Shankarrao Salvi is not a household name. Far from it. The impact of his work for the sport of kabaddi though can be felt in every household that hosts a kabaddi player at any level in India, especially in Maharashtra.
When government jobs were reserved only for sportsmen playing at the international level, he lobbied extensively to provide jobs for kabaddi players even though the sport had no international presence. Salvi convinced leaders at the time that it was their duty to back a sport of the land. In times that followed, players took up kabaddi as it was a way to secure a job.
His time as a kabaddi administrator began way back in the 1950s when Salvi played the sport as a pastime. It was his oratory skills and not his game that caught the eye of Vasantrao Korgaokar, a prominent personality in the sport at the time. He decided to bring him into kabaddi administration. For Salvi, who was in search of a cause, a path in his life that he could completely dedicate himself was entrusted to him.
Complete dedication and devotion were virtues he had inculcated in himself since his time as a warkari (devotee of Lord Vitthal who embarks on a pilgrimage tour to Pandharpur). It was how he got his nickname ‘Buwa’ that translates to ‘religious leader’ in Marathi.
Unification of kabaddi
A visionary... he was quick to realise that kabaddi as a sport would only have a future if the various forms it was played in, in different parts of India were structured into a single sport with uniform rules.
The sport was called hu tu tu in Maharashtra and western India and was played with nine players on court. It was identified by the name Hu du du in Bengal, Chedugudu in the south and kabaddi in the north.
“One game, one federation, one association was his aim. He had a clear vision that the unified sport that he felt could become India’s most popular,” Prabhakar Walanj, Salvi’s colleague and co-founding member of the Amateur Kabaddi Federation of India told Scroll.in.
But Salvi’s idea was met with a lot of resistance from Maharashtra, his native state that refused to let go of hu tu tu. The case was similar in Gujarat. But in the rest of southern and northern India, the resistance was lesser and there was an inclination towards accepting Salvi’s proposal.
Formation of kabaddi federation
Eventually, Salvi’s relentless efforts and ability to conjure up a convincing argument prevailed. A national federation called Kabaddi Association of India was formed. It was decided that the new unified sport would be called kabaddi. It didn’t go down well with the proponents of hu tu tu who continued to resist.
“The name was a matter of big debate. Hu tu tu was the most popular among all variants but we felt it was easy to break the chant and sneak in a few breaths while saying it. In that aspect, we found kabaddi to be a better name,” Walanj said.
The name kabaddi originated in Punjab and was a corrupted version of ‘kaun bada’, a phrase that was often uttered in the circle style kabaddi where there was a one on one contest between two players after a touch was initiated.
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Mohan Dharia, a lawyer and a social worker who later went on to become a union minister was the president of the newly-found federation.
“Our aim was to organise more competitions across India, develop more players and get them registered with the local and national federations. Statistically, we wanted to make kabaddi the most popular sport in the country,” Walanj said.
Salvi was very particular about the functioning of the federation. He took great efforts to ensure national championships were organised regularly every year.
Getting political patronage
He understood that he needed financial support to conduct more kabaddi competitions and thus developed good relationships with political leaders.
“Initially, kabaddi was just a popular sport. It had no structure, and there was no money. But Buwa got political patronage for the sport. Buwa made politicians understand how the popularity of the sport could help them develop a connect with the masses. At the same time, the leaders were aware of Buwa’s dedicated work at the grassroots level and had no second thoughts about backing him,” Raju Bhawsar told Scroll.in.
After Dharia stepped away from kabaddi administration, he introduced Sharad Pawar to the federation. Salvi struck a potent partnership with Pawar. Most of the important milestones in kabaddi were achieved under their management.
“Buwa had the complete trust of Sharad Pawar. He could talk to him in a raised voice and would still never get Pawar angry. Till the time he was active, be it Pawar or Bal Thackeray or even Indira Gandhi, Salvi never needed to take a prior appointment to meet them. Such was the respect that he had earned through his work,” Ashok Shinde, another member from Maharashtra in Indian kabaddi team at 1990 Asian Games, told Scroll.in.
An organiser par excellence
Apart from possessing great inter-personal skills, Salvi was an excellent organiser. He had the vision back then that it was important to create a good atmosphere in the stadium to continue to attract crowds.
Often the national championships were held on big grounds with 4-5 courts active at one point. He used to order the construction of big galleries that would give the people a great view of the action.
“Organisation was one of his biggest qualities. He used to have the nationals on a grand scale. I remember the 1981 nationals in Sangli had a two-tier stand. I have never experienced such an atmosphere. It was crazy,” Bhavsar said.
Salvi knew very well how to catch the eyeballs of the masses. Using his political influence, Salvi managed to get big politicians to attend these competitions. In 1968, Indira Gandhi paid a visit to a national championship match. His efforts brought a sense of glamour to the sport.
Not just a man’s game
Salvi was a staunch advocate of women’s involvement in sport. Since the early days of the kabaddi federation, using his influence and the respect he had garnered among the state and district associations, he urged the members to set up women’s teams and hold competitions.
Many followed his instructions and despite the obvious challenges, were able to set up girls’ teams in junior and sub-junior categories. In the senior category though forming teams was proving to be a challenge.
“Women playing kabaddi wasn’t received well by society and those women playing it would find it difficult to get married,” Shakuntala Khatavkar, the first women Arjuna award winner in kabaddi told Scroll.in.
But Salvi was not one to give up on his ambitions. He then threatened local federations that they would be barred from state and national level selections if they didn’t manage to set up a senior women’s team.
The local administrators who had big respect for Salvi then dug deep and began convincing local leaders of influence to allow women to play kabaddi and also socially legitimise it. In 1955, the first women’s national championship was held.
Salvi didn’t stop there. He prioritised the safety and well-being of women during these tournaments. The best accommodation at the venue was reserved for the women players. They got personal calls from him urging them to participate.
“He went the extra mile to generate interest for the game among female fans by creating a separate section for women in the galleries. He created an environment where we felt comfortable,” Vasanti Satav, another former player from Maharashtra said.
Taking kabaddi beyond Indian boundaries
By the 1970s, Salvi had set his sights on taking the game beyond the Indian boundaries. Maharashtra’s team had toured Nepal in 1964 for exhibition games, but the first official international tour happened in 1974 when India toured Bangladesh for five test matches.
By the end of the decade, Salvi helped in the establishment of the Asian Kabaddi Federation in 1978 where Nepal and Bangladesh were members. Four years later using Sharad Pawar’s relations with Japanese authorities, he organised a tour to the country where the game was exhibited by Maharashtra’s men and women’s teams. Two years later Japan reported that they had established 62 kabaddi clubs there.
The tour laid the foundations for kabaddi’s inclusion in the 1990 Asian Games eight years later.
Read: How kabaddi, a quintessential Indian sport, became an Asian Games discipline
A life devoted to kabaddi
Salvi breathed kabaddi. He completely devoted his life to the sport despite financial struggles. To ease his woes, he was given a job as a public relations officer in a cycle company in Chennai by then union minister of heavy industries.
But after his request for a ten-day leave to attend the kabaddi nationals was rejected, he quit the job within a month. Later on, Sharad Pawar provided him with a job in Maharashtra’s sports ministry.
“He wore torn clothes at times, but he didn’t care. He survived on the grants he received during tournaments. All his life was invested for kabaddi,” Bhavsar said.
Salvi married at the age of 42, much later than the average age that men married at the time on the insistence of Walanj who managed to convince him to tie the knot after years of persuasion.
“Sharad Pawar printed the invitation cards for his marriage. He even hosted the wedding. Such was the relationship between the two,” Galang said.
Salvi died at the age of 75 in 2003 as the life president of AKFI. He didn’t live long enough to see kabaddi’s ultra-glamorised new avatar after the launch of Pro Kabaddi. Today kabaddi is played indoors in glitzy stadiums. Over 30 countries play the sport. Nothing would have been possible without Salvi’s selfless and tireless efforts.
“Kabaddi is Salvi and Salvi is Kabaddi. Without him, the sport would not have existed today,” Khatavkar said.
As a tribute to his efforts, his birthday July 15 is observed as Kabaddi Day in Maharashtra. For a man who spent each day of his life working for the sport, it’s the very least he deserves.