From royal past to a corporate present

From royal past to a corporate present

Although the roots of modern polo are in Southasia, until recently the sport's future in the Subcontinent seemed tenuous.

As the warm weather reaches across Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province, the 3700-metre-high Shandur Valley stirs from its winter slumber, to play host to a veritable anachronism. As the valley greens, tribesmen from near and far gather at the highest polo ground in the world, to be part of a colourful festival of music, dance and ancient sport. The main attraction of the festivities is the polo tournament, played under the light of a full moon between the traditionally rival teams of Chitral and Gilgit. The players observe rules set out almost 800 years ago by Ali Sher Khan, a descendant of Genghis Khan. The excitement generated by the skill, power and speed of this ancient game – one of the fastest in the world – is dramatically heightened by the energy of the gathered crowd.

Polo is one of the oldest team sports still being played. While the game's true origin remains a subject of speculation, many scholars believe that polo emerged from the harsh encampments of nomadic warriors in Central Asia, who are known to have domesticated wild horses more than 2500 years ago. The name itself is said to have come from the Tibetan word pulu, meaning ball. By the fifth century BC, as an elite cavalry under the Persian King Darius I marched across the steppe, the game was taken up as a training technique for mounted soldiers.

The first firmly documented polo game dates back to around 600 BC, between the Turkmen and Persians. Evidence of the strong popularity of polo in Persian society is widely attested to in surviving paintings and scholarly texts. Polo subsequently spread rapidly throughout Asia, from Japan in the east to the Byzantine Empire in the west, patronised by some of the greatest warriors of history, including Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan. Indeed, polo became an integral part of court life of that era. With the demise of those empires, polo too became humbled.

fin By that time, however, the Persians had brought the game to India. There, under the patronages of Sultan Qutb-ud-din Aibak and Emperor Babur, the game flourished, eventually becoming the national sport during the 16th century. Its popularity spread beyond the Mughal courts among the Rajput kings, whose descendents ended up as the patrons of the sport down through the centuries. But once again, with the demise of the Mughal Empire in the late 16th century, polo found itself bereft of royal patronage, and continued to be played only in remote village areas. I

n 1858, two British soldiers, Captain Robert Stewart and Major General Joe Sherer, witnessed a game similar to polo known as sagol kangjei being played by locals in Silchar, Manipur. Both officers were so captivated by the experience that they quickly introduced the sport to their peers. The following year, they established the Silchar Polo Club, followed by the Calcutta Polo Club in 1862, which remains the oldest active polo club in the world. Over the subsequent decades, polo spread throughout the British Empire, and is today played professionally in more than 70 countries.

Although today Southasian polo is largely confined to India, the game is still played in other countries of the region. Second to India in this regard is Pakistan. Beyond the country's distinction of hosting the Shandur Valley grounds, the Lahore Polo Club is also one of the world's oldest surviving clubs. There, the main grounds are named after Sultan Qutabuddin Aibak, the 13th-century ruler of Delhi, who died in 1210 when his horse fell while playing polo in Lahore. Elsewhere in Southasia, the origins of polo can still be found in Afghanistan, in a game known as buzkashi. In this, the national game in both Afghanistan and nearby Kyrgyzstan, riders use their hands to grab and carry the carcass of a goat or calf across a goal line. Finally, in Nepal and Sri Lanka, the polo scene has evolved to use elephants rather than horses, a twist on the game that was first introduced around the turn of the century as a novelty for rich tourists. The World Elephant Polo Association was formed in the early 1980s in southwest Nepal.

But the legacy of Southasian polo would be incomplete without particular mention of the princely kingdoms of Rajasthan, where the Rajasthan Polo Club is this year celebrating its 100th year. While the maharajahs long ago embraced the game with a passion that continues to this day, given the natural inclination for horse riding in the area, the game also earned an important patronage among the non-royal locals. The royal polo-playing families of Jaipur, Jodhpur and Udaipur have continued to make their presence felt in the polo scene in India, along with the prominent 61st Cavalry of the Indian Army, and a handful of highly skilled civilian teams.

Eight horses, eight mallets
A polo game is comprised of two teams of four players each, who compete on a field that is 300 yards long and 160 yards wide. The game takes place during seven-minute segments, called chukkas, and a full match is generally made up of between four and eight chukkas. Players wield long-handled mallets from horseback, and attempt to move a small white ball across a goal line at either end of the field. Each player on a polo squad has a significant role to play, although the responsibilities assigned to individual positions are interchangeable. Unlike many other team sports, polo allows both men and women to compete together on the same team, as well as a mix of professionals and amateurs.

While the success of a polo team depends on the skill of the riders, the horses are a critical part of any game. "Horses are the very essence of the sport," says Devyani Rao, a prominent Indian female polo player. "They look so beautiful on the field, and when you see a good display of horsemanship, it shows you what a horse-human team can do." The centrality of the horse in polo is also emphasised by one of India's most prominent players, Colonel Kuldeep Singh Garcha. "Everything in the world is still measured by horse power, because the horse, irrespective of the advancing technology, has left a tremendous impact on mankind," Garcha notes. "The sheer beauty, grace and speed, coupled with strength, sends the adrenaline rushing more than any other sport – which once led someone to say that polo is a disease, and the only cure is poverty or death."

Polo's fundamental rules are meant to ensure the safety of the riders and their mounts. Nonetheless, it remains one of the most dangerous sports in the world. Sawai Man Singh II, the last Maharaja of Jaipur and one of India's most notable polo players, died after a polo accident in England in 1970. More recently, the young heir of Jodhpur, Yuvraj Shivraj Singh, slipped into a coma that lasted several days due to head injuries after a fall in 2005. The experience of watching a game of polo is subsequently one of melding the players' courage, artistry and horsemanship, with a constant worry for their safety.

The excitement of a polo match begins to build the moment a spectator takes a seat overlooking the wide-open polo field. As the umpire throws the ball between the two teams, there is a sudden explosion of energy, as horses push each other and players begin swinging their wooden mallets. The energy on the field translates directly into the stands. As veteran polo player, Pradip Rao, suggests: "Despite its image of being an exclusive and niche sport, polo attracts many different kinds of spectators. There are those who are enthusiasts and come to see the game for what it is. Then there are those eager to experience the aura that polo exudes of past grandeur and royalty, and even those who just want to be seen. Either way, it is a must-attend event on the social calendar, with media shutterbugs eager to capture the glamour, glitz and aura of royalty."

Corporate polo
It is this perception of glitz that has both helped and hurt polo over the centuries – and, in truth, has come to define the sport. By hitching its own health to that of royalty and empire, polo has been able to ride high when empires were doing well, but has also repeatedly ebbed in sync with those empires. This symbiosis continued right into modern times. For decades, the game received significant support from the Indian Army and members of former Indian royal families. Nonetheless, as per the experience of centuries past, the popularity of polo in India was clearly on the downswing as the sun set on the British Empire.

Things have changed dramatically in recent years, however. The turnaround began during the 1990s, when the Indian corporate sector suddenly became interested in polo as a way of reaching the niche and lucrative crowd of polo aficionados. This led to an infusion of funding, and injected a whole new energy into Indian polo. But everything has not been set right. Pointing out some of the emerging contradictions, Pradip Rao says, "The increase of corporate sponsorship in polo has made the game more competitive and receptive, with a growing number of civilian teams. At the same time, it has done very little to raise the level of the game and increase the number of polo players that take up the sport professionally."

Devyani Rao agrees, pointing to the irony of polo's slow corruption by money and flashiness. "Polo is slowly falling prey to imitating only the lifestyle aspects," she says. "Rather than quality of the game, we are trying to match only the glitz and glamour." Likewise, Col Garcha says that, at the moment, corporate sponsorship is a "double-edged sword. It has brought in the necessary 'Vitamin M' [money], while at the same time the sport itself has taken a backseat. Hopefully it will evolve by itself and strike a balance in the coming years."

The Calcutta Polo Club (CPC) perhaps best embodies the paradox of polo in modern India. Far removed from the glitz and glamour, the oldest active club in the world is struggling to regain its glorious past. The club was once the hub of subcontinental polo, where several members of royal families and world-class polo players competed for prestigious cups. Then, as the sport itself fumbled with the changing times, the CPC's fortunes began to spiral downward, with fewer funds and crumbling infrastructure. In the last few years, however, the CPC's prospects have brightened significantly. First, club president Keshav Bangur, a polo enthusiast himself, spent a significant chunk of his own money to set the club back on track – improving the grounds, rebuilding the stabling facilities, purchasing and training horses, and putting together a professional team to conduct lessons. The next step was to engage the skills of public-relations consultant Khadijah Chowdhury, to promote the sport and club during the December 2006 polo season – the first official season to take place in nearly a decade. The public response was positive. Crowds first came in a trickle, out of curiosity. By the time the season ended, the Calcutta Polo Club was regularly enjoying a full house, for the first time in decades. While Chowdhury credits the success of the season to the club's own initiatives, she also believes that media support helped significantly. The December 2006 season was covered extensively in the sports sections of leading Indian dailies and television channels. This coming December, the CPC staff will be trying to match and build upon that success.

Grandeur and uncertainty
In the current situation, there is much optimism amidst the apprehension about preserving polo's legacy in India. Devyani Rao notes that the Indian polo team has done very well at recent World Cups, and that a new crop of players, including Hamza Ali, Vishal Chauhan and Rakshit Agnihotri, looks promising. Chowdhury points to the recent success at the CPC as indicative of the national potential the sport has to grow, but cautions that young, talented players need to be encouraged and provided with adequate training and facilities to raise the standard of their game to an international level.

The CPC is now offering a programme aimed at students, which has already attracted more than 25 new members since January. The Haryana Polo Club, in Gurgaon, is planning a similar programme. Angad Kalaan, captain of India's 2007 World Cup team, whose family owns the Haryana club, says that low-level promotion is exactly what Indian polo needs. While Kalaan acknowledges that corporate sponsorship has allowed for a crucial infusion of energy into the game, he emphasises that the sport's future in India will depend on new talent.

Over in Rajasthan, H H Gaj Singh, Maharaja of Marwar-Jodhpur and the founder of the Jodhpur Polo & Equestrian Institute, has been working persistently to reinstate Jodhpur as India's main centre for equestrian sports in general and polo in particular. In 1993, he restored the well-known Jodhpur team, which also included the young heir apparent, Yuvraj Shivraj Singh. In 2000, the Maharajah Gaj Singh Foundation renovated the polo ground in Jodhpur and also hosted two Jodhpur teams, along with teams from Kashmir, Delhi and one from Kenya.

The Garcha family, meanwhile, has made its presence felt in Jaipur, where the family's members have put their software fortune into creating a mini polo empire. Colonel Garcha, along with his son Satinder, has been instrumental is setting up the famous 30-acre Jaipur Riding and Polo Club, on the outskirts of Jaipur. The 11-acre polo ground, surrounded by a massive, 300-seat grandstand, is said to be only the beginning.

The current polo scene in India thus finds itself in a contradictory predicament. On the one hand, polo has historically followed the cyclical rise-and-fall of empires, feeding off the rich and royal. On the other hand, there is now a need to play to the galleries of a wider audience, to ensure the sport's survival in this post-imperial age. Abandoning the grandeur of the past and tackling the uncertainty of the future is now the challenge.

~ Fatima Chowdhury is a freelance journalist based in Calcutta.

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