I join the stands in the middle of the game at Calcutta Polo Club with riders tearing down the field, their mounts in full gallop. At times, all four hoofs of a horse are off the ground while sometimes, they stop short and turn on a dime. I quickly appreciate how dangerous this game can be. Because of the speed, the sheer weight and force of the horses as the rider bends, takes aim and swipes with the long mallet to send the ball sailing towards the goal post. They make a mad scramble for the small white ball, striking from the side, propelling it forward or backward and passing it flying to a teammate or sending it hurling down the field, but the ball mostly ricochets or becomes a mis-hit.
But this story isn’t about the excitement of watching all this. It is about the humble village of Deulpur, in Howrah district, Kolkata- accessible by an easily eroded series of pathways, from main road to cemented drive to smooth dirt and finally into the village that manufactures these bamboo balls for polo players around the world.
A solitary man sits in a minuscule hut made of bamboo strips nailed together. It seems like a shed in a village like any other, except that it is not. The man hacks away at a hunk of bamboo root with his kathari, sending chips flying around him. Soon, a rough round shape emerges from the moss-ridden stump he is chiselling. And a dying art suddenly gives life to a polo ball—made in the only such factory believed to be left in the world by the only man believed to still make them.
Originally called Baug Brothers, the factory was one of the five units which started manufacturing balls at the turn of the last century, soon after the world’s first polo club was set up in Kolkata in 1861. Ranjit Mal, the only remaining worker swells with pride when he talks of his thirty year stint at Baug Polo. “We were five units then- Das, Baug, Praful Hazra, Sufhal Hazra and another one. Balls were made for polo players for not only the 100 odd clubs in India but for all over the world-England, Australia, Nigeria and the Americas,” he recalls. “It was a thriving sport played by erstwhile rajas and their brood. I’ve never seen a game but they have been using the balls I make for over three decades now,” he adds. Every Indian polo enthusiast gloats about India’s sunniest polo season back then —the English summer of 1933 when the Jaipur team, led by the late Maharaja of Jaipur Sawai Man Singh, made a clean sweep of six major British polo tournaments.
Polo is known to have originated in ancient Asia—the Mongols are passionate about the game even today—but the earliest recorded polo game in India dates back to 1857, played in the state of Manipur, and soon spreading to the princely states of Delhi, Kashmir, Hyderabad and Rajasthan. “A polo ball is made of these bamboo jads,” says Ranjit, pointing to the ubiquitous bamboo trees, overshadowed by lush green jungle on the edges of algae infested ponds. This massive, solid bamboo rhizome, which is the underground part of the stem are from tropical bamboo species such as Guadua. Digging out these giant bamboo rhizomes is quite a job as they are all interconnected. “We call in an expert from Bihar-Rajender, who executes the job. He has the body of a bull and his biceps look like a brick shoved into a sock the broad way,” says Ranjit, chuckling at his own gibe. The rhizomes are then soaked in the Manna pukur beside the factory for 18-20 days. The balls carved out of these jads must be exactly three-and-a-half inches in diameter and weigh 0.15 kg. “I end up carving 18-20 balls a day. The balls are done after a double coat of white Asian wall paint,” explains Ranjit.
“The reason wooden balls were preferred over leather ones back then,” Subhash Baug, the third generation owner of the factory, chips in “was because when these wooden balls are thrown, the friction with the air produces a whistling sound which allows players to hear the ball coming, and thus avoid being hit by it.” Baug speaks briskly, stopping every now and then to spell out instructions to his worker. “You know, what sets my adrenaline kicking is the sound of mallet against our bamboo balls. It’s a sound I’ve been hearing since I used to accompany my grandfather to polo clubs for the sale of these balls. It’s perhaps the reason I’m still in business. In spite of diminishing popularity, of the balls. ”
Bamboo balls were the balls of choice until the last century, even as the sport’s popularity dwindled.Between forty and fifty balls were discarded during an average game; as soon as one was knocked off the field, a new one was put into play, to the point where around two dozen polo balls are needed for each match. Clubs like Calcutta and Hyderabad polo clubs used a hundred gross a season. Enough balls to make livelihoods of 150 workmen in Deulpur.
For many people, polo requires a very large financial investment. While the role of the Army must be acknowledged for sustaining polo through the lean phase, corporates have become the new royalty of India and much depends on their sponsorship. “A slew of polo aficionados across the world, none of them royal, are taking the sport of kings to new heights both as players and patrons”, says Keshav Bangur, the President of Calcutta Polo Club, in a recent press release. The two are inter-dependent, and in the contemporary avatar of the sport, these roles are often fused too, with moneyed enthusiasts putting their funds and themselves into the game. They are by no means aberrations; they reflect a worldwide trend and hold the prospects of the game in their wallets, if not their mallets.
However, the death knell for the polo ball makers in Deulpur came about 15 years back. Boasting of uniform weight and longevity, a new form of expertise called the fibreglass polo balls were introduced by Argentinean makers. Worldwide, bamboo polo balls began to be passed over, despite being cheaper at Rs50 each, compared to Rs550 for fibreglass ones. “Wooden balls aren’t very sturdy”, laments Baug. “Thetremendous force with which they are struck, chances are the balls may split and are badly battered after a few plays,” he says.
Arindam Malik, who worked on contract at Deulpur till a few years ago, moved to the Calcutta Polo Club to work as general handyman when his job and income in the village dried up. Even Baug’s brothers today do zariwork on fabric and coconut business on side. For other ageing craftsmen, there is twinge of sadness as they move to their new profession. Some to zari, mostly to agriculture. “What can be done? I need to have a good set up for my son who will be joining me in work soon,” says Arindam.
Meanwhile, a rider on the field raises his mallet and slices a ball, with none of the exaggerated flourish of his previous strokes, but with what seems just enough to do the job. The ball flies through the passage and hits the centre of a white wall. The game comes to a momentary halt as the riders stop for a drink of Gatorade and the umpire changes the battered bamboo ball.