April 28, 2021 4:43:03 pm
In late 1877, the year when Australia defeated England in the first ever Test match at Melbourne and Queen Victoria took over as the Empress of India, a 10-year-old boy accompanying his mother to the Ganga was enraptured by the sight of British soldiers kicking a ball and running after it at the Calcutta F.C. Ground. The game captivated him so much that he got down from his carriage, watched the soldiers play and when one of the players asked the boy to kick it back after the ball had rolled towards him, the boy happily obliged. Legend has it this was the first time an Indian had kicked a football at the Calcutta Maidan.
While if Indians had participated in any form of competitive football matches before that remains a matter of debate, what is widely acknowledged is the role the 10-year-old boy would later go on to play in popularising football in the country. Nagendra Prasad Sarbadhikari, who is considered to be the ‘Father of Indian Football’, formed a string of football clubs in erstwhile Calcutta and also played a leading role in the creation of the Indian Football Association (IFA) in 1892.
If we are to take a close look at the history of Indian football the way it is today, it all goes back to that day in September 1877 when Nagendra Prasad kicked back the ball to the British soldier on the Calcutta Maidan.
The life of Nagendra Prasad will now be the subject of a Bengali film called ‘Golondaaj’, set to be released later this year and opening with the shot of him kicking the ball at Maidan. The film, directed by Dhrubo Banerjee and produced by SVF Entertainment Pvt. Ltd, features popular Bengali actor Dev in the role of Nagendra Prasad. The cast also includes Anirban Bhattacharya, Ishaa Saha, Indrashish Ray and Srikanta Acharya.
Nagendra Prasad and the birth of club football
Most of the football matches in Calcutta back in the 19th century involved British soldiers, tradesmen and sailors. That changed when Nagendra Prasad arrived on the scene.
As P.L. Dutt in his book “Memoir of ‘Father of Indian Football’ Nagendraprasad Sarbadhikary” writes, the very next day after he had been intrigued by the game at the Calcutta Maidan, Nagendra Prasad collected subscriptions, bought a ball from Messrs. Manton & Co., a renowned sports goods shop in Calcutta’s Bowbazar area, and mobilised his classmates at the Hare School to play a game. The motley group had no idea about the rules of the game and played a sport which could pass off as a hybrid form of football and rugby. However, their efforts attracted enough curiosity for a sizeable crowd to gather to watch the game.
Among those following the game was G.A. Stack, a professor at the adjacent Presidency College (now Presidency University), who watched the proceedings from the college balcony. It was Stack along with J.H. Gilligand, another professor at Presidency College, who were deeply moved by the enthusiasm of the boys, and took it upon themselves to teach Nagendra Prasad and his companions the rules of the game. With proper guidance, Nagendra Prasad’s interest only kept growing — soon he went on to form the Boys Club.
Soon after, besides Presidency College, educational institutions such as Sibpur Engineering College, Calcutta Medical College and St Xavier’s College formed their football teams.
Nagendra Prasad was easily the best player in the school team. The mercurial centre forward captained the team, with students from the adjacent Presidency College who joined the Hare School Boys for a game often playing under his leadership.
He later teamed up with his classmate Nagendra Mullick, who was from the famous Mullick family of Chorebagan, to form the Friends Club. This was only the beginning of the journey for club football in Calcutta. Nagendra Prasad went on to form a string of clubs thereafter, with the most important among them being the Presidency and the Wellington clubs.
The Wellington Club was formed in 1884 when Nagendra Prasad was a still a student of Presidency College. Among his contemporaries were the likes of Sir Pratul Chatterjee, Bhupendra Nath Mitter, Sir Binod Mitter, Sir Manmatha Nath Mukherjee, Surendra Nath Mullick, K.N. Chaudhuri and Jatindra Nath Basu.
Challenging upper caste hegemony
The Wellington Club had around 500 members in those days, with many people from affluent sections of the society considering it to be a matter of great prestige to be a part of the outfit. When Nagendra Prasad tried to induct Moni Das, a potter’s son, into the club, he was met with vehement opposition from the richer members.
Unwilling to buckle under pressure, Nagendra Prasad, who believed that a sporting body should not discriminate between individuals on the basis of their identity, dissolved the Wellington Club. “I know sooner or later the matter will be asked to be put to vote. It will be a mean move on the part of those who call themselves sportsmen. I cannot allow myself to be a party to it,” he had said on the occasion, Dutt mentions in his memoir.
By combining players from the other sporting clubs he had earlier formed — the Boys Sporting Club, Friends Club, Presidency Club and the erstwhile Wellington Club — he then founded the famous Sovabazar Club in 1887 on the premises of the Sovabazar Rajbati. Moni Das was inducted as one of the first members of the club. Das would later go on to become one of the first members of the Mohun Bagan Club.
Kaushik Bandhopadhyay and Boria Majumdar in their book A Social History of Indian Football write that Nagendra Prasad’s act of dissolving the Wellington Club as protest against some of the members’ opposition to the proposed induction of Moni Das was the first attempt of its kind to free sport of all caste prejudices. They also mention that the club, of which Nagendra Prasad was the joint honourary secretary and the Maharaja of Cooch Behar the president, “was unique in its policy to throw open membership to sportsmen irrespective of class, caste, community or religious affiliations”.
Under Nagendra Prasad’s leadership, Sovabazar went on to became one of the premier clubs in Calcutta at that time. When the Trades Cup, the first open football tournament in India, was held in 1889, Sovabazar became the first and only Indian team to take part in the tournament.
In the 1892 edition of the tournament, Sovabazar created footballing folklore by beating East Surrey Regiment 2-1, which was the first ever Indian victory of significance over a European team in a football match. A year later, Fort William Arsenal, which was a team made up of Indian workers, won the Cooch Behar Cup.
As Rakhal Bhattacharya writes in ‘Kolkatar Football’ (Football in Kolkata), the Sovabazar Club played a leading role in spreading football, with Nagendra Prasad himself inspiring many players to join the outfit. It was no longer just a hobby for a royal family — a competitive edge soon came in and most Bengalis then were happy to have a platform to challenge the British at their own game.
Nagendra Prasad also played a leading role in the formation of the Indian Football Association (IFA) in 1892. However, when the opportunity of nominating the first Indian member to the IFA came in 1900, he stepped aside and chose Kali Mitter, a senior member of the Sovabazar Club, for the post.
Football as a critique of British colonialism
Sports journalist Novy Kapadia in his book “Barefoot to Boots: The Many Lives of Indian Football” narrates an interesting incident that happened after Mohun Bagan won the IFA Shield in 1911. The story goes that as the triumphant Mohun Bagan players were leaving the ground after their victory, a middle-aged gentleman accosted defender Sudhir Chatterjee and, pointing to the East Yorkshire Regiment colours and the Union Jack aloft on the nearby Fort William, he said, “This one you have done but what about that?”
The suggestion was now that the Bagan players had lowered the colours of a British regiment, they “should now join the nationalist movement and drive the British rulers from the country,” writes Kapadia. To which Sudhir replied this it would happen when his team next won the Shield — a flippant prediction which actually turned out to be true.
Football in 20th century colonial Calcutta was an inextricable part of an individual’s sociocultural existence. As Kaushik Bandhopadhyay and Boria Majumdar have pointed out in their book, the sport “soon transcended the recreational boundary to become a cultural weapon” in the fight against British imperialism.
And if football was indeed developing as a crucial instrument of anti-colonial cultural resistance in Bengal at that time, it is important to locate Nagendra Prasad at the heart of such a project. It was his unbridled passion for the game, coupled with his decision to form a string of clubs to popularise the sport, that institutionalised football in Bengal and gave it the structure and impetus to grow rapidly.
As P L Dutt pointed out in his biography, physical regeneration of Indians was the nationalism which Nagendra Prasad preached in his life. Another much quoted account from Saurindra Kumar Ghosh’s Krira Samrat Nagendraprasad Sarbadhikary 1869-1940 states how Nagendra Prasad, incensed by the remarks of a man at the Sovabazar Palace who had taunted his physical prowess, went on to lift him off his feet and say, “Now that I shall fling you down, what do you imagine you will require to escape that fate?” It was only after the man apologised that Nagendra Prasad set him down.
Physical cultures were a special attraction for Nagendra Prasad — he was a decent wrestler and also an adept cricketer.
Bandhopadhyay and Majumdar have pointed out that at the turn of the century, “Bengali youth came to look upon football as an avenue through which they would be able to retrieve their sinking political prestige and establish their superiority over the power the Raj represented”. They state that in football, the youth saw an important instrument of cultural resistance to challenge portrayals of Bengalis as weak and “effeminate”. British historian Thomas Macaulay, who shaped the education policy in India, had famously said that the “physical organization of the Bengalis is feeble even to effeminacy”. In football the Bengali youth found the instrument to contest these repeated insults by the British — in fact, it was this physical culture that Swami Vivekananda seemed to be referring to when he wrote in Lectures from Colombo to Almora, “You will be nearer to Heaven through football than through the study of the Gita.”
A culmination of such a moment in the early 20th century came when Mohun Bagan, comprising barefooted players in their ranks, defeated East Yorkshire Regiment in the final and won the IFA Shield in 1911, becoming the first native Indian team to achieve the feat.
But by then Nagendra Prasad had stepped away from the limelight. The footballing prowess of the Sovabazar Club was on the decline with the rise of Manmatha Ganguly’s National Association and later Mohun Bagan.
In 1900, Nagendra Prasad had nominated Kali Mitter to the IFA post. Then in 1902, he suddenly withdrew from most of his engagements in sports organisation and joined the Calcutta High Court as an attorney.
Kaushik Bandhopadhyay and Boria Majumdar, A Social History of Indian Football (Routledge: London and New York, 2006)
Novy Kapadia, Barefoot to Boots: The Many Lives of Indian Football (New Delhi: Penguin Ramdom House India Private Limited, 2017)
P.L. Dutt, Memoir of ‘Father of Indian Football’ Nagendraprasad Sarbadhikary (Calcutta: N.P.Sarbadhikary Memorial Committee, 1944)
Rakhal Bhattacharya, Kolkatar Football (Calcutta: Calcutta East Light Book House, 1955)
Saurindra Kumar Ghosh, Krira Samrat Nagendraprasad Sarbadhikary 1869-1940 (Calcutta, 1964)
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