Kainakary (Alappuzha, Kerala): On Saturday, ace cricketer Sachin Tendulkar stood on the very edge of the backwaters in Kerala, waving a white flag. A volley of aerial gunshots followed. And a slew of longboats, crewed by as many as 150 rowers, burst past the starting line. Within each boat, two drummers beat out a rhythm for the oarsmen to follow.
Thus began this year’s edition of the greatest show on water in India—the nail-biting Nehru Trophy Boat Race, held every year in the backwaters of Kerala’s Alappuzha district. The race is riotously fun and a compulsory tradition in the run-up to the state’s most important festival, Onam. Things are different this year though. The race is on, but with a radical, Indian Premier League (IPL)-style makeover.
Having been put on hold for nearly three weeks due to floods, there are now enough questions in the air as the boats have finally begun to dash off from the water’s edge. What will this new wind of commercialization mean for the sport? And what do the ongoing changes in snake-boat racing say about the broader transformations in Kerala’s social life?
For one, that quintessential Malayalee activity of rowing a boat in the backwaters no longer finds easy takers. It is migrants who do it. The state even had to impose a 25% upper ceiling for non-Malayalee rowers in its marquee snake-boat race events from 2015. The push towards commercialization is a by-product—a gamble—to see if the influx of money will make the tradition go “professional", bringing with it a salary, increasing the chances that a Keralite would bother to wade into the muddy water and row a boat.
That the push to commercialize is being spearheaded by a communist regime is less of a surprise when viewed through the prism of the state’s recent culture wars—over Sabarimala and temple elephants. Snake-boat racing is a viable prop for a government that needs a state-sponsored secular tradition.
At a time when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is rising, events like the boat race offer a venue to use traditions which emphasize the secular credo of Kerala, said a minister in the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPM, government, requesting not to be named. The race is made possible by people from all walks of life, of all faiths, castes, and even gender—with women rowers getting introduced for the first time recently. The oarsmen are mostly ordinary people, the fishermen and the farmers of the land. After facing consecutive floods for two years, the race has also come to symbolize something crucial: a cultural compensation to rejuvenate the cheerfulness that has been snatched away from those who live along Kerala’s backwaters.
The boat race has, thus, become a venue for a variety of larger battles. It shows a society in flux. That the backdrop is one of the biggest mass sporting events in the country, which has few parallels anywhere in the world, only makes the unfolding drama more interesting.
The culture of longboat racing started as a competition between the different land pockets of Kuttanad (called kara in Malayalam), but has now got commercialized and filled with outsiders, said Kalavoor Ravikumar, a film-maker and short story writer in Kerala. “Last year, we were upset because there were too many outsiders and ex-army men were rowing the boats, rather than the locals," he added.
But he will still be going to this year’s event because it’s a childhood memory, and “who wants to miss such a spectacular race?"
Holding them each year, however, has become incredibly tough. And not all the behind-the-scene stories are inspiring. What is certain, though, is that the league-style competition will change many things.
The labour story
Kuttanad in Alappuzha is a calm expanse of pristine nature, backwaters, and downstream rivulets. In late-July, the muddy riverfront was a picture of joyousness. It was the time when the racers were holding trials for the upcoming races, and it looked as if the villagers were hosting a reception for the native oarsmen.
Hundreds of rowers waited on two snake boats to venture into the water. A crowd had gathered at the shore at a moment’s notice to watch the spectacle. A band of children played in the mud. Some women, wearing ethnic dresses, asked each other if their clothing was alright. A priest, swathed in white robes, watched over the proceedings.
And then, an actor arrived by a speedboat, shattering whatever quietude was left along the banks of the backwaters.
This is how life unfolds at the end of a jetty in Kainakary on the eastern, inland edge of the sandbar that is Alappuzha. Or at least, the perception of Malayalee life. It wasn’t real. It was a movie shoot. The crowd was paid ₹1,000 and lunch to show up. The crowd was necessary, the director said, to show how celebrated even the trials were, at least in public imagination.
The real rehearsal, however, was happening further inland: the rowers stood on both sides of an almost unmotorable narrow path branching out from the main road. Dozens of them surely came from outside Kerala. They were, after all, speaking in Hindi. It was all too modest, with no sign of a pompous cultural festival. Yet, the spirit in the air was lively.
A bunch of people shifted large bags of rice and vegetables into the cramped kitchen inside a house nearby. Some others fixed a large tarpaulin sheet, which functioned as a rudimentary shelter outside the house in order to shield the vegetables from a monotonous drizzle. Every waft of monsoon breeze spread the aroma of the popular Kerala dish that was being prepared: beef mappas.
It is in this divergence—between the public imagination and the social present—that one has to find the current status of the Nehru Trophy Boat Race.
At the heart of things, it is a labour story. The snake boats are highly labour intensive. They are usually 100-foot long and carry over one hundred oarsmen. The race originated from Jawaharlal Nehru’s fascination, which was fuelled by the massive crowds he witnessed while paying a visit to the backwaters in 1952. The story goes that the locals had arranged a spectacular boat race to mark Nehru’s visit and the performance got him so excited that he also jumped into a boat along with the rowers. Once back in Delhi, he donated a trophy to hold the race every year, which became the annual rolling Nehru Trophy.
While most of the boating clubs largely depend on local patrons and the state for funds, the organizers have, for some time now, been airing concerns regarding rising costs and the unavailability of decent rowers among youngsters who are willing to participate in an age-old tradition.
The commercial logic
The Champions Boat League (CBL), a series of 12 races that starts with the Nehru Trophy race, is based on a simple logic: more races result in more excitement. Spreading the event over a longer period of time and multiple venues will lead to higher revenue generation opportunities for the organizers.
The top nine clubs from the Nehru Trophy race will participate in the CBL. The clubs are auctioned to franchises, followed by a player auction, just the way it is done in the IPL. Out of the auction price, 50% goes to a company floated by the state to organize the event. One-third of the remaining 50% goes to the boat owners, who are mostly a bunch of rich landlords in the backwater belt. The CBL will go on for three months; and if all goes well, the players are expected to earn about ₹50,000 per month, which is far higher than what they receive as of now, if they receive any pay at all.
If the CBL becomes successful, it would not only save the boat clubs from spending a bomb to organize the Nehru Trophy race every year, but would also herald significant societal change, believes K.A. Pramod, a boat race enthusiast and executive committee member of the CBL.
“Rowing boats is no more close to people’s livelihoods. Earlier, for many living alongside these backwaters, their income depended on rowing boats. So, they enthusiastically participated in a boat race. Today, it is something for which people will have to sacrifice their income, and also be willing to take leave from their jobs for 30-45 days," he said.
“Typically, 75% of the rowers come from Kuttanad and their family income is usually below average," explained Saju Jacob Malayil, the patron of United Boat Club (UBC), one of the oldest participants in the CBL, and also a key stakeholder in a multiple-cup winning snake boat called “Champakulam Chundan".
“If you take the No.1 rower in our club, he is from a below-average income family. His daily income of ₹1,000 reduces to zero when he is coming for the race. How is it sustainable unless we can at least match his daily income?" he asked.
Such calculations apart, Saju, a native of Kuttanad, has taken a long leave from his firm, Indian unicorn UST Global’s US office, in order to be a part of the races this year, which also shows the emotional landscape behind these races.
“Since it is part of their life, many will still come. But it is not financially sustainable and people will simply leave one day if they don’t see any revenue coming. What the CBL is trying to do is transform the race into a premier sports contest and pivot it as a global tourism event. The race has to somehow become something serious rather than (just) a hobby," said Pramod.
However, it is still quite a task to get rowers from the younger population, experts say. Aided by its near 100% literacy, the second generation of a large chunk of the rural labour supply within Kerala has shifted to the non-farm, urban service sector.
Over the years, the boat clubs have found a way out—by filling the void with migrant labour. The search for outsiders also has the added benefit of getting trained professionals. The supply has been so large that the government had to enforce a cap (25% of total rowers) for migrants. “We have a network of agents who connect us with boat clubs now," said Narendra, a native of Assam and an army man posted in Hyderabad, who is participating in this year’s race. “They come looking for kayaking and canoeing champions. Mostly, they end up with army men like me."
The start of a new era
George Thomas, who popularly goes by the name Vakkachan, lost part of his index finger in a freakish accident on the sidelines of a previous Nehru Trophy Boat Race. “We are bonded by blood to this sport," he said, sitting inside the house next to the training ground, marked by the tarpaulin sheet that hangs outside. The veteran is now the lead coach of UBC, and has rented the house for a month to prepare rowers for the CBL.
UBC, one of the oldest racing clubs in Kuttanad, is making a big gamble this year as a result of the CBL. It has hiked its budget for the season to ₹65 lakh, its highest, and is conducting a residential training programme for rowers for a month, a first.
“Earlier, this was a people’s sport. Youngsters would beg to get into a racing team. Now, we need to go begging after the youngsters. Do you see anyone watching our trials? Even the spectators for the movie sets had to be bought," Vakkachan said, referring to the movie shoot.
He then went into a little reminiscing about the yesteryear. “Every ward used to take turns to host the rowers while we were training. We would feast on the spicy beef roast and fish curry as soon as the boats reached the land."
“Nowadays, the son of a fisherman is perhaps a medical representative. And that son takes extra care to send his kids to a school so that his children don’t end up as a blue-collar worker. Those people don’t like sending young men in the family for boat races," he said. “Rowing has also become a lost art. People used to go everywhere rowing a boat in Kuttanad. Now, even boats with a single person have an engine to run it."
Someone suddenly made a noise from the outside and Vakkachan got up. They were ready to sail out for the day’s trials. Soon, the snake boat sped away from the shore like a bird. Like any other race, it was a battle between the flesh and the spirit. Each zealous splash made by the oars shone through the tranquil surface of the river. A little distance behind, a passenger boat ferried refreshments as well as some curious onlookers. There wasn’t much that they could do to get spectators on the shore. Crows cawed and squirrels bobbed across the empty green on the shore.