In this picturesquely verdant village, some 30km outside Kolkata, a lone man sits in a tiny hut made of bamboo strips nailed together and hacks away at a hunk of bamboo root.
Soon, a rough round shape emerges from the moss-ridden substance and a dying art suddenly gives life to a polo ball—made in the only such factory believed to be left in the world by the only man believed to still make them.
Ranjit Mal, the only remaining worker at Baug’s factory. Those who once worked alongside have moved on to other jobs
S.C. Baug & Sons, manufacturer and exporter of traditional bamboo polo balls, made its last big shipment in 1993—more than 7,000 balls sent to the UK. All the other makers have closed shop and sales have now hit rock bottom.
But still, proprietor Subhas Chandra Baug is hanging on to hope: a new management at the Calcutta Polo Club hopes to push polo among the city youth and there are renewed efforts across the country to grow the civilian player base.
It wasn’t always this bad. In the 1970s and 1980s, Baug’s company exported more than 100,000 balls annually to countries such as the US and Argentina. Today, a lucky year sees just over 3,000 balls sold and that, too, for practice sessions.
The British introduced polo to India in the 1870s, although historians trace its origins to Persia and China 2,000 years ago. The Indian Polo Association was formed in 1892, and by 1900, India boasted 100 clubs and 5,000 registered horses. Bamboo balls were the balls of choice for most of the century, even as the sport’s popularity dwindled.
The death knell came in the form of fibreglass polo balls, boasting a uniform weight (135gm) and longevity. Worldwide, bamboo polo balls began to be passed over, despite being cheaper at Rs20 each, compared to Rs150 for fibreglass.
Baug earns around Rs60,000 annually from the balls alone, and supplements his income selling paan, or betel leaves, and coconuts, ubiquitously grown in Howrah, a fading industrial district where Deulpur is located. But he refuses to give up. “Mine is the only company that manufactures bamboo balls, and there will always be some demand,” he says.
Originally called Baug Brothers, it was set up by his grandfather, one of the 70 people in Deulpur who started manufacturing bamboo balls at the turn of the last century, soon after the world’s first polo club was set up in Kolkata in 1861. Back then, people took their polo so seriously that experiments conducted showed bamboo balls outlasted the wooden ones in use.
Like polo players, fellow manufacturers lost their belief in the balls and moved on to other businesses. For instance, Baug’s brothers today do zariwork—or embroidery—on saris and other women’s apparel, and sell coconuts.
Arindam Malik, who worked on contract at Deulpur till a few years ago, moved to the Calcutta Polo Club to work as general handyman when his job and income in the village dried up. Even as recently as 15 years ago, there were still 150 people employed in the last three Deulpur factories. A recent book—In The Shadows: Unknown Craftsmen of Bengal by Payal Mohanka—includes the experiences of the polo equipment industry here.
Polo ball-making has historically been a labour-intensive business. Once bamboo is cut, stumps are left in the earth for a year to become cylindrical in shape. After being dug out, they are cut into two halves and chiselled round and smoothed down with sandpaper. Each is measured and weighed—and rejected if a slightest bit is off.
Today, one worker remains—Ranjit Mal, a 55-year-old father of three who has been keeping the trade ticking at Baug’s factory under a feeble electric light for the past two decades. He earns an average Rs3,000 monthly, or about Rs10 per ball.
Those who once worked alongside have moved on to other jobs or fallen sick.
And that could be why the new generation sees no future in the century-old family trade. Baug’s nephews—one an information technology grad at the National Informatics Centre in New Delhi, another at a research institute in Ahmedabad, have already opted out, and his 13-year-old son Gautam, in class IX, dreams of following his cousins into other professions.
Baug concedes the business has brought him in close contact with people he would never have known if it weren’t for polo, such as Jindal Steel and Power Ltd executive vice-chairman and managing director Naveen Jindal.
But it’s not the chance to rub shoulders with top business leaders that goads him to stay open—Baug still believes in bamboo, and he thinks there will always be others like him.
“I’ve talked to some foreign players, and they say their horses find it difficult to keep pace with the fast moving fibre-glass balls,” he says. As long as he keeps manufacturing these balls, he believes he’ll always find customers.
Regular customers include the army, a stickler for tradition still using bamboo balls. Last winter, with the return of the Kolkata polo “season” (the word is a misnomer as it’s just one month between December and January), the Calcutta Polo Club witnessed a revival after a decade’s inactivity. Club member Arun Saraf said he is confident this winter will stoke interest among youth.
Saraf says it’s imperative to have civilian players popularize the sport; the club has started lessons for college and school students at Rs3,000 a month with the five horses in its stable. Students trickle in, though practice sessions have been rained out recently.
Things could look up in September when the sky clears, says the club’s sports secretary Cyrus Confectioner. Posters promoting the sport are being dispatched to elite schools, including those for girls. “It’s an equal sport, and girls will be playing against girls,” he says. “But first, they have to learn how to ride horses.”
The emergence of privately owned clubs has contributed to a renaissance in Indian polo in recent years, in cities as Mumbai, Jaipur, Delhi and Hyderabad. Companies are sponsoring leagues, while polo holidays are fashionable.
But local officials say winning over Kolkata, as the birthplace of the sport, is key. Saraf says he received 15 emails in June from students with queries on polo lessons. The club plans to bring foreign players for the next season in an effort to revive the sport.
And the club will be using bamboo balls from Baug’s factory. The eternal believer, Baug predicts: “Bamboo balls will make a return.”