Hockey Brewing - The Coffee Capital of India Has Revived Its Love For Hockey

It’s mid-summer in Kodagu, a district in Karnataka. Amidst pristine hills, rolling coffee plantations, and large estate homes, the locals - known as Kodavas - are in the thick of two activities - winding down the coffee-picking season and taking stock of the produce, and gearing up for the annual family hockey festival. Hockey fields, spilling over with sports enthusiasts, play host to the largest independent hockey festival, one at which family pride and honour are at stake.

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The Kodava Hockey Namme - meaning festival in Kodava takk, the local language - is seen as both a celebration of the game of hockey and a reason to gather the dwindling and scattered Kodava community in one place.

The annual event will hold its 22nd edition in April and May this year. Last year’s event saw a little over 3,000 players from an estimated 300 families participating. Featured in the Limca Book of Records as the largest and longest field hockey tournament in the world, the festival attracts, on an average, crowds of four to five thousand spectators per game; the number climbs to as high as thirty-five thousand closer to the finals.

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Located 255 kilometres away from Bengaluru - Karnataka’s capital city - Kodagu, known earlier by its anglicised name, Coorg, has long been referred to as the ‘Cradle of Indian Hockey’. Believed to be introduced by the British, the game of hockey transcends nearly every other form of sport, entertainment or pursuit in the region. It has become part of the cultural fabric in the region; over the course of history the Kodava community which, by conservative estimates, numbers about six lakh members, continues to produce a steady stream of players for the district, state and even the country. A few of the Arjuna awardees - A.B. Subbaiah, M. P. Ganesh, B. P. Govinda, and 1980 Olympic gold medallist M. M. Somaiya - are all proud Kodavas that went on to represent India at the Olympics.

Pandanda Kuttappa - fondly known as Kuttani in the community - was a referee in India’s first division hockey league. When he and his brother, Pandanda Kashi Ponnappa, noticed that Kodavas - both young and old - were leaving their hometown for bigger cities in pursuit of higher education and better livelihood, they decided they need to do something to turn the trend around. There had to be a way to get Kodavas to visit home regularly. The solution had been staring at them all along.

Faced with a significant drop in the number of young Kodavas taking up hockey - a sport that is tied to the community's identity - the brothers decided to take matters into their own hands. In 1997, they pooled their resources, gathered a group of like-minded heads of families, and flagged off the first Kodava Hockey Festival in which 60 families participated.

There has been no looking back since. The festival’s participation and spectator numbers have grown year-on-year. It has also, much to Kuttani’s delight, given rise to renewed interest in the game amongst youngsters, thus slowly increasing their presence among the ranks on the State and national teams.

A new family hosts the festival every year. The Kodavas are grouped along the lines of their clan or family - or okka as the Kodavas call it - they belong to. Estimates peg the Kodava community to be about 800 clans. Both the event and the trophy are named after the host family for the year - for instance the Bidatanda Hockey Namme, or the Kuppanda Cup, and families - each consisting hundreds of members - take immense pride and honour in putting up a festival better than the one the year before. And while the event may seem like a large spontaneous family gathering, the number of people - both regarding participation and attendance - coordination, arrangement and the pride at stake necessitated the forming of a governing body.

The Kodava Hockey Academy (KHA), founded in 1998, a year after the festival was started, is formed entirely from members elected from within the community.

“Each family interested in hosting the tournament passes a resolution, putting forth their plans to host the Tournament, and a signed copy is submitted to the Academy,” says Ammanichanda N. Uthappa Ravi, Secretary of the KHA. “From there, we select the hosts for the coming years.”

Three vice-presidents, one from each of the taluks - Madikeri, Virajpet and Somvarpet - that make up the district, form the lead committee. The Academy scrutinises various criteria before selecting a host family; the two main criteria being how many members of the host family are willing to volunteer and spare time and effort for the event, the financial health and capability [to host the event] of the family, and so on.

The Kulletira family play host to the tournament this year. They are expecting 325 teams to participate at the venue in Napoklu, the biggest number yet.

Most of the community’s members who serve in the Army, or work and study outside Kodagu, take days off to come to play in the tourneys. It is not uncommon to find youngsters who have skipped class or exams, and people who have quit their job to represent their family at the prestigious festival.

“It’s like the Olympics,” says Kulletira Ajith Nanaiah, Secretary of the 2018 edition. “It’s booked almost till 2025,” says Nanaiah, referring to the slew of proposals the KHA has received.

Every aspect of the festival is the responsibility of the host family. And with their family’s pride at stake, members are driven to plan, prepare and propose well in advance.

Nanaiah’s family has a core committee of four members, a secondary committee of nine members and anywhere between 20-25 members who serve and volunteers. Within this hierarchy, there is a ground committee that ensures grounds are available and prepared - both for players and spectators, an environment committee that ensures preparations leave Mother Nature relatively undisturbed, and a finance committee to ensure that everything stays within budget.

“There is a lot of tension and risk involved,” says Nanaiah. “It requires a sacrifice of time. From December to February is the peak coffee picking and processing season. We can’t really leave our estates.”

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The hosts have to intimate to the Academy which site they have identified as the location for the Tournament.

“It is the host family’s responsibility to select the ground and create the infrastructure around it,” says Mr. Uthappa Ravi.

“As the number of participating teams have increased, we have to provide more grounds. At last year’s tournament we had four grounds!,” says Thathanda Prathap Belliappa, a 64-year-old retired engineer, who is the festival’s unofficial ground curator. “This is not easy to manage because in Coorg in April/May it rains in the evenings. So the grounds have to be dried for the next morning’s game,” says Belliappa, whose family hosted the 2014 Thathanda Cup.

Prathap Belliappa

There have been talks in favour of two or three venues identified, secured and developed for all future festivals. This arrangement, many believe, will not only cut back on festival expenses but also allow for better and more permanent infrastructure to be built at a one-time cost.

“At our AGM it has been proposed to create a central location to conduct the tournament each year. But the families are not agreeing,” says Uthappa Ravi.

Kodagu covers an area of roughly about 4000 square kilometres, and the hilly terrain can make long drives quite arduous. Add that to the daily travel to and from the tournament for up to four weeks straight, and it becomes clear why location is a contentious issue.

Expectedly, the host family prefers and picks a location closest to them. “We have around 150 members in our family. We can't all travel several kilometres to field every day for 28 to 30 days, which is the duration of the tournament,” says Nanaiah.

A B Subbaiah

Olympian A B Subbaiah - who represented India at the ‘92 Barcelona and ‘96 Atlanta Olympics - stressed on the need for a centralised venue to avoid wasting resources, both regarding money and time. “Host families spend Rs. 10 to 15 lakh [$15 - 25,000] to make a ground tournament-ready. You must know how it pours in Coorg in the monsoon. One rainy season later the newly-prepared ground becomes useless. They also spend another Rs. 30 to 40 lakh [$50 - 65,000] to build the viewer galleries. Instead, we could build a permanent and proper stadium and spend resources on maintaining that one place well,” he suggests while also recognising that his idea does not go down well with people back home.

Twenty-six-year-old Nikkin Thimmaiah was a forward on the Indian national team at the Rio Olympics in 2016. He is also a key player from the Chendanda family - reigning champions going into this year’s festival. “I used to watch my father, C.T. Aiyanna, one of the best right extremes in the game, play regularly at the family tournaments,” says Thimmaiah who picked up a stick for the first time in the 7th grade, and has suited up for the UP Wizards and Dabang Mumbai in the Hockey India League. “It was my childhood dream to play hockey in front of 20,000 people. I looked up to players like Amar Aiyamma whose family [Palanganda] has won the festival five times. Now kids tell me that I am their inspiration!,” says Thimmaiah, referring to the full circle the festival has taken in his life.

Nikkin at the championship game in last year's festival. Picture Credit: Achandira Kushalappa

“Hockey is a hobby for Kodavas. Almost every Kodava either plays hockey, tennis or football. Now I guide my family’s players,” says the recently retired Belliappa, who now oversees the Field Marshal Kariappa Hockey Trust which conducts annual summer camps for over a 100 young Kodava kids. “I have played hockey for almost 50 years. Now I want to build hockey in Coorg.”

For up to six weeks before a festival, Belliappa leaves his Virajpet home at 6 a.m., to drive down and help in tournament preparations till late in the evening. “We have to sacrifice our time for the betterment of hockey,” he says, as he reels off match statistics and attendance and participation numbers of the festivals gone by.

Players as young as five and as old as 75 participate and play on the same team. It is not uncommon to see two, and on the rare occasion, three generations play on the same team. Elders take the lead in deciding who makes the team, and captaincy is rotated every year.

Picture Credit: Achandira Kushalappa

Thimmaiah observes that many teams come together just before the festival. “There are very few that have the time to practice and play,” he says, referring to those who represent their companies, or the civil services, and who otherwise practise hockey regularly. “In 2017 we decided we must win the family tournament, so those of us in Bangalore got together, prepared strategies, and decided how we will stick together and hang on to the ball.”

In their village, everyone practices hockey through the year to keep fit, says Nanaiah. As the tournament season comes closer, evening practice sessions hot up. Local hockey clubs also regularly organise tournaments, where up to 24 teams participate. Regular matches keep the momentum going.

Matches start at 8 a.m and go on till 4 p.m. The opening and closing ceremonies are grand affairs filled with traditional dance and music, while spectators and players can savour local food freshly prepared in the stalls on the perimeter. Both the food and the ceremonial aspects of the Tournament are largely handled by and participated in by the women of the community.

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Twenty-four-year-old Navya Ponnamma has been captain of the Karnataka state junior (Under-18) team and has played on the Indian national team both on the junior (Under-21) and senior teams. She was part of the Indian team which secured bronze at the Junior World Cup Tournament held in Germany in 2013.

Navya Ponnamma

“My parents played a key role in my hockey career - my dad has played professional-level hockey and mom, in her college days. That made me choose hockey actually,” says Navya, who hails from the Mallamada family and is now married into the Kambiranda family.

“I was 13 when I started playing hockey, and I was 16 when I played my first family tournament. I have played in about four family tournaments till now,” says Navya. “And it was from these family tournaments that I got the confidence to play further in hockey, as I got blessings, appreciation from the crowd, and lots of wishes from the family.”

The festival is perhaps among the few amateur competitive tournaments in the world where there is no bar on age or gender for players on a single team. Concessions are also made to encourage as many families to participate; while hockey is an 11-a-side game, smaller teams are allowed to play.

The maximum number of women participants - 30 - were seen during the 2000 Cheppudira Cup at Ponnampet. Participation has fluctuated since then, but Navya believes there has been a positive shift in the mindset of sports bodies like Hockey Karnataka and Karnataka Hockey Association who, in recent years, have begun to encourage young female players to pursue the sport seriously.

Interestingly enough, at the festival, women, after marriage, are allowed to choose whether they want to play for their parent’s household or their husband’s household in the festival.

Is it a difficult call for women to decide whom they will play for? Navya laughs and agrees. “I wish instead of choosing one, we had the option to play for both teams. In 2017 I chose to play for my new family (that she married into).”

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Then comes the funding.

The Kodagu Hockey Festivals are large-scale events that see footfalls of over 300,000 spectators over the 30-day duration. Exact spends are hard to come by, but estimates peg the average spend at about 45 lakhs [$71,000] per festival.

“In 2014 it was confirmed that our family would be hosting the 2018 Tournament. So our entire family has been saving for this for the last four years,” says Nanaiah, Secretary of this year’s edition, indicating how seriously families take the funding for their festival.

In addition to the family’s pooled resources, the community chips in by buying lucky draw coupons that promise prizes such as cars and consumables, sponsored by brands with a presence in Kodagu. Private companies with interests in the region and wealthy hockey aficionados also add to the bottom line with monetary contributions.

“We don’t restrict the expenditure. So it depends on what each family is able to raise,” says KHA’s Uthappa Ravi.

The Karnataka state government also chips in. Through the Youth Services Department, they first supported the festival with a grant of Rs. 4 lakh [$ 6,500] in 2012. That quickly rose to Rs. 35 lakhs [$ 55,000] last year.

Prize categories at the festival imitate those at the bigger professional leagues. Winning teams take home cash prizes up to 1.5 lakhs [$ 2,500] and trophies named after, and sponsored by, private companies, while wealthier estate owners with personal coffee brands, sponsor individual prizes such as Best Player and Highest Goal Scorer.

Dr Subbaiah, who has seen hockey form nearly every prism possible - he played professional hockey for 30 years, was captain of Team India, coached the Indian national team, and is currently a hockey administrator - is wary of this extravaganza that has begun to pervade the festival.

“I have heard of families spending up to a crore on a year’s tournament. It’s become a matter of one-upmanship,” says the purist Olympian. “Having worked in hockey administration, I know how difficult it is to get sponsorships. I wish the money were better utilised to select potential players from the tournament, give them specialised equipment, pay for special training.”

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Bengaluru-based filmmaker Sandhya Kumar was fascinated when she first found out about the festival. So fascinated, in fact, that in 2013 she produced a crowd-funded documentary on the festival. Named Hockey in My Blood, it is the only documentary to be made on the festival and was screened at the 2015 event.

A still from Hockey in My Blood

It also helped that Kumar, not a Kodava herself, was able to see the festival through fresh eyes. “I was most interested in understanding the Kodava social set up through the lens of what I thought was a quite fascinating sporting event,” she says. “I wanted to look at Coorg society, its relationship with hockey, and show the role hockey plays in their lives and mindsets.”“For many youngsters, to grow up in Coorg means to grow up playing hockey every day, whether dribbling by yourself in your backyard or playing an evening game with the local boys. Playing a sport and being athletic is part of their identity. They are equally proud to have built this tournament and have so many teams and players participate. What the tournament has meant is that young village boys can continue to look to hockey as a genuine career option, as a way of leaving the village by getting selected to the Sports Authority of India (SAI) hostel which could potentially earn them a spot in the State team and ultimately get them a secure government job. A number of new talents have emerged from the family tournament and it is something they are very proud of. The tournament ends up being fertile ground to plant seeds of talent, some of which may germinate.”

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On the one hand, Subbaiah agrees the festival has reignited enthusiasm for the sport among youngsters and increased the pool of players coming out of the district. On the other hand, he wishes there was more follow-up; identifying players and grooming them for the big leagues and the big stage.

“It’s more of entertainment,” he says warily. “There is a lot of effort being put in. But if you compare the kind of effort and see, top quality players are not being produced here. If you notice, the same ten-fifteen teams qualify for the top slots. And most Kodava boys who qualify for the Nationals come from the Sports Authority of India hostels (either in Bengaluru or Kodagu).”

Amar Aiyamma, former Karnataka state captain and festival legend, had his doubts if the festival would last this long. “But there is a long lineup of families willing to host it, and no dearth of sponsorship either. In Coorg, the hockey culture is still there.”

“What I find most admirable about the Kodava community unlike the rest of the nation is that this regret (that hockey is fading) has not been allowed to become a lament,” says Kumar. “Hockey has not been consigned to the past, it is still valued and enjoyed as a sport of the present times. I thought that this was an excellent example of a community that is not complaining of lack of government intervention or financial support, but have organised their own festival, levelled their own playing grounds and year after year, continue to organise a top class event between over 200 families,” surmises Sandhya Kumar.

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In a world battling the onslaught of gadgets, and with increasing frustration that multimedia distracts the younger generation, taking them away from the outdoors and in particular sports, it is refreshing, if not amazing, that the Kodava Hockey Namme withstood the test of time. Taking one’s family on a day-long picnic - a common pastime as recently as a decade ago - has all but disappeared, sacrificed to accommodate our busy lives. In such a scenario, that there is an event where families gather, becoming the focus of an entire community for a whole month in this day and age make the namme a phenomenon in itself.

Hockey Brewing - The Coffee Capital of India Has Revived Its Love For Hockey

Credit: Arun Kishor / Trip Creative Services

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