We’re told that attaining perfection in anything requires hard work. Look at these eight men mounted on their respective horses, long mallets in their hands. The elegance, the balance. Now comes a four-ounce ball in their midst. Everything here, this visual poise, is the very picture of perfection. What remains hidden from view, however, is the amount of hard work these players have had to put in to achieve this perfect balance. But all this doesn’t last. Soon, the game begins, and this 300-yard pitch begins to look like it is in the eye of some storm. Gone is the poise and the balance. And now begins this theatre of dynamism that is the sport of polo.
We know that the players battling it out in the middle have had hours of relentless practice day by day, month by month and year by year, in order to attain the levels of physical strength, athleticism and mental acuity that polo requires. But let’s not forget that polo is not about you as a player, for it is a team sport: a team sport that you can win only if you have the right partners, and more importantly, the right horse. “A player needs to be in perfect sync with his horse. We practice daily for hours just to get the perfect understanding of the beast.
For these horses are not just animals, but athletes that run, turn and stop at the command of the mounted player,” says Raghav Rao a Delhi-based professional polo player.
Cities like Delhi and Jaipur, over the years, have become famously big on the royal sport of polo, attracting more on more youngsters to the game sometimes called the “king of sports”. Today, these cities play host to serious polo tourneys, with clubs and semi-pro teams fiercely competing for top honours. “Polo in India has four basic seasons,” says Akhil Sirohi, another pro polo player living in Delhi.
“Jaipur hosts the first season in September, while Delhi hosts games in October and November. Jodhpur and Kolkata together host the December season. Then the game returns to Jaipur in January and to Delhi in February and the spectacle can be witnessed during March in Mumbai.”
The origin stories of the sport of polo are somewhat brutish in nature. There’s one theory that holds polo was the game played by conquering kings in vanquished lands, with severed heads of fallen soldiers used as a ball. But the sport in its present, more civilised form was revived by the British in pre-Independence India.
The popularity of the game quickly escalated from there onwards, as the Brits took the sport back to England where it even today enjoys mass appeal and a major
“I started riding two years ago and have very recently started learning polo. On starting, I realised how this sport in spite of having an Indian origin story lacks any sort of following here. It’s either the army or the royal families of India that have given patronage to this game and are keeping it alive,” says Soniya Singh of Empress Polo which organised the Sawai Man Singh Cup at the Jaipur Polo Grounds in Delhi last month.
The sport is so underrated in this country, that India only has 60 active pro polo players till date, according to Singh. “You can understand how bewildering it is that we have to get players from outside to play for us and that is when we made the world realise that this sport exists,” says Singh.
There are several reasons why this sport has been so neglected here, the most significant having to do with the expenses involved. Every player ideally needs to have eight horses. “The cost of acquiring and keeping a horse is huge. Average monthly expenditure to maintain these horses can go into lakhs. Add to that the medical and transportation expenses and you will see for yourself how costly polo can be,” says the polo pro Raghav Rao.
Over the years the game has gained a decent enough following in Indian cities, with more people now willing to actively play or at least watch the game. However, polo still remains a rich man’s sport. Attending a polo match is no less then attending a star-studded gala. The stands are usually filled with people wearing high-end designer clothes and accessories out of the latest issue of Vogue magazine. There’s expensive wine and cheese. Enough to keep your average middle-class wage earner away.
“Polo can never be a popular sport as the costs involved in this sport are huge, I pay Rs 7,000 a month just to learn horse riding and the expense of a coach plus the expense of owning the gear and so on,” said Manisha Kohli a Delhi-based amateur polo player.
“Another reason that deters the masses from taking up this sport is the high risk of injury. Polo is said to be the world’s second most dangerous sport after F1. Polo is like golf during an earthquake.”
There are also other aspects impacting the sport’s mass appeal. “Another reason that deters the masses from taking up this sport is the high risk of injury. Polo is said to be the world’s second most dangerous sport after F1. Polo is like golf during an earthquake. Because it’s not just the ball one needs to worry about, but also maneuvering the horse. And all of this needs to be in sync,” explains Raghav Rao.
Polo, though not popular in India, overall does enjoy its fair share of popularity in Jaipur, Rajasthan. “The general gathering of spectators in Jaipur during a match is huge if you compare it to any other city in India — the numbers run into thousands at times, which is not the case anywhere else,” says professional player Akhil Sirohi.
The sport continues to be played today, and didn’t wither out and die over the years, is because of the patronage it has received from the royal families of India and the Indian Army. These two communities alone have preserved the sport for over a century now.
In India, polo is generally governed by the India Polo Association, which is under the umbrella of the Indian Army, with General Dalbir Singh being its current president. While the 61st Cavalry being the custodians of the sport. The IPA is just like the BCCI in cricket, i.e .it is responsible for the tournaments and the players ratings along with all the other managerial aspects of the sport.
Almost 15 of the 31 polo clubs in India have some connection to a royal family today. This royal connect can also be witnessed at any tournament across the country, where the stands are usually graced by some royalty or another. The match in Delhi witnessed a similar spectacle for the Princess Diya Kumari of the Jaipur royal family was there to support her son H.H. Maharaja Padmanabh Singh of Jaipur, who didn’t just play but was adjudged the “Most Valuable Player” of the match.
But what’s holding polo back is the conspicuous lack of proper training and coaching avenues and limited sporting infrastructure.
“Thailand has two or three polo clubs and in a matter of three years these clubs have become big enough to hold international matches. We can have a similar deal in India if we can increase the awareness about the sport. Tell me have you ever seen a polo match being telecast on TV? So, you can understand we need to work really hard to restore the glory this game deserves,” says Soniya Singh.
Some observers believe that the commercialisation of the sport may be the answer. “The Army has done a lot to preserve and carry forward the game, but I think leagues like we have for cricket, football, kabbadi and all the other sports can be a good way to take this sport forward. The Army does not have unlimited capital but the open market does offer that opportunity,” an Army polo player, who didn’t want to be named, tells me.
A lot of corporate teams and sponsors can in fact attend and participate in serious polo tournaments, but that is not enough. “Over the years the disposable income of people has increased so the problem of polo being an expensive sport is no longer a reason as several companies are even sponsoring
players,” says Soniya Singh.
So is it realistic to look forward to an era when polo games are telecast live, and when hoardings of a Polo Premium League are mounted on our major city squares? Perhaps not. The elitist appeal of polo yet remains one of the sport’s USPs, and if youngsters are beginning to get curious about polo, it has a lot to do with the aspirational value and the glamourous chic that surrounds it. And let, by all means, the glamour remain.