VILLUPURAM: In 2017, when a group of young girls playing kabaddi from Villupuram was christened as Spartans, there was euphoria. The girls in the team, from Navamal Marudhur village, emulated the spirit of the heroic Spartan warriors who charged towards the battlefield centuries ago. Only this time, the forces they fought were impalpable: the penury of their mores and the weight of the stigma affixed to their gender.
The Spartans team, 36 girls between the age group of 13 to 17, all hailing from rural marginalised families, barely had any support from the village and the sports department. All they had was a coach and a handful of sponsors from the village in Kandamangalam taluk.
B Balamurugan (23), the coach of the team, told TNIE how the spirit of the Spartans enkindled. “I once played kabaddi matches during the Pongal festival in my village when some girls came and asked if they could play as well. I was taken aback by their interest. Since then, I have been training them. The name of our men’s kabaddi team – the Spartans, was befittingly given to the women’s team as well.”
Balamurugan says the journey to the top has become more vertiginous with every passing day. Talking about walking on the tight rope of perseverance, he said, “The girls have won many matches locally but they have been dismissed as underweight in the higher-level tournaments. As they get older, they have better chances of participating in those tournaments, provided they stay in the team till then.”
The girls are interested to play the game, and each of them has a dream, to play for the district and the State teams in the future. But dreams often meet the cruel hands of verity. In this case, it’s the dearth of resources. The girls, at the moment, have no sponsors to fund their facilities to practice or to arrange a balanced diet to keep their spirit ignited. An empty stomach has no room to foster these dreams, says a 15-year old team member.
“When we fall sick after a match, our family is reluctant to send us to practice next time. This affects our training as well as our mental well-being,” she says. The team had bagged first place at a district-level kabaddi tournament recently held in Villupuram, receiving a cash prize and a six-foot-long trophy. Moreover, two girls, VK Rudra (13) and S Maheswari (15), have qualified for the Tamil Nadu Senior Girls Championship for age group 16-18, after their skills were adjudged to be on par with the eligibility criteria, says Balamurugan.
And yet again, the talent meets the cold hands of austerity. Despite participating in the tournaments, the team members are failing to win due to their physical weakness, Balamurugan claims. The team is backed by some local supporters who can only take care of a few of the team’s expenses.
VK Rudra, the captain of the girl’s kabaddi team, is however optimistic. “We have been training successfully for four years now. At first, we did not get enough support in our village. But, as soon as we started winning local tournaments, people began to support us.”
“However, we don’t have any big sponsor to support us right now. For our team expenses, the coach and his friends are spending from their pockets. Beyond that, each team member in the group is saving money in a piggy bank to buy even small equipment for us,” she says.
However, what bothers the Spartans even more than their impoverished disposition is gender discrimination from the villagers. Sticks and stones may not break their bones but words do hurt them.
A 16-year-old team member of Spartans alleged, “Some villagers (mostly men) verbally abuse us for playing in the common ground where the boys train. They go to the extent of assassinating our character until we leave the ground.”
A few members said the villagers influence their family too, sometimes, which has even prevented them from taking part in regular kabaddi practice. “The gender stigma around girls playing kabaddi is tougher than the game itself,” says the captain.
The team needs its own turf to train independently, away from the eyes of the villagers who bully them regularly. “We enjoy playing kabaddi as much as the boys. If we get scholarships or sponsors from the district administration, we will definitely win and bring honour to Villupuram district,” says Rudra.
Balamurugan believes that if only the sports department and the district administration could provide a training ground for the girls, the ascent to the summit would be much easier for them.