacity to implement. Once a family was chosen they proceeded to set up a core committee with sub groups handling specifics like finance, ground preparations, technicalities of the sport etc. Sadly however, work began every time from scratch with few documented practices from previous tournaments for template. Thus for Brigadier Devaiah, used to project execution in the army, the Ponnampet work was challenging. Work started from basics like collecting the addresses of all family members; collecting the addresses of women from the family who married into other families, working out the budget, requesting family members for funding (some contribute big, others small), informing the same to members married outside (their contributions were completely voluntary), readying the infrastructure etc. The overall budget for 2010 was Rs 50 lakhs.
For the finals due in May second week that year, the organizers were expecting a crowd of 30,000 people. Temporary stands were being constructed at the school ground. With one more ground nearby, two matches would be played simultaneously to expedite the knock out stage. There was space adjacent for several food stalls. Teams scheduled to play on a given day would play and return for further matches if required. “ Roughly twelve matches would be played every day,’’ Appaiah said. At Karumbaiah’s Academy for Learning & Sports in Gonicoppal, run by Datta Karumbaiah of the Maneyapanda family and his wife Ashwini Nachappa, I was told that around 185 families had submitted their entries for the hockey festival with a day still left for closing registration. The then Union Minister for Sports, M.S. Gill was expected for the April tournament as was the Air India hockey team for a friendly match. In Madikeri, C. A. Karumbaiah said that he had agreed in principle to using the SAI’s astro-turf ground for okka matches in the future. “ Since there is no age limit and many of the older players were groomed in the old style, there could be injuries if they play on fast moving astro-turf. But from quarter finals onwards, we are looking at good teams playing seriously. They should be able to handle astro-turf,’’ he said.
Despite its popularity, the family hockey festival was not the stuff that was tracked by committed talent scouts. The picture appeared to be one of the festival’s standing in sport being diluted by the festive flavor. More than hockey, it was an occasion for family members to meet, in some cases for the first time. It was also an occasion for match-making in the small community. As one person said, “ somebody might tell a young man: that’s the girl I told you about. See, that one in the red saree?’’ In a different context though, those sarees should intrigue Kodagu. The region’s prominence in hockey had been in men’s hockey. When it came to women, the talent pool today was up north and in the east. “ We need more women to come forward and play the game,’’ Karumbaiah of SAI said. That incidentally was a smaller problem in a larger trend becoming visible. Although talent scouts periodically visited interior schools to catch them young, great talent was slowly becoming rarity in Kodagu. Reasons were speculative and they ranged from smaller families with lesser children to so many other options available now for a person talented in sport.
However, that hadn’t dampened the intertwined model of family and sport.
Kodagu’s okka hockey festival was being emulated as model in the region’s taste for cricket and golf.
(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. This article was published in an abridged form in The Week magazine.)