New cars, tattoos: the lifestyles of India's kabbadi millionaires

In this photograph taken on August 30, 2019, players of Puneri Paltan hold onto India's Siddharth Desai (C), raider of the Telugu Titans, during the match between Telugu Titans and Puneri Paltan in the Pro Kabaddi League at Thyagaraj Sports Complex in New Delhi. -AFP

NEW DELHI - Siddharth Desai grew up in humble surroundings but now he's living the life of a millionaire sportsman, driving a souped-up jeep and taking selfies with fans -- and it's all thanks to kabaddi.

The ancient game has undergone a glitzy makeover through the Pro Kabaddi League (PKL), creating a new group of sports stars in a country traditionally obsessed with cricket.

Kabaddi -- which roughly translates to "holding hands" -- is a tag-meets-rugby contact sport widely believed to have originated in the South Asian nation thousands of years ago.

Siddharth and his elder brother Suraj Desai went from playing kabaddi in the dust in their village in the state of Maharashtra, to wrestling on indoor mats in front of a TV audience of millions.

"Even if you work for 50 years of your life, you will never get a financial benefit like you do while playing one year of PKL," the 27-year-old raider, the proud owner of an orange-and-black 4x4 off-roader, told AFP.

"Nobody knew me before season six but now people want to touch me, media wants to interview me. People want to take selfies with me."

The franchise-based professional league was launched by Star Sports in 2014. Players were auctioned, like in the hugely successful Indian Premier League (IPL) Twenty20 cricket tournament, with businesses and Bollywood stars paying big money players for their city or state-based teams.

Siddharth, who was paid $50,000 last season with U Mumba, was snapped up by Telugu Titans for a record $201,444 this year. Together with endorsements, kabaddi has made him a wealthy man.

The previously shy village boy now dreams of buying a new house where his parents and his married brother can enjoy the finer things in life.

"After the start of Pro Kabaddi everyone is looking at kabaddi at a career option," said Siddharth. "Now I like to go indulge in my hobbies which include playing the guitar and music. I will probably get a tattoo done."

Kabaddi is a highly physical sport that requires teams to collect points by sending a raider to the rival side to tag an opponent before returning to safety.

Traditionally, raiders chant "kabaddi, kabaddi" to prove they are only using one breath, although in the modern game they usually breathe freely.

Defending teams can also collect points by preventing the raider from escaping their half of the court, often with body-slamming tackles and vicious ankle-wrenches.

It's an entertaining sport for TV and promoters have completed the look with slick, Bollywood-style presentation of the competition and players off the court.

Keen to follow the glamorous IPL, PKL's organizers set about re-vamping the images of the players, who mostly hail from Indian villages.

"We groomed them, got them new haircuts and trained them on how to be on TV," PKL commissioner Anupam Goswami told AFP.

"We also made sure that the field of play looks slightly aspirational."

The success of the first few seasons led Chinese smartphone-maker to VIVO sign up as PKL's title sponsor in a reported $42 million deal.

The tie-up made PKL the second-largest league in India in terms of sponsorship money after the IPL, which also has VIVO as their lead sponsor. -AFP