With its unique jargon and format, Polo remains elusive for common mortals as royalty, army officers and new millionaires make up its swish crowd, discovers Kul Bhushan.
Visiting a tailor a couple of months ago, I was shown photos of Jodhpur breeches and informed that they had become very trendy. The tight fitting trousers from the knee down, Jodhpurs reminds you of maharajas riding horses on hunting trips or playing polo. I was game to connect to that era, and so I had a couple made to measure. Little did I know that my chance to wear one would be so soon, in fact, last Sunday when I was invited to a polo match.
Suitably dressed in my Austrian Trachten [authentic traditional apparel] jacket and shirt with big stag-head buttons, a matching hat, and, of course, the Jodhpurs, I arrived at the Jaipur Polo Ground on a sunny afternoon in New Delhi.
Entering the pavilion, it was a different world: ‘pucca’ army officers, young millionaire studs, elegant women in hats and flowing saris, young damsels dressed to kill, cameramen clicking for the social pages, and a baritone announcer interrupting his polo commentary to proclaim the arrival of princess so-and-so, a maharani, an ambassador, an army general. They all knew each other quite well. Hugs and air kisses were the usual greetings. Tea and cold drinks were served by liveried waiters.
After taking it all in, I tried to make sense of the game in progress. Each team had just four players on horses, two mounted umpires in striped polo shirts near the goals, a referee watching from the stand, and a scoreboard that read 2 goals by one team and 2 ½ the other. Half a goal? The half goal is the deficit between the two handicaps of the two teams – all worked out by a formula which most of the players are quite happy to leave to the umpires.
Soon the chukka was over. Chukka? Each of the six periods of play last for seven minutes. Chukka comes from the Indian word chakkar or a circle, or round. The players return with a fresh pony after each chukka. Pony? No, actually these are thoroughbred horses.
Galloping full speed, the players swung mallets of bamboo cane four to five feet long to hit and score a goal with a white plastic ball less than four inches in diameter. They dashed from one goal to another at full speed, stopped and turned while chasing the ball. Accelerating to full speed in just a few strides and turning around rapidly is very strenuous for the rider and the pony. No wonder the chukka is over with a ‘hooter’ (bell rung by the time keeper) in seven minutes when they change their pony. Everyone claps gently when a goal is scored. At the end of the game, the players pass in front of the main guests raising their hard and padded helmets with face guards. Looking closely, I saw them wearing special brown boots with raised heels to keep their feet in stirrups, topped by leather knee guards to protect their legs from injury. Their Jodhpurs were in white, by rules. On scoring a goal, the player gets all the praise. But no one mentions the pony although 80 per cent of the credit is due to its agility and speed.
A military band played during the interval between the two games. For the prize giving, a tractor pulled up a stage in front of the pavilion with the chief guests. The VIPs went on the playground, climbed the stage and handed over the prizes with polite applause from the present.
Now it was time for high tea and everyone moved to the tented area where the tables groaned with a banquet of a vast variety of snacks. This was the time to network and chat up pretty ladies and tough men. Here was a close society of army officers, maharajas, diplomats and a few new rich. The army needed polo for training cavalry, the maharajas for exciting sport, the diplomats for top level contacts and the new rich to prove their arrival. Royalty always says, “Let others play at other things. The king of games is still the game of kings.”
Earlier on, during a lull in the game, an old lady sitting behind me was heard telling her friend, “I’ve done it all; got it all; achieved all I wanted…nothing is left. Now I am turning to spirituality!”