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Thursday, January 27, 2022

Know Your City: How badminton was born in Pune as a pastime for bored British officers, their wives

The first informal set of rules of badminton — initially called 'Poona' – were formed in India by the British colonists in 1867. Later, as the British officers took the game back home, it acquired the name of Badminton after the country estate of Duke of Beaufort.

Written by Atikh Rashid , Dipanita Nath | Pune |
Updated: December 19, 2021 8:11:48 am
An illustration from Badminton rules published in 1883. The drawing shows eight persons - gents and ladies - playing the game.

In March 1873, an English sports lover sent out a request to The Field: The Country Gentlemen’s Newspaper in England for information about the new ‘Badminton game of Battledore’ that, he had heard, was a favourite in India and was picking up in Britain. “Can any of your readers give me particulars as to the manner in which it is played, what implements are required, etc.?” asked the man, identified only as K, in the letter published in ‘Notes and Queries’ section of the newspaper.

In subsequent issues of the magazine, replies received from the readers were printed for the benefit of the sports lovers living in the English countryside, the constituency to which the newspaper catered.

Most responses published were from the British living in India who had played the game that was popular among British soldiers and officers for about a decade by then. In the pages of The Field, readers shared information about the new game as they had played it or had seen it being played, and the rules that are followed in places, such as Calcutta, Nagpur, Simla, Murree and Tanjore.

An illustration from 1874 published with the caption that the ‘new game of badminton in India’ was increasing in popularity.

In the same magazine five months later, Major Forbes of Calcutta shared a copy of the 3,000-word A Handbook of Badminton published by The Great Eastern Hotel Company in Calcutta which described the size of an average badminton court (28 feet by 20 feet), the net (5 and a half feet height), and rules about the play and the score.

These mentions of the game in The Field are considered earliest records of Badminton that are available today. The game’s history in India, however, starts at least a decade earlier.

‘The Poona Game’

Chroniclers of the game generally concur that badminton – as it is known today – originated in India in 1860s, probably, as a marriage between Royal Tennis and the children’s shuttlecock games (such as ‘Tamfool’, ‘battledore and shuttlecock’, ‘Jeu de Volant’, ‘featherball’). Before the game was rechristened as ‘Badminton’, it was known among the British as ‘Poona’.

“British army officers got introduced to the indigenous version of the game, played for centuries, while stationed in India around the 1860s. They made their own adaptations to the sport, primarily adding the net and called it Poona or Poonah, after the town (Pune) that the garrison was based in. The first informal set of badminton rules for the game were formed in India by the British colonists in 1867,” reads an article on the official website of the Olympics.

As per a history of the game written by Bernard Adams, badminton began chiefly as a social pastime rather than a competitive indoor game. In the early years, as many as eight players (four on each side) could play. The shape of the court was either rectangular or hourglass in shape.

A painting from 1743 depicting battledore game. Notice that there are no nets or marked court. The players here are collaborators rather than opponents.

The game was so popular among the colonial officers that the Christian clergy of the time apparently saw it as a threat to Sunday attendance at church. A February 1877 report in Times of India quotes the Bishop of Madras as saying, “On behalf of my brother chaplain and myself, I protest against Sunday badminton.”. The report further adds, “The question of Sunday badminton, as typical of an innocent amusement, is no doubt a grave one… for after all, leaving religious views aside, it is a matter chiefly of decorum,” it said.

Retiring British colonial officers took the game back home to Britain in years to follow and it caught up in the West.

As per one account, on a fine evening in early 1873, bored guests of Duke of Beaufort decided to give the new game a go at his country estate ‘Badminton House’ in Gloucestershire, England and loved it. A family friend of the duke and Badminton House regular John Lorain Baldwin, the sportsman and writer of sports rules, is credited with standardising the rules of the game and also christening it ‘Badminton’ after the estate.

A memorial for the birthplace?

Uday Sane, World Badminton Federation Certified Umpire and a resident of Pune, has been pursuing the idea of setting up a memorial or museum to mark the place where one of the most popular games originated.

An undated picture of the British playing badminton in India. Two Indian ball boys can be seen in the pic.

Sane, who believes the game was first played in the premises of the Ammunition Factory in Khadki, says, “It is a valuable part of our history”. In 2008, when the world junior championship were held at the city’s Balewadi stadium, Sane was the technical officer.

“Many badminton players and aficionados from different parts of the world were here and they asked me about the place where badminton was played first. I took them by vehicle, a 20-seater, to show them the Khadki Ammunition factory. We went to the front of the factory but were turned back because it was a restricted area. The guests were upset. Many mentioned that something must be built to mark the place,” said Sane.

“For the last 10 years, I have been pursuing various people, from local MPs to MLAs, even private builders, asking them to share some area nearby Khadki so we can build a museum, perhaps a court, to mark this part of our history,” Sane told The Indian Express.

Gayatri Vartak, a city-based sports psychologist and former international badminton player, said she felt somewhat special while playing badminton after learning that it was a game that had originated in her own city.

“It is very special when you play a sport that has history to it, especially from the place where you are. Growing up knowing Pune is the birthplace of badminton, accompanied by the stories that our seniors and our coaches shared with us, made a difference to our overall enthusiasm,” she said.

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