On a mild December afternoon in Kolkata, eight men on horseback are tearing around on a patch of turf within the city’s racecourse, swinging mallets and jostling as they try to put a white ball past the goalposts on either side of the field. The motley group at the Pat Williamson Ground—the polo field at the Royal Calcutta Turf Club—includes a young diamond merchant, the ageing scion of one of the city’s illustrious families, a newly minted graduate, a school boy and a strapping army officer.

Mounted: Players rehearse at the Royal Calcutta Turf Club opposite the Victoria Memorial. Indranil Bhoumik / Mint

The riders, all members of the Calcutta Polo Club (CPC), which claims to be the oldest in the world, are practising for the Kolkata polo season which started on Thursday and will end on Christmas Day. “CPC is trying to give back to Kolkata polo the pre-eminence it enjoyed," says Anant Bangur, a member of the club’s managing committee. His father Keshav Bangur, a city industrialist, is the club president.

“CPC had become almost defunct before Keshav Bangur took it over," says club secretary Cyrus Confectioner. “The club organized its first full-fledged tournament in 2006, after almost a decade." This year, 25-30 players from outside West Bengal and 10-12 CPC players are participating in a series of exhibition matches as well as the Carmichael Cup, the Ezra Cup (instituted in 1880, it is the oldest) and the Polo Masters trophy.

The CPC was established in 1862 by two British army officers, Major General Joe Shearer and Captain Robert Stewart, after they saw locals in present-day Manipur play a game on horseback called Sagol Kangjei. Captivated, they initiated their countrymen into it and the sport of polo has not looked back since. Today, it is played in the UK, US and South America, especially Argentina.

In India, following its “discovery" by the British, polo was adopted by the princes and the British Indian Army and developed into a sport for the country’s elite. It is, however, still played in its original form in Manipur and in the Turtuk area of Jammu and Kashmir, as well as in the Gilgit-Baltistan area of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. “In Turtuk, for instance, there are practically no rules and it’s a mad free-for-all, with as many villagers joining in as possible," says Lieutenant Colonel Shakti Singh Rathore, an Army Service Corps officer who served in the area and had the opportunity to play with the locals. A player with a plus 2 handicap, he is currently the secretary of the Fort William Riding and Polo Club in Kolkata.

While a lower handicap indicates a better player in golf, the reverse is true for polo. “While countries like Argentina have players with a handicap of 10 (the highest), the best Indian players are at 6," says Rathore.

The handicaps are decided at the beginning of every season by a four-member committee which looks at the number of goals a player scores, his effective play, stickwork, riding ability and sense of anticipation.

As it happens, the Indian polo fraternity was looking forward to playing against an American team in Washington, DC in June but that may well be called off now. The man who was instrumental in making that happen—by arranging for the Indian polo team to play in the America’s Polo Cup in Washington—was Tareq Salahi. Yes, the same gent who is in a spot of bother over gatecrashing a recent state dinner at the White House hosted by US President Barack Obama for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. “I think the match is off after what happened," says Major Ravi Rathore, secretary of the Army Riding and Polo Club in New Delhi.

According to Major Rathore, six-, eight- and 10-goal tournaments are considered medium-level meets, while 12, 14 and 16 are considered high-goal events. “In a 10-goal tournament, for instance, the combined handicap of the four players should not exceed 10," he explains, adding that he has a handicap of 4.

At the Pat Williamson Ground, 15-year-old Nikhil Poddar, the youngest member of the CPC, goes over his game with senior players and club coach Narpat Singh, a former soldier with the army’s 61 Cavalry regiment. “I am quite hopeful of playing at least four matches this season," says Poddar, who studies in class X at the Lakshmipat Singhania Academy. He took to riding a year and a half ago, after Anant visited his school as part of the CPC’s outreach programme.

“Barely two-three of my schoolmates responded, but if he went now, I’m sure he would get at least 20-30 applicants," says Poddar, patting his horse Class Action, a gift from his father.

Polo has traditionally been the sport of the royalty, the army and the rich. To change this and rid the game of its elitist image, the CPC has embarked on an ambitious programme. “If polo is to make a comeback in Kolkata, then we have to broadbase it," says Anant. “We are approaching schools to allow their students to attend sessions where they are introduced to riding, free of cost. If they want to pursue riding, they can do so at a nominal cost of Rs3,800 for a two-month course."

The club has already approached many schools such as La Martiniere, MP Birla Foundation and Kendriya Vidyalaya-Fort William.

“Polo, or riding itself, is expensive and if we want to take it to boys from middle-class families then we have to make it cheaper," says Harsh Vardhan Dugar, who has been riding for 15 years and owns two former racehorses—Bravo and Blast. “That is possible only when corporate sponsorship comes in."

Not only is riding equipment expensive but players have to maintain a string of ponies. Typically, a fresh horse or pony is required for each of the four or six chukkahs (rounds) in a polo match. “That makes it a minimum of 32 horses for every match unless ponies are doubled (used in more than one chukkah), depending on their fitness," says Lt Col. Rathore.

He agrees with Dugar that apart from the army’s patronage, corporatization is the only way for the game to not just survive but also thrive. “I joined the army with the sole intention of riding, but today’s youngsters have the option of turning professional and playing for many large companies that have decided to field teams," he says.

The Oberois, the Jindal group (Naveen Jindal is believed to own 50 horses and fields his own polo team), Sona (the steering company) and Crompton Greaves have traditionally fielded teams. These companies not only bring in professional players from overseas, but have also spawned a new breed of young professional polo players in India. “Most of them are sons of army officers who learnt to ride on army horses and used the advent of private companies to turn professional," says Lt Col. Rathore.

One such player is 27-year-old Simran Shergill, whose father served in the army’s 17 Poona Horse regiment. “I was fortunate that I got the opportunity to learn and play polo at a very nominal cost," says Shergill (handicap, plus 4), who plays for Jindal and feels more youngsters need to be brought into the game for it to thrive. “The only way that is possible is if big companies come forward in a big way to support polo," he adds.

This year, for instance, Jindal has brought Shamsher Ali, a player with one of the highest handicaps (6) in India, who now plays on the professional circuit in Argentina and Brazil. “While groups like the Oberois, Crompton Greaves and Vikramaditya Singh (owner of the Royal Kashmir team)...have left the field, others, such as Jindal, Elevation (a real estate company), Equisports (and) Jaipur Polo Company...are trying to carry on the tradition," says Ali, 26, who is playing in India after three years and whose grandfather held the finance and home portfolios in the government of the erstwhile nizam of Hyderabad. “There are players sitting around with no teams to play for. There are few sponsors, (and) only one polo field (in Delhi) is used every day during the season."

Ali feels there has been no improvement in the situation since he left for South America in 2005 and he does not believe that attempts to broadbase the sport will succeed. The nature of the game requires a certain degree of affluence, he feels. “If you want to play serious, professional polo, it requires a lot of money," says the owner of 25 horses.

Poddar, meanwhile, is looking forward to playing his first tournament and hoping to encourage more of his classmates to take up the sport. A sign of the changing trends in polo.