The hooves of the stallions pound the ground, churning dust in its wake, as the riders enthusiastically finish their evening routine. Leading the charge is 15-year-old Asna Nahri along with her riding school companions, Hrithikesh, Advait, Ilakkia, Irum and the youngest of the lot, seven-year-olds Pranitha and Prakhar Chubey. They are members of the Chennai Riding and Polo Club (CRPC) that meet after school every day to improve their riding and striking skills.
Three years ago, Asna’s father Junaid Nahri, a polo player and enthusiast, set up the CRPC, which is spread over roughly six acres in Kelambakkam and trains its own horses. It’s clear that the winds of change are sweeping, as the modern version of the royal sport, which once had its bastions in Rajasthan, is emerging across other Indian cities such as Chennai, Bengaluru, Hyderabad and Kolkata.
Modern polo traces its roots to India but remained restricted to cities such as Jaipur, Jodhpur and Delhi, where access to stabling and infrastructure has enabled the game to thrive. Now, far away from the Aravallis and the thronging audience, the sport bankrolled by patrons is making its presence felt in unlikely cities where chukkars (duration of a play in a polo match) are being redefined.
In Nizam’s land, businessman and polo enthusiast Chaitania R Kumar has been actively promoting the game for the last few years. In 2005, Kumar founded the Hyderabad Polo & Riding Club (HPRC). “For six months of the year we would play polo in different cities and the other six months we were free. We decided to improve the infrastructure and by 2013 HPRC had a floodlit arena and a polo area with 1,000 members to boot,” beams Kumar. Since then, local interest in the game has grown by leaps and bounds. Compared to the four-five players who played in 2013, the club now boasts of 30 young players. “Even if one turns professional, that is good for the game considering there are only 150 professional players in the entire country,” quips the 40-year-old, who organises the annual polo season in Hyderabad.
While Kumar’s credentials may be relatively new, Nawab Mir Khutubuddin Khan’s polo heritage goes back four generations. The latter, along with his three sons, is part of the team NASR Polo, which
has a riding facility of the same name in Hyderabad. The club offers training in riding, dressage, show jumping and trains its own horses. His son Mir Mohammed says, “There were 17 polo grounds in Hyderabad but the consequences of Operation Polo (annexation of the Nizam-ruled state in 1948) resulted in the loss of these grounds and the game faded away.” Mir recalls that his great grandmother played for a women’s polo team called the Golconda Fairies. He claims the game is building up in Bengaluru and Chennai where there is a strong army support while Mumbai gets the credit for glamourising polo.
In recent times, polo has been an army-led game as majority of the infrastructure, namely grounds and stables, is controlled by them. The horse-mounted unit of the Indian army, the 61st Cavalry, has produced some of the finest polo players. “The army rears and breeds quality horses with stud farms located in Uttar Pradesh and Haryana,” elaborates Buchi Prakash from Chennai, a prominent yesteryear equestrian.
While Chennai is not unfamiliar with the sport, lack of infrastructure led to its rapid decline. Prakash, who once had the highest handicap (a player’s rating based on their abilities) from south India, recalls polo matches being played inside the Raj Bhavan grounds in the 70s and 80s. “During chukkars, deer would interrupt the game. We would wait for them to go away and then play would resume,” says Prakash, who has played across the globe with top notch players as well as royalty such as the Sultan of Brunei in 1981. The army by virtue of controlling the grounds controlled the game in Chennai. “For some reason, the Officer’s Training Academy (OTA) saw fit to deny its grounds for polo, sending the game into an eventual decline,” he rues.
Businessman Irshad Mecca and polo veterans, A C Muthiah and Kishore Futnani, who runs the Chennai Equitation Centre, have also been instrumental in resuscitating polo in Chennai. Two years ago, the trio had joined hands to organise the Polo 2.0 tournament. The initiative opened a small window of hope for a game that was not being played for the last three decades in Tamil Nadu’s capital. With growing attention from educational institutions such as Hindustan University, which has a horse riding facility, the wave is only increasing.
But in Bengaluru the credit for popularising polo goes to the armed forces along with the Agram Riding and Polo Academy (ARPA) which is attached to the Army Service Corps Centre and College. Colonel Faiz Siddiqui shares, “Polo began picking up here in 2010. We had teams coming down from Delhi and Hyderabad. ARPA opened its doors to civilians and as I practiced, I was joined by 15 students. Later we began to play in tournaments. Players like Afsana Naidu and Pranav Kapoor who I have coached are doing well. Pranav’s rise in polo has been almost meteoric with him even becoming a part of the Indian polo team.”
Bengaluru was also in the news recently with Fouad Mirza winning a silver medal in the equestrian event at the 2018 Asian Games, a feat which was last achieved in 1982. Mirza’s victory is a huge boost for equestrian sports in India. “Rather than regarding it as a hobby, polo will now be treated as a profession,” echoes Silva Storai, Director of Embassy International School, where Mirza trained.
It’s important to note that the rise in numbers has been contributed largely by the new format of the game—arena polo—played on a much smaller ground compared to the original match which needs 12 acres. “Newcomers like the arena polo format. They find it enjoyable. The ball is bigger and it is less dangerous. Polo is otherwise a serious game and it takes time to understand it completely,” explains Col Faiz.
The trend is catching on in Hyderabad, Bhavnagar and Jaipur, which are hosting arena polo tournaments. According to Kumar, playing the original game is a logistical and bureaucratic nightmare. The idea, however, is not to change polo but to create a bridge to bring new players on board, says Col Faiz who enjoys a +2 handicap.
The game has also been making galloping progress in cities where it didn’t have a nodding acquaintance earlier. Gujarat, for instance, might never have featured on the polo map were it not for the efforts and contribution of Bhavnagar-based businessman Chirag Parekh. Encouraged by Jaipur-based businessman Rashmikant Durlabji, Parekh started to play polo in 2005 and by 2010 he had founded the Bhavnagar Polo Club. What fuelled his aspiration was that he had been told Gujaratis could not play polo. “I attended my first polo tournament in Delhi and I remember being nervous.
The ball hardly ever crossed my path. Six tournaments later I managed to score two goals,” recalls the 49-year-old. Many tournaments and many more goals later, Parekh saw fit to give a new face-lift to the game by hosting The Gujarat Polo Cup in April 2018. It was a curtain raiser to the Champions Polo League (CPL) which held night-time matches with a customised polo ball at a new polo ground. The three-day affair saw more than 10,000 people in the crowd. Well-known international as well as Indian players were seen at the event. Parekh seems to have passed on the passion for the sport to his younger daughter, Ashley.
“A small percentage of women are playing polo in India and I pride myself on being among the youngest of the lot,” says the 15-year-old. But Parekh bills polo as a rich man’s sport which is why he is throwing his weight behind popularising cycle polo, where horses are replaced by bicycles. Amit Khanolkar, manager operations and marketing, CPL, says, “In March 2018, the Federation Cup Men’s Cycle Polo Championship was held at Bhavnagar attracting an audience of 7,000. It garnered a place in the Golden Book of World Records as the only cycle polo match with the highest attendance. Parekh’s vision is to develop cycle polo at grassroots levels. Hence, we are targeting schools and colleges within a 15-20 km radius from Bhavnagar by holding training camps for both boys and girls.”
On a similar vein, Kolkata businessman Keshav Bangur helped revive the game in the City of Joy when he took over as the President of the Calcutta Polo Club in 2005. Started by British soldiers Captain Robert Stewart and Major General Joe Sherer between the years 1861 and 1862, the club holds the distinction of being the oldest in the world.
The club’s 150th celebrations in 2011 provided the right opportunity for Bangur to bring back the lost glory by hosting the Ezra Polo World Cup at the Pat Williamson Ground in Kolkata. “I persuaded the West Bengal government to provide land for polo which they did,” claims Bangur, who has donated 15-20 horses to the club. He has been actively promoting the game among the Kolkata youth.
“I want them to familiarise themselves with the language of polo, just like cricket where kids understand most of the sports terms. We want them to at least come and watch. We are reaching out to schools and have subsidised the rates for polo lessons,” says Bangur, who was only five when he took to the game and once boasted a +2 handicap.
Interestingly, all the trainers at Calcutta Polo Club are from the prestigious 61st Cavalry of the Indian Army. Last year, the club held the Ezra Cup tour in Singapore and partnered with Schools & Universities Polo Association (SUPA) in the UK, which had 120 schools and universities playing for the cup.
As more youngsters saddle up to play polo, it appears as though the sport rather than being confined to certain pockets is riding off across the nation.