For the men on horseback fighting furiously for the possession of a 4-ounce wooden ball at Kolkata’s Pat Williamson Ground, there’s been no gallery to play to.
Even the turf of Kolkata’s lone polo ground, overlooking the Victoria Memorial—one of the city’s most well-known landmarks—didn’t live up to the expectations of the three visiting teams playing in the BFL Corp Ezra World Cup 2011, which the Calcutta Polo Club won on Friday.
The grass was too dry, they say. The stands, largely empty. Most of polo’s royal patrons found greener, or more adventurous, pastures long back.
Equestrian essentials: Riding boots and knee guards.
But the mallet-wielding young men mounted on so-called polo ponies, most of which are thoroughbred racehorses, did not seem to care once they were on the field. Not an inch of the 270x150 sq. yard ground was yielded without a fight.
After their royal estates were subsumed, only a handful of the erstwhile royals continue to back the sport. One such is Gaj Singh from the erstwhile Jodhpur royal family. He’s in Kolkata this winter to celebrate the sesquicentennial, or 150 years, of the Calcutta Polo Club—the oldest in the world. But there weren’t too many others with such ancestry in the stands of the Pat Williamson Ground, once graced by the likes of Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Charles and the late Maharani Gayatri Devi.
For years, in fact, the Calcutta Polo Club was virtually defunct. It was only when Keshaav Bangur, a Kolkata-based businessman, took over the reins some five years ago that the club revived annual events. This year, it managed to draw teams from the US, Indonesia and Italy for its annual flagship, the Ezra Cup, one of the oldest tournaments in the world and the world’s first Polo Trophy, hosted annually since 1880.
Polo can no longer look to its royal patrons for support, says Bangur. “It’s beyond the means of most of these estates to back the sport.” The sport has found new patrons, though, according to Gaj Singh. “Availability of grounds is the biggest problem facing Indian polo,” says Singh—not lack of patronage. Besides companies such as Bangur’s BFL Corp. Ltd, Naveen Jindal’s Jindal Steel and Power Ltd and Sunjay Kapur’s Sona Koyo Steering Systems Ltd, which have fielded and backed polo teams, the sport has had a lot of support from the army.
Even though wars aren’t fought on horseback any more, the army still owns most of the polo grounds and ponies in India, according to Vikram Rathore, a former army officer, who is one of the Federation of International Polo’s ambassadors in India. “Without the army ponies, most of the tournaments wouldn’t have materialized,” he says.
Adapted by the British from pulu, a tribal sport of Manipur (the name got Anglicized), polo is bound to remain the preserve of the affluent in India, say aficionados. “The cost of owning and maintaining a horse is prohibitive (it could run into lakhs of rupees), and the army horses remain out of bounds for civilians,” says Tarun Sirohi, an army officer and the captain of the Indian polo team.
Carlos Gracida, captain of the team from the US, suggests a scope for revival. He says that in Argentina, the country that currently rules the world of polo, the sport has become popular among the masses to a great extent. “The young in Argentina are drawn to the sport because they can make a living out of it,” says Gracida.
In the country where it originated, though, polo remains a much diminished lifestyle statement.
On 25 December, Calcutta Polo Club, the winner of this year’s Ezra Cup, will play an exhibition match against the best four players drawn from other teams that participated in the tournament.
Photographs by Indranil Bhoumik/Mint
Archive images courtesy Calcutta Polo Club.