The flamboyant game of polo had been around for more than a thousand years in various forms until its modern version originated in the Indian state of Manipur. Chiefly associated with debonair princes and the elite class, the British Raj’s glamorous pastime had few takers with the average sports enthusiast, despite the thrill of the charge and the breathtakingly risky partnership between horse and man.
In a country that worships cricket, the game was headed towards a steady decline till its magical revival a few years ago under the aegis of dedicated patrons and a new generation of players.
A polo match is exciting to watch even for those with little knowledge of the game. The swing of the mallet, a graceful flick of the wrist and the satisfying thwack that rings out as it connects with the ball. A blink of an eye and the careful congregation of heaving muscles is ripped apart in a thunderous ovation of hooves against the earth, as the riders surge forward to begin an intrepid chase.
Occasional injuries are commonplace and the rules are vital to regulate play that heavily depends on the agility and performance of an animal.
The field is 300 yards long and 160 yards wide, the largest in any organised sport. Each team has four players. Games are unbelievably fast; consisting of six “chukkers” of seven minutes each. There is a three minute interval between chukkers. Play commences as soon as the mounted umpire bowls the ball between the players who line up opposite each other in the centre of the field. The objective is pretty simple – hitting the ball between the goalposts no matter how high in the air.
Each player is rated on a scale of minus two to 10, based on crucial factors like horsemanship, team play, hitting skills, anticipation and overall understanding of the game. Perhaps this system is polo’s bane as well. There are only a handful of 10 goal players in the world. The most decorated players in India -Shamsheer Ali and Simran Singh Shergill are six-goal players. The average fee of a professional is Rs50, 000- Rs75, 000 per week. But teams usually select the most handicapped players and amateurs ranking less than one often don’t get paid.
There are important responsibilities placed on each player. Number One is expected to score goals and carry out the offensive. This position demands self-control and fine stick work. Number Two is the “hustler”; he needs extremely manoeuvrable ponies with a zealous, aggressive nature. Number Three who plays quarterback is the pivot man and the tactical leader.
He has to be a long, powerful hitter, feeding balls up to One and Two whilst maintaining a solid defence. He usually hits the penalties and is undisputedly the best player on the team. Number Four is the back or defence and effectively keeps the opposition at bay. The player who last struck the ball has right of way and cannot be impeded by any other player.
Next to excellent playing skills the most important element is the pony. The polo pony is unique in combining the best traits of several breeds. Most are of thoroughbred stock and are provided with protective bandages on all four legs, with tails being braided to minimise interference. They can accelerate to amazing speeds and can navigate sharp turns with effortless ease.
In the birthplace of modern polo, the horse is not just a way of life but also a deeply beloved religion. Polo began its life through “Sagol Kangjei”, a form of hockey played on horseback. Introduced by King Kangba of Manipur, the game paid homage to rituals associated with “Marjing”, the Winged Pony God.
The City of Joy has a kindred connection with the sport. In 1861, Lt. Joseph Sherer and Capt Rob Stewart, two British officers, enraptured by the Manipuri game, established the Calcutta Polo Club (CPC), the oldest still in existence. In 2011, it celebrated 150 years, witnessing the presence of dignitaries and members of the fraternity from across the world. Its heritage stands as an embodiment of grace and panache.
Veterans like the spirited Col Maharaja Prem Singh who was vital in channelling the momentum needed to refurbish the ailing CPC after the Second World War reminisced on the effect polo had on the masses. “In no other place, do we find the vast throngs, sometimes running into lakhs that come to watch a match, when the leading players take part.”
Every winter outstation players would arrive to try their hand at winning the Carmichael Cup, the Ezra Cup, the IPA championship and the Darbhanga Cup. The grounds echoed with encouraging shouts and cheers for Maharaja Sawai Man Singh of Jaipur (the famous ‘ten’ goal player who led India to her only World Cup victory in 1957), Rao Raja Hanut Singh, Bijai Singh and others.
The Ezra Cup, the first ever polo trophy is named after David Elias Ezra, a leading Jewish business tycoon who patronised the sport in the city. The first Ezra Cup was held in 1880 and the Ezra Global Tour was recently launched in Singapore.
When the charismatic Gayatri Devi was once asked by a newspaper what attracted her to Calcutta, the Maharani replied, “During my early years here, I would often go riding along with my brothers… my brothers and even my husband used to be avid polo players. My mother would throw some of the lavish parties at Woodlands during the polo season.” Incidentally, she first met the Maharaja of Jaipur in the Pat Williamson polo grounds during a match.
In the glory days of Bengal, polo was a passion for many. The fierce Bengal Tigers toured south-east Asia and Australia in 1979 and it was the Calcutta team which won the Centenary Gold Cup in 1961, played every 100 years.
Royal patronage was prolific during the British Raj with the Maharaja of Burdwan, Maharaja of Cooch Behar, Nizam of Hyderabad, the Prince of Wales and the Sultan of Brunei among the towering personalities who visited in the winter season.
While polo continues to appeal to the illustrious celebrity brigade, such coverage is essential for the sport to survive. It is an ingrained perspective to visualise socialites engaging at the race courses over the exploits of different teams. A commitment to polo is inevitably characterised by a love for the horse. Corporations and sponsors are pouring in however, lured by the luxury connect, even though its deemed necessary for a good player to own 6-10 horses and each can cost up to 10-15 lakhs on average.
In Kolkata, as in the rest of the country a new energy is stirring within the community. The game is harkening to the rallying cry of fresh blood with young players like Padmanabh Singh (19 years), Siddhant Sharma and Pranav Kapur (both 25 years) setting the grounds ablaze. CPC alone has over 2000 players taking up riding this year with more and more gravitating towards the sport.
With the ambitious Champions Polo League being inaugurated last year and initiatives like the Summer Tino being organised at the grassroots level by clubs like CPC, it’s more than likely that in time the sport will rise to its bygone grandeur.
The club is also in talks with different schools with a view to building school polo teams. Perhaps the ‘Game of Kings’ will now be a game of the people, celebrating one of the most astoundingly dangerous and exhilarating displays of finesse, courage and teamwork doubled with ground shaking excitement and incredible stamina.