Kochi gets back Indira Gandhi Boat Race after 27 years, courtesy CBL

Ending a hiatus of 27 long years owing to various reasons, the Indira Gandhi Boat Race in Kerala’s commercial capital is all set to stage a comeback this weekend, thanks to an innovative endeavour by the state government.

The ongoing Champions Boat League (CBL) is slated to hold its fifth round in downtown Ernakulam on October 5, giving the city’s cosmopolitan crowd a peek at the region’s celebrated legacy of water races locally called vallamkali.

The Indira Gandhi Boat Race (IGBR) at Marine Drive is not exactly a traditional festival, given that it owes its name from the country’s prime minister after her death in 1984. Yet IGBR had always the potential to function as a heritage event, considering that Kochi is an ancient city not alien to the culture of boat races and that the city has always had people of different ancestries from across the world living together.

Kochi has colourful memories of the inaugural edition of IGBR with late Indira Gandhi’s son, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, reaching the venue as the chief guest. Malayalis of that generation continue to cherish the image of the young PM, along with his wife Sonia Gandhi, draped in ethnic mundu-veshti and set-mundu for the occasion. Their standing together in that off-white dress had been an enduring photo splashed by the print media.

The grand start notwithstanding, the IGBR soon tapered. Within years of it start, the race ceased to be annual. The random editions went on to be held till 1992, after which there has been a break till date (barring a couple of boat races but not under the IGBR title).

This October, though, will mark a turning point in IGBR’s history. That’s because of the CBL, being rolled out by Kerala Tourism on the lines of IPL cricket. Of the 12 races of the 2019 CBL featuring nine snake-boats, the Kochi leg will be held along a 960 meters stretch of the backwaters along the first Goshree Bridge and Marine Drive boat jetty.

The organisers are busy setting up a temporary pavilion at Marine Drive even as the CBL boats are slated to reach the city from the previous venue of Piravom, 32 km east of here. That event, on September 28, gave a similar boost to the 1958-launched Piravom Boat Race which had suffered a similar bout of breaks and was last conducted in 2015 after a major gap.

The idea behind the CBL (www.championsboatleague.in) is to professionalise the snake-boat races that are largely scattered across the state, according to Mrs. Rani George, Secretary, Kerala Tourism. “While doing so, we keep their conventional spirit intact.”

Kerala Tourism Director Mr. P Bala Kiran, terming the CBL a “game-changer”, notes that the competition has hotted up over the past four editions. “Every micro-second at the race counts now,” he adds, noting that the Piravom race, too, had a photo finish like the third edition at Karuvatta in Alappuzha district.

If the races at Piravom were uniquely upstream (the Moovattupuzha river), the heats and finals at Kochi CBL will be on plain waters in a shallow stretch of the Arabian Sea.

Mr. K Rajkumar, Joint Director, Kerala Tourism, notes that villages around Kochi have the tradition of boat races soon after the monsoon. “Besides Piravom, we have Champakkara, Poothotta and Gothuruth holding vallamkali in Ernakulam district. They mainly organise races of smaller traditional boats like odiand iruttukuthy,” he reveals. “At Kochi CBL, the star attraction will be the long snake-boats with 100-odd rowers in each of them.There will be competition for small boats and kayaks as well.” As for the gallery, the main one will be along the Marine Drive walkway besides a few at the jhangar rafts. “Preparations are going on hectically,” he adds.

The Kochi CBL leg will also host a variety of other entertainment activities like popular music by the famed Avial and a local band of college students, besides staging traditional programmes like Chavittunatakam, Kathakali, Mohiniyattam and Velakali.

“Overall,” says Mr. S Vijayakumar, Secretary, Ernakulam District Tourism Promotion Council, “the event is going to be memorable.”

The CBL, which was inaugurated alongside the illustrious Nehru Trophy BoatRace in Alappuzha on August 31, will conclude amid the President’s Trophy Boat Race at Kollam on November 23. All the 12 races (in six districts) are on Saturdays.

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