Kabaddi has changed since the advent of Pro Kabaddi. A sport once played on the mud had little glamour attached to it. There was negligible television broadcast and limited media coverage.

With Pro Kabaddi, the setting of the sport was shifted to highly equipped indoor sports stadiums, a synthetic mat with a web of television cameras capturing every angle of the action.

With the growing popularity of the league, kabaddi has become more than just a means to get a job for the players. Their incomes have soared, their popularity is at an all-time high. Pro Kabaddi has changed the way the sport was looked at.

The impact though isn’t limited to players and coaches. It has reached all members of the community.

“I was once waiting for a bus in Mumbai when a boy came and asked me for a selfie. He told me he had seen me on TV during Pro Kabaddi and was delighted to meet me. I never thought this would ever happen to me. It was a special feeling,” Aarti Bari, one of the leading referees in Pro Kabaddi, told Scroll.in.

Referees enjoy a fair bit of screen time in Pro Kabaddi and that has helped them gain their own popularity in the five years of the league’s existence.

Mumbai-based Bari, a kabaddi player herself, used to do scoring in local tournaments after her playing duty was over. She later became a full-time official by passing a district-level exam only to stop officiating in 2003 to look after her young daughter.

She returned to officiating in 2011 but wasn’t part of Pro Kabaddi until 2015 as she missed the selection trials for the first two seasons. However, she has been a regular since joining the league in season three and has also officiated in tournaments like the 2016 Kabaddi World Cup, 2017 Asian Championships and last year’s Asian Games in Jakarta.

Manaswini Sahoo, officiating in just her second Pro Kabaddi season, too has her own fan base back in her home state of Odisha.

Waiting in a bank queue to deposit cash, the bank manager after recognising her, invited Sahoo to his personal cabin and asked a sub-ordinate to get her job done. Since then she’s never had to stand in bank queues. All thanks to kabaddi.

Every referee in Pro Kabaddi has an improved lifestyle now. The change is fascinating but it has come after a lot of hard work. Officiating a game of kabaddi that is so quick and relentless is a mighty task. A small playing area, multiple action points and quick culmination of play mean everything happens in a flash. The referee has to arrive at a decision within five seconds. A correct decision is a par for course, but a wrong call is a failure. Refereeing in any sport is a thankless job, but the dynamics of kabaddi make it a lot harsher.

In Pro Kabaddi, refereeing is still a simpler task than other state-level and national-level kabaddi competitions. There are more officials to help the referee to arrive at a correct decision in Pro Kabaddi.

A total of seven officials operate on the mat. The referee is the supreme authority who ensures all rules of the game are properly followed. Then there are two umpires who have the responsibility of decision-making. Then there are the line umpires who assist the umpires in all the matters with regards to the different lines on the mat. Two assistant referees are deployed on two benches to control the entry and exit of players onto the mat.

There’s also a team of scorers working in the background, one doing the manual scoring and the other looking after the electronic scoreboard, and a timekeeper.

Despite such bifurcation of roles, a kabaddi referee has to invest a lot of time off the mat to perfect each job.

Getting match ready

The referees usually arrive at the ground at least an hour before the match. However, they’re only made aware of their exact roles in the game half an hour before it starts.

“This is to avoid any chances of corruption that could possibly happen if roles are assigned in advance,” Rana Ranjit Singh, one of the senior-most officials in Pro Kabaddi, told Scroll.in.

“After we get our roles, we try and take our positions on the mat and practice our actions. The aim is to get a feel of the surroundings before the match begins. This is very important as in Pro Kabaddi there is a lot of noise. Also, the lights and cameras put additional pressure.” he explained.

Referee Rana Ranjit Singh during the toss before a Pro Kabaddi match

Rana was initially a long-distance runner in Bihar and also won a 26 km-long race in his state in 1993. He had also represented Bihar in the national athletics championship in 1989 in the 1500m event. He only took to kabaddi after completing his bachelor degree in physical education and played the national championship for Bihar in 1998 and 1999.

He began officiating in 2002 and has been on the Pro Kabaddi scene since the inaugural season.

Decision Making

The pace at which kabaddi is played makes decision-making a tough job. With the court congested with players, getting a clear view of the action is also sometimes difficult.

With umpires present in all four directions in Pro Kabaddi, getting a touch right seems a fairly easy task, but it’s anything but.

“Among the officials on the mat, we usually have enough information to give the right decision, but sometimes you just can’t be exactly sure with the light touches. However, hard you focus, there are times when you just cannot get into the best possible position to observe,” said Mohammad Azam Khan, a Pro Kabaddi referee from Rajasthan.

Khan started playing kabaddi in school against the will of his father. However, he was able to change his opinion after landing a job through sports quota in BSNL in 2003. He began officiating at the national level in 2008 after passing AKFI’s exam and has been in Pro Kabaddi since season three.

In kabaddi, the players usually admit touches themselves quite often, but the referees need to make their own decisions and cannot rely on players. They believe this honesty in kabaddi can only be safeguarded if their performance is good.

“Players are honest and admit the touch, but we can’t rely on them to make a decision. We need to make decisions based on our observations. It is important for fair play. I feel the honesty element in kabaddi is great, but it is our responsibility to safeguard it by giving the right decisions. The player must feel obliged to put his hand up when there’s a touch or be prepared to be called a liar later,” Khan added.

Over the years, referees have developed their own cues to make decisions when they don’t have the best view of the action.

“Player’s facial expression tells us whether he has had the touch or not. Nowadays the players are a lot smarter, but there are certain cues that they can’t stop giving out. When a player has been touched, his first glance will be at a referee. This is a highly testified observation by referees over the years and almost always holds true,” Bari reveals.

Training and recovery

Officiating under pressure takes its own toll, so does dealing with criticism. Thus, the referees are given ample opportunities to rest. They are divided into two groups that officiate in alternate legs allowing them time to recharge their batteries. Splitting them into two groups also ensures referees reach the venue on time and no transport delays can affect the matches.

They also perform regular meditation sessions in the morning that help them deal with the stress of the job and improves their concentration.

With modern broadcasting, the job of a kabaddi referee has added dimensions. It’s no longer enough to understand and implement the rules of the game.

“The signals and gestures to indicate the result of the raid needs to be correct. We have been advised by our technical director to continuously practice those in front of the mirror even if we get comfortable with it,” said Soumya Saravanan, a referee from Tamil Nadu who’s making her debut in Pro Kabaddi.

The signal for one point awarded to a team in Pro Kabaddi

“Our hands must be in right angles while signaling the points. The direction of the arm must point towards the right team. It seems to be an easy task but, in the stadium with all the lights and sounds, we can go wrong if we don’t practice.

“Facial expressions are key especially with the cameras around. We have to look energetic but at the same time show no emotions on the face when we are announcing points. It may be perceived as a bias towards a particular team,” she added.

Saravanan is a karate tutor back in Ponneri district of the state. She has a black belt in karate and has played the sport at the national level. However, lack of future in the sport forced her to take up kabaddi. Initially reluctant to take up officiating as it would prevent her from playing the sport, she eventually decided to become a referee foreseeing a brighter future in the job.

Pro Kabaddi’s broadcast elements mean the referees have received training through special workshops to be camera-ready. Apart from the gestures and facial expressions, voice is another key element.

“There are regular workshops for improving our voice. We are referees and the responsibility to control the game is on us. So, our voices must be strong. The trainers have given us exercises that we have to perform every day,” said Sonam Sehrawat, a referee from Haryana.

“We are all from different states. Our pronunciations differ. But when you are on camera there’s a need for uniformity. Pronouncing the team names right is very important. For example, you can’t say Tu-mil Thalaivas, it has to be Taa-mil Thalaivas. Wrong pronunciations can cause controversies, so we’ve had to practice those very hard to get it right,” she added.

Sehrawat is the only referee from Haryana in Pro Kabaddi. Even though the state is the highest contributor to the league in terms of players, officials in the state are few and far between.

Sehrawat, who represented her state in four national championships as a player and three as team manager is the first to make it big as a referee. During her debut season as an official in Pro Kabaddi, she had to leave her three-month-old daughter back home to realise her dream.

High female representation

Pro Kabaddi is one of the few sporting leagues where female representation is quite high among the referees. With no league for the women, officiating comes as the best opportunity to gain from kabaddi’s revolution.

(From L-R) Soumya Saravanan, Manaswini Sahoo, Aarti Bari and Sonam Sehrawat

The league has provided the profession of kabaddi officiating a bit more respectability. An occupation that wasn’t regarded very highly even among players now has a future.

“Earlier, we had to travel without reservations, sitting beside toilets in trains to reach the venue even for big tournaments like national championships. All referees were given one small room to stay in. There was very little reward financially. But now we are traveling in flights and staying in five-star hotels. Most importantly, we are getting fame. I never thought this day would come in my life,” reveals an emotional Rana who’s known by the name “TV-wale Sir” among his students back in Bihar.

Having officiated for almost two decades, he is reveling in his reward. And why not? The referees are seen on TV every day, even the biggest stars playing in Pro Kabaddi don’t have the honour.