Reverie comes easy on a full stomach under the palm fronds on the banks of a placid rivulet in Alleppey. Not on R.K. Pillai’s watch though. With piercing whistles and words, the ex-army man cuts through the noon lull, spurring his 100-strong crew into formation in the 67th edition of the Nehru Trophy Boat Race (NTBR)—the ‘Olympics of the backwaters’.
As if competing for club and kara (traditional land divisions in the countryside) in the marquee chundan vallam (snake boat) competition—which fields the largest line-up of massive 100-140-ft anjili (jungle jack tree) boats—was not pressure enough, this year’s NTBR doubled as the inaugural race of Champions Boat League (CBL): a snake boat tourney modelled after Indian Premier League. The state government rolled it out to offset the drop in tourism during the monsoon months.
CBL features nine of the top boat clubs in 12 river races over a three-month period bookended by the NTBR on August 31 and the prestigious President’s Trophy Boat Race on November 23. It is touted as the country’s fourth-most lucrative sports league with prizes totalling Rs 5.9 crore. For the snake boat rowers, the majority of whom farm, fish or subsist on a daily wage, it is a lifeline.
“Earlier, rowers used to get petty cash to show up for trials in the morning, eat food, row in the race in the evening, and go home. Often they would be cheated out of even these small amounts—this only added to their debts. Many still come purely for the love of the sport and pride,” says Lalu Marsalin, a brawny veteran. Once a thuzhachilkaran (oarsman), Marsalin is now a taalamkaar (rhythm-keeper) who urges the 100-plus rowers on a snake boat to paddle onwards with vanchipattu (boat songs akin to the ‘work music’ sung in the fields) and chants. Brawnier still are the amarakaars (helmsmen), who wield the heaviest oars and are positioned along the hooded neck to steady the boat. The coach and idiyans (tempo-setters) man the middle with bugles and drums.
Authorities hope to boost tourism during the monsoon with CBL.
The mid-July advent of the vallamkali (boat race) season in Kuttanad—a paddy field-strewn region kissed by four of Kerala’s major rivers—would once see able-bodied men turn up in their village boats to compete for spots. For many, it offers relief from disquieting realities. After two consecutive deluges, those worries have only grown more urgent. Mounting debts have eaten into whatever little purchasing power the rowers’ households had. Much of this is due to the failure to pay wages on par with effort. The improved remuneration for CBL rowers—to the tune of Rs 50,000 per month if all goes to plan—is a long-overdue course correction.
CBL seeks to professionalise the race, but for the boat clubs, boat owners and passionate fans, it is a sea change. The process of renaming teams in the IPL mould has been a source of consternation. “I grew up on stories about these teams. Now, it’s like that history and tradition don’t even matter,” says Sunil Damodar, 53, an auto driver who is part of the roughly 3.2-lakh-strong crowd at the NTBR, astride its 1.4-km course on Punnamada Lake.
Purists like Kochumon, a 70-year-old former rower, perceive a lack of respect for traditions in the eagerness to embrace the new. “Vallamkali can never be like IPL. It’s about culture and pride in our desam (region). Now anyone with money can sponsor a boat. Anyone can be a rower,” he says. Most galling was the influx of “outsiders”, he adds, referring to clubs bringing in professional rowers from Manipur, Jharkhand and even Kashmir. This can be partly attributed to migration out of rural areas. To address such grouses, there is a 25 per cent ceiling on the number of out-of-state rowers.
CBL seeks to consolidate disparate races across Kerala.
The institution of a uniform set of norms is to “professionalise, commercialise, formalise and standardise” a sport that was hitherto defined by its rejection of modern trappings in favour of local touches, amateurishness, unprofitability and unpredictability. “There are about 30 regattas in Kerala. Each has its local character and fan base. It’s very difficult to market individual localised races on a pan-Kerala basis. By organising these races on a league basis, we hope to integrate the fan bases all over the state,” says Kerala’s finance minister T.M. Thomas Isaac. A team auction, slated to be held midway through the competition, is expected to rope in franchisees to take this process forward. Player auctions, as in IPL, will likely follow.
To facilitate this consolidation process—a difficult enough ask considering each race expects to draw over one lakh visitors on average—the state has floated a company, CBL Ltd, to function as the central authority. The company negotiates with the key stakeholders in the sport: boat clubs, team captains (wealthy non-playing sponsors), rowers and boat owners. In most cases, hundreds of villagers from a kara exercise collective control of the boat as shareholders. To riff on the proverb, it takes more than a village and, as Isaac says, “it’s all slightly disorganised”.
Despite the attempts at formalisation, CBL’s sheer scale and complexity has led to disputes. The most pressing of these is a lawsuit brought to the Kerala High Court by a body representing the owners of the Ayaparambu Pandi snake boat. They contend that their boat, which came third in last year’s NTBR, ought to have been included in CBL. The tourism department has countered that it was the boat club, UBC Kainakary, that had qualified for the league. The decision of that boat club to link up with another boat is a common practice—most boat clubs, including the majority of the nine CBL teams, switch boats between seasons. This had forced the boat owners to pair with a non-qualifying club.
In this NTBR, Punnamada Boat Club, the team which now rows the Ayaparampu Pandi, finished sixth, thereby qualifying for next year’s CBL. As the club’s coach Joshy Kavalam said to his crew during a trial run, “They will know our name.” For now, though, the name on everyone’s lips is Nadubhagam. The snake boat, which bears the name of the boat that an excited Jawaharlal Nehru is said to have jumped into when visiting Kerala in 1952, has lived up to its legacy—with decisive victories in the first two races, it propelled the Tropical Titans to the top of CBL.
By Siddharth Premkumar in Alleppey