Carrom and ‘vada’ Chennai: all about debunking stereotypes

KK Harini draws the striker towards the carrom board’s baseline in a pattern that represents a sine wave.

The ninth grader, who is seated on a plastic chair, shifts slightly to her right to check for body balance. But she needs to be careful; any disturbance to the chair will be called a foul.

Harini settles in her position — her body straight, her frame looking down upon one of the carrom men in black. The coin, the striker and her body are all aligned to the net pocket at the far end of the board.

She pauses, and without a waver in her transfixed gaze, pulls her index finger back and lets rip. The striker does what its name implies; the wooden piece that it struck at just the right pace and angle, glides across the board — dispersing tiny particles from the coat of fine white powder that covers the surface — before taking its final leap into the pocket.

KK Harini (R) and Pradeep Babu (L) testing their skills on the board at Maria Irudayam’s academy

“It is not just concentration that you require. Carrom is a game of the body and mind,” says Pradeep Babu, 29, another player in the room; his remark alerting Harini to our presence.

League of legends

We are at an inconspicuous space on Naval Hospital Road in Periamet — a room without a view, if you will — where tens of aspiring and professional players take turns every day, and all through the day, to indulge in a common passion. Strike that. Carrom, for the boys and girls, and the men and women here, is an emotional and social investment.

The facility is maintained by the 63-year-old former two-time world champion, A Maria Irudayam. The only carrom player ever to be conferred an Arjuna award by the Government of India, Irudayam’s name has come to represent the sport for many Indians, who only read about it in a newspaper occasionally.

Former world champion Maria Irudayam

There is a story from the early 1990s that succinctly details Irudayam’s infectious enthusiasm. In 1993 — two years after he was first crowned world champion — he was indulging a friend in a casual game at the latter’s house, when he noticed that the friend’s sister enjoyed pocketing a piece or two on the board. He took her under his wing, and taught her to prefect her technique.

Two years later, G Revathi travelled with Irudayam to Sri Lanka, where Irudayam won his second world title, and she walked away with the same honour in the women’s division.

“This area (Periamet) alone has around two dozen former district and national champions,” says Irudayam, proceeding to reel out names of those who inspired him to take up the game, “…there was Dilli, Vincent, Bangaru Babu, Varadaiah, Saathalingam. They were legends.”

Fight for recognition

For all its significance, however, carrom remains an unpopular sport in a country which prides itself on the many privately-held, money-spinning leagues it conducts for sports like cricket, football, kabaddi and badminton.

Representation, mainstream or otherwise, has not happened for carrom. Even when it was featured in director Vetri Maaran’s film Vada Chennai (2018), where the protagonist is someone who plays carrom, it did little to help improve the sport’s popularity.

Unlike chess, there was little to no money involved in the sport during Irudayam’s heydays, though he adds that it has improved marginally.

“When I won my second world title, I remember I came back from Sri Lanka with just my medal. At the same time, Viswanathan Anand returned after his match with [Garry] Kasparov (a game the former lost) to a red carpet welcome,” adds Irudayam.

It is this lack of representation and knowledge, despite carrom boasting more than a handful of talents and champions who were groomed in the many dingy by-lanes of Chennai, that pushed advertising professional Satish Ganapathy to film a documentary titled White Slam: The Agony and The Ecstasy, which chronicles the known stories (like Irudayam’s) and the many other unknown ones from the streets of North Chennai.

Satish Ganapathy

A chance meeting with Irudayam just over a year ago prompted Ganapathy to take up this project. “I realised there is tremendous interest in the game and that this sport has churned out more than 50 champions, all of whom are Chennaiites,” he says.

True grit

While filming the documentary, Ganapathy visited a coaching centre in Tondiarpet.

“It was this dingy place with a makeshift plastic roof, and I saw kids as young as five and six turn up as early as 5am. I found their dedication amazing; these were children from disadvantaged neighbourhoods. They all had that sparkle in their eyes,” he says.

The coaching centre is featured in White Slam (which Ganapathy intends to take to film festivals), and is run by an auto-rickshaw driver.

“He told me that his wife scolds him for spending his earnings on running this place. But I could see that it is his passion. He just wants the children to survive. He told me that they should become champions so that they could get into better schools and colleges or land a job,” Ganapathy adds.

A still from the documentary, White Slam

Yet, says Irudayam, the quality of carrom players produced by Tamil Nadu in the last decade has dipped considerably. “2010 was the last time we (TN) produced a national champion,” he says.

One reason, among the many he cites, is the lack of regular tournaments and sponsorship.

“It is why junior players quit their playing career and take up coaching. Players who land jobs in public sector companies under the sports quota are more or less like regular employees now. They are not encouraged to keep playing by their departments,” says the retired Air India employee.

A still from the documentary, White Slam

While Ganapathy hopes that shining a light on the sport’s prevalence in this tiny pocket of Chennai to an international audience could influence change, he is more convinced of the determination exuded by its patrons, including overcoming the stereotypical understanding of their status as a North Chennai resident by the privileged sections.

“When I spoke to Maria about it, he told me that it is similar to playing the game. Say, the opponent has only one piece to pocket, and you have all of yours left on the board… it requires grit. It is not only about the balance of mind, body and the steadiness of your fingers,” Ganapathy says, adding, “There has to be courage. They have it in bucket loads, and that is why carrom is so popular locally.”

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