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Thursday, June 24, 2021

How successive Indian presidents patronised sports and became champions too

From polo in the past to football and basketball now, a culture of games has flourished at the Rashtrapati Bhavan and tournaments are organised regularly

Written by Shivendra Chaturvedi | New Delhi |
May 30, 2021 6:10:01 am
IPA championship 1913Viceroy’s staff team, winners of IPA championship 1913, with Lord Hardinge (Courtesy: Rashtrapati Bhavan photo gallery)

The British weekly — The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News — published an article on June 3, 1911, about a formidable cricket team from a foreign land. Edward Humphrey Dalrymple Sewell, a famous first-class cricketer and journalist, reported the arrival of the first Indian cricket team captained by Bhupinder Singh, the Maharaja of Patiala. That was barely six months before the Delhi Durbar of December 1911. Sports and games, of course, were an integral part of the British Raj. Cricket, in particular, was hugely popular among the British and the Indians alike.

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But governor generals and viceroys patronised another sport — polo. The Delhi Durbar featured an international polo tournament, where the governor general’s own staff, including Captain Hartley, Colonel Maxwell, Captain Astor and Captain Keighley, took part. The same team also played in the Calcutta Polo Club Coronation Tournament in December-January 1911-12, as the team of the viceroy’s staff. They continued to earn laurels, even won the famous Mackinnon Cup held in Mussoorie in 1922. Indian soldiers had had their time in the sun on the polo grounds by then.

Polo has a long history but its modern form is derived from a version played in Manipur. As “the sport of the kings”, it had been the game of choice for British civil and army officers in the 18th and 19th centuries. It continued to receive patronage from successive viceroys in the newly-established Capital, too. The initial establishment of the Delhi Gymkhana Club, near the Polo Field in Kingsway Camp (before moving to its current address in the early 1930s), is a perfect example of their love for the game.

The last viceroy, Lord Louis Mountbatten, was an excellent polo player — he had a five-goal polo handicap. Having learnt the game from books, he had become so passionate about it that he wrote a book An Introduction to Polo (1960) under the pseudonym Marco, and even received a patent for a polo stick. He was instrumental in codifying the rules and regulations of the game and introducing it in the British Royal Naval Polo in 1929. By the time he was in the Viceroy’s House, however, the imperial game was no longer what it used to be. Outside the serene premises of the estate, it was the gentleman’s game, cricket, that was far more popular.

However, the year 1947 brought in a lot of changes — the Viceroy’s House was now the Rashtrapati Bhavan — and sports activities within the President’s Estate saw a transformation. Polo was eclipsed by other sports, but it made a comeback in February 1975, with the introduction of the President’s Polo Cup under the patronage of then president Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, who was also the patron-in-chief of Indian Polo Association (IPA). The President’s Bodyguard (PBG) organised the cup tournament on behalf of the President’s Secretariat.

The President’s Polo Cup, an open tournament, soon became a prestigious event. A team with a minimum of 10-goal handicap was qualified to enter it and all high-goal players participated. In June 2004, the IPA moved from the folds of the President’s Bodyguard to 61 Cavalry, and it was curtains for the President Polo Cup, until the President’s Bodyguard revived the legacy and organised the first President’s Polo Cup Exhibition Match at its Polo Ground in March 2013. It is now an annual event, graced by the President and a host of dignitaries including diplomats and
foreign ambassadors.

polo The President’s Polo Cup Exhibition Match at PBG Parade Ground (Courtesy: Rashtrapati Bhavan photo gallery)

Golf, another popular recreational activity of the colonial era, continues to find favour today, which is evident at the sprawling golf course within the President’s Estate. Many heads of state as official guests at the Rashtrapati Bhavan have indulged in the game after a long day of official engagements.

The Rashtrapati Bhavan today has one of the best facilities for badminton, with four indoor and four outdoor courts that employees and their children use, as well. When the national badminton championship was organised for the first time in Assam in 1958, the host state’s team was led by Begum Abida Ahmed, wife of Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed. She also played tennis and billiards well and he, too, once headed the football association and the cricket association of Assam, as well as the All India Lawn Tennis Association.

For that matter, Shankar Dayal Sharma was a cross-country race champion at the Allahabad University and a swimming champion at the Lucknow University. Pratibha Devisingh Patil won many table-tennis tournaments in her college days. Other presidents might not have won medals and shields but they would often stroll down for a game of squash or a shot at billiards.

With patronage from successive presidents, a sports culture has flourished in the President’s Estate. Tournaments of cricket, football, badminton, lawn tennis, golf, table tennis, squash and other sports are organised regularly. Having nurtured their talent and developed their skills on these grounds, many players have gone on to excel at national and international levels in football, tennis and wrestling. Anadi Barua, for instance, learned the nuances of football on these grounds before representing the country at the international level; he later coached the national women’s football team.

In February this year, President Ram Nath Kovind inaugurated the renovated football ground and the basketball court, named “Rashtrapati Bhavan Krida Sthal”, for employees and their families. An inter-departmental football tournament was organised to mark the event. The five teams that participated were named President’s Secretariat Heroes, Household Youngs, PBG Warriors, Army Guard Daredevils and Delhi Police Stalwarts.

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