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Verve People
June 28, 2016

Three Masters of Polo Talk About The Game

Text by Mita Kapur. Photograph by Ankush Maria

These three dapper exponents of the king of games speak about their tryst with — and passion for — the sport

Let other people play at other things; the king of games is still the game of kings. Polo, one of the oldest sports known to man, is magnificent, regal and magnetic — and commands attention with lush green fields, strapping riders on horseback galloping at a thrilling speed, powerful swings of the mallets and the rush of adrenalin when a goal is scored.

From 3100 BC, several tribes in the villages of Manipur regularly played a version of polo. Documented proof of the king of games, however, goes back to circa 600 BC in Persia; and it is mentioned by Firdausi, a poet of repute, in his Shahnama. There is evidence of polo being played in China under the Tang dynasty around 584 BC. The game spread through Asia Minor to reach India.

Emperor Akbar was known to have silver and gold knobs fixed onto his mallets. Known as chaugan since Babur’s time, the game was also called pulu. The Mughals continued to patronise it, both in play and in art — there is a painting that depicts Jehangir playing with his son Prince Khurram, later known as Shah Jahan.

Indian maharajas of numerous princely states also took to the game; among them were the Rathores of Marwar (Jodhpur). Polo almost dropped off the radar with the end of the Mughal rule in India, but survived in Manipur and Gilgit (now in Pakistan). The British sought to institutionalise it as a sport. The first European polo club was registered at Silchar in 1859. A new set of rules was formulated, keeping in mind the safety of the players and horses. The oldest surviving polo club in Kolkata was founded by Joseph Shearer in 1862. Polo began to be played in England in 1869. In India, in the 1870s, the princely state teams were formed — Patiala and Jodhpur were two of the main teams. It became a way of life because of the subculture it spawned and because it was also played regularly among army regiments.

In the 1930s, India had more than 20 teams that boasted over 25 to 30 goal-scoring levels. Maharaj Narendra Singh of Jaipur, one of our top players currently and a proud father who is grooming his son Padmanabh in the sport, says, “I started playing polo at the age of 33. I was encouraged and inspired by my late father-in-law, Brigadier H. H. Maharaja Sawai Bhawani Singhji (MVC) of Jaipur. Polo is commonly thought to be a glamorous sport; and though this is true, one needs to realise that it is also a fast-paced and dangerous sport which has to be taken seriously.”

“Shriji Arvind Singh Mewar (Udaipur) is mainly responsible for bringing together civilian and international players for his team. His son-in-law, Lokendra Singh (a former captain of the Indian polo team at the World Cup), is perhaps the first professional player in India,” says Colonel (retired) K. S. Garcha, an Arjuna Award winner, who has played in over 30 countries, having captained the Indian team in the 1990s.

Meet the new players….

Kuldeep Singh Rathore

He dropped out of Hansraj College, Delhi to follow his dream — to play polo professionally. Kuldeep started playing while he was in the 10th grade. “I loved horses and polo always thrilled me. As a sport, it’s unparalleled. It’s not about the lifestyle that comes attached with it. For me, it’s always been about playing the sport,” says the first polo player from within his immediate family.

“But, it became tough for me as most polo players either come from an army background or follow a strong family tradition.”

The 25-year-old started playing polo in 2009. “I picked up nine horses with my father’s help. Now at a +2 goals handicap, I’ve played in England, China, Thailand and Zambia. I work my horses, school them for two to three hours and practise with the stick and ball, but a major chunk of my time goes into managing the whole set-up. You can work your horses only up to a point.

“In India, we have strong roots, but not the right approach. The set-up and the infrastructure for the sport can’t compare with those in Europe. They sell it in a better way, we are laidback and there’s no initiative to attract sponsors. We have some fantastic talent and we need the support to keep playing well.”

Kuldeep is realistic and doesn’t deny the high that playing polo gives him. “I like it! Horses are synonymous with royalty and luxury, and only a few people have the luck to play the sport. It’s a privilege! The whole rough, macho image of the game gives us an edge. I learn a lot while travelling for the game too, it has a certain romance to it.”

On the subject of romance, he says, “I was dating a Spanish girl but we decided to go our separate ways. It was a practical and mature decision since I can’t shift to Spain and she didn’t see a future for herself here.”

Pratap Singh

The boy from Kanota started playing polo while studying at Mayo College, Ajmer in the eighth grade. “I’ve been riding since I was five years old and would watch polo with my grandfather…my sheer passion for polo was a strong pull for me.”

Post a five-year gap to complete his hotel management course, Pratap returned to professional polo in 2013. “I came back to help friends train their horses, bought some of my own and started playing. The challenge these days is that if you don’t have your own horses, no one will mount you. You need a minimum of four to six thoroughbred horses per player. Some sponsors do import polo ponies from Argentina or England but generally Indian horses are used. It’s very important to ride all your horses and practise hitting the balls while riding them. We play practice chukkers in Jaipur or in Delhi for about an hour and a half, depending on how many horses I have to work on, on a particular day, and this has to be systematically done.

“It’s a thrill, an addiction for me. The plus point is also that this game doesn’t have an age limit — all we need is the stamina and practice to play. Most of our top players are in their 30s or early 40s,” says the 28-year-old exponent of the game.

His grandfather, General Amar Singh of Kanota, was a polo enthusiast and the General Amar Singh Kanota Library & Museum houses many books and old manuscripts that document his involvement in the sport. ‘A Rajput who reads will never ride a horse’ is brandished as a proverb in these parts of the country, but he read and wrote prolifically, and also rode his horses. From 1898 to 1942, he kept a diary and wrote in it every single day — save for one day when he’d fallen off his horse and was unconscious. Pratap states, “There are so many books and photo albums on polo in our library and museum at Heritage Castle Kanota. I have proper stables and space in Kanota to care for my horses, and I give them regular practice.

“Polo is played all over the world — I’ve played against clubs in Jamaica and Thailand. Travel adds to the allure of the game, it’s exciting in so many ways. The historicity of the game gives it its magnetic pull, I guess.” Pratap echoes Kuldeep’s concerns about lack of infrastructure and energetic sponsor support towards the sport: “Thailand has better facilities. Resources are significantly important.”

He smiles when I ask him about being chased by girls, “I’m out of that circuit, so to say,” says Pratap who recently got engaged. His fiancée hasn’t seen him play a tournament yet, though.

Vishvaraj Singh Bhati

When you call Vishvaraj Singh Bhati on his mobile, the ringtone plays an old number, The Strawberry Roan, where Marty Robbins croons, ‘Get your saddle, I’ll give you a chance’. He started playing polo while in Mayo College, Ajmer in the 10th grade. His uncle Lokendra Singh is a professional polo player and his inspiration.

Fortunately for 22-year-old Vishvaraj, his boss, Ankur Mishra (the owner of Central Academy, a chain of schools in Jaipur), is also a keen polo player and has his own set-up. “I manage his yard, and on the side I buy polo ponies, train them and sell them to support my own game.”

Home is where polo is. Vishvaraj says, “My life moves in whichever direction polo is being played; I am not from anywhere in particular. Summers are spent playing the sport in England or in Argentina. Playing in Argentina has been the best experience so far. Their horses are exceptional, and playing there for two months has helped me to evolve more vis-à-vis playing in India for a whole year. Handling a yard is a lot of work apart from playing practice chukkers (chukkas). I try to stay on horseback as much as I can. I need to practise and develop my handicap to get ahead from the present +1.”

Having played abroad, Vishvaraj feels, “We’ve been left behind: skill levels and facilities are better outside where it’s cheaper to maintain horses. Here you have to be really loaded to be able to do so.”

He, like the others, agrees to the aura polo has around it as a sport, “It is a royal sport but what captures my interest are the horses and playing the game itself, not the fame and glamour which comes with the package. I do enjoy it, I admit, but that’s not the reason why I took up professional polo. The cultural heritage of the
game does induce the halo it has — a spark which has remained alive for so many centuries.”

As far as the romance in his life goes, Vishvaraj has not found anyone yet. He claims to be wedded to singledom. “I’m not ready for serious commitment. It’s only polo for me at the moment. The sport does have a romantic touch — it’s a dangerous game that is regal.”

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