“Be it Kolkata, Jaipur, Delhi or Bombay, bamboo polo balls went directly from Deulpur,” says Ranjit Mal, listing the places where the sport of polo was played in India.
A polo ball craftsman from West Bengal’s Deulpur census town, 71-year-old Ranjit has sculpted balls from rhizomes of Guadua bamboo for close to 40 years. The rhizomes, locally known as bans-er gorha , form the underground portion of the bamboo plant which helps them grow and spread. Today, he is the last shilpkar (craftsperson) of the craft; a skill, he points out, that has already passed into history.
But, for over 160 years that modern polo has been played – initially by the military, royals, and elite clubs – the bamboo balls came from Deulpur. In fact, the first polo club in the world was founded in Silchar, Assam in 1859; the second came up in Calcutta in 1863. Modern polo is an adapted version of Sagol Kangjei (a traditional game of the Meitei community in Manipur), and it was the Meiteis who used bamboo rhizome balls to play.
In the early 1940s, six to seven families in Deulpur village employed over 125 artisans who collectively made as many as one lakh polo balls annually. “Our skilled shilpkars knew the polo market,” adds Ranjit. His claims are attested by a British era survey and settlement report of Howrah district that states: “Deulpur seems to be the only place in India where polo balls are made.”
Ranjit’s wife, Minoti Mal says, “seeing the thriving business of making polo balls, my father got me married here when I was only 14.” She is in her sixties now, and until a decade ago, would help her husband in the craft. The family belongs to the Mal community listed as a Scheduled Caste in West Bengal; Ranjit has lived in Deulpur all his life.
Seated on a madur grass mat in his house, he is skimming through his treasured collection of old newspaper clippings and magazine articles. “If you find a photograph of a man making polo balls in a lungi anywhere in this world, it is mine,” he says proudly.
Ranjit remembers an ordinary day at work in Subhash Baug’s workshop with Mohammad Rafi’s songs playing on his tape recorder. “I am a big Rafi bhokto [fan]. I had even made cassettes of his songs,” he says, smiling. Polo-playing military officers from Fort William, Kolkata would arrive to purchase balls. “ Gaan shoone pochondo hoe ge chilo. Sob cassette niye gelo [The officers heard and liked the songs. Then they took all the cassettes with them],” he adds.
Deulpur’s place of pride was due to the easy availability of Guadua bamboo locally known as ghoro bans which is found abundantly in this pocket of Howrah district. Guadua bamboo grows by clumping, which leads to the formation of sturdy and elongated rhizomes under the ground, from which polo balls are crafted.
“Every bamboo species does not have a rhizome that qualifies the weight and size standards for polo balls,” Ranjit explains. Each ball had to be precisely crafted, about 78-90 mm in diameter and 150 gm in weight, as per the standards prescribed by the Indian Polo Association .
Until the 1990s, all polo balls were made from this material only. “They [bamboo balls] began to be replaced gradually by fibreglass balls brought in from Argentina,” says the veteran craftsman.
Fibreglass balls are more durable and also
priced much higher than bamboo balls. But “polo continues to be a sport of the
prochoor dhoni lok
people], so spending more money [on balls] is not a big deal for them,” Ranjit
says. This shift in the market has crushed the craft in Deulpur. “There used to
be as many as 100-150 ball makers here before 2009,” he says. “By 2015, I was
the only maker of polo balls left.” But
are no takers.
Carrying a sickle, Minoti leads the way to their bans-er bagan [bamboo grove] as Ranjit and I follow. The couple has six kathas of land some 200 metres from their home where they cultivate fruits and vegetables for their own consumption, and sell the excess produce to local vendors.
“Once the stem of the bamboo plant is cut, the rhizome is extracted from under the ground,” Minoti details the extraction process, which was done primarily by the Sardar community in Deulpur. Ranjit would source bamboo rhizomes from them – a rhizome weighing 2-3 kilograms was sold at Rs. 25-32.
The rhizomes would be dried in the sun for around four months. “ Na shukle, kaacha obostha-te ball chit-ke jaabe. Tedha beka hoi jaabe [If not dried properly, the ball cracks and is unshapely],” Ranjit explains.
After this, they would then be soaked in a pond for 15-20 days. “Soaking is necessary to soften the rod-e paaka [heat-baked] rhizome – you cannot cut through the rhizome otherwise,” the seasoned craftsman adds, “we would dry it again for 15-20 days. Only then it would be ready to be crafted.”
From scraping the rhizome with a katari (scythe) or a kurul (hand axe) to using a korath (coping saw) to cut the uneven mass into cylindrical pieces, “each step in the process had to be done sitting on one's haunches,” says Ranjit who now suffers from chronic back pain and can only walk slowly. “The game of polo was played on the backs of us shilpkars ,” he adds.
Once roughly cylindrical pieces were cut off
from the rhizome, they were shaped into a definite round with a chisel that was
knocked at its handle by a stone. Depending on the size of the rhizome, we
could sculpt two, three or four balls from one piece,” Ranjit says. He would
then file the ball with a palm-held
to plane the abrasions on its surface.
Deulpur’s place of pride was due to the easy availability of
bamboo locally known as
which is found abundantly in this pocket of Howrah district
Taking an old ball, Minoti demonstrates the task of glazing: “Between housework, shirish paper niye ball aami majhtam [I used to do the smoothing and finishing with sandpaper]. It would then be painted white. Sometimes we would also stamp it,” she explains.
Each ball took 20-25 minutes to finish. “In a day, we both could finish 20 balls and earn Rs. 200,” says Ranjit,
Despite the skill, knowledge and attention to detail needed for this work, Ranjit saw little profit over the years. When he had started making polo balls at a karkhana (workshop), he earned a meagre 30 paise per piece. By 2015, the per piece wage had gone up to only Rs. 10.
“Each ball was sold from Deulpur at Rs. 50,” he says. A quick glance at the Calcutta Polo Club website’s merchandise section reveals that whopping profits were accumulated from the shilpkars’ toil.
On the website, the balls are described as “specially crafted bamboo balls made in West Bengal, village industry,” and each is currently priced at Rs. 150, 15 times higher than Ranjit’s wage from each ball.
“Over 25-30 bamboo balls were required for a
single polo match.” He explains the high number saying, “rhizome is natural and
so its weight varies. It also loses shape quickly or forms cracks when it is
struck repeatedly by a mallet during a polo match.” Fibreglass balls on the
other hand, last longer: “Only three to four of these are required for a polo
match,” says Ranjit.
The establishment of the Calcutta Polo Club in the early 1860s just 30 kms away had boosted polo ball-making in Deulpur, but as demand for these balls declined the Club stopped sourcing bamboo balls altogether by 2015.
Ranjit is no stranger to sports or sportsmanship – he played football and cricket for Deulpur Pragati Sangha , the village sports club and was the first secretary of the club. “ Khoob naam tha hamara gaon mein ” [I was famous in the village] as a fast bowler and a defender,” he recalls.
He began by working in a karkhana owned by Subhash Baug, whose grandfather is credited for introducing the craft of manufacturing polo balls to Deulpur. Now 55, Subhash is the only link between polo and Deulpur – but he has shifted to manufacturing polo mallets.
Half a century ago, polo ball making was one more avenue to earn a livelihood amongst the multiple crafts the residents of Deulpur took up. “ Zari-r kaaj [metal-thread embroidery work], beedi bandha [beedi rolling], to polo ball-making, we tried everything possible to sustain ourselves and raise our three children,” Minoti says. “ Sob alpo poisa-r kaaj chilo. Khoob koshto hoye chilo [These were all low-paying and physically demanding jobs. We struggled a lot],” adds Ranjit.
“Now lots of industries have come up close to Dhulagarh Chourasta around four kilometres away,” says Ranjit, pleased that Deulpur’s residents have better jobs at hand. “One person from almost every household now works a salaried job. But some people still do zari-r kaaj at home,” adds Minoti. Around 3,253 people in Deulpur are employed in household industries (Census 2011).
The couple live with their younger son, Soumit,
31, and daughter-in-law, Sumona. Soumit works at a CCTV camera company near
Kolkata and Sumona is pursuing her undergraduate degree, after which she too
hopes to secure a job.
“ Shilpkars like me gave this craft our all, but we got nothing in return from either the polo players or the government,” Ranjit says.
In 2013, the Government of West Bengal in partnership with UNESCO began the Rural Craft Hub projects to develop traditional art and craft forms across the state. The partnership is in its third phase today and covers 50,000 beneficiaries across the state – but not one of them are craftspeople who make bamboo polo balls.
“We went to Nabanna [state government headquarters] in 2017-18 to demand action to ensure that our craft does not die. We reported our situation, filed applications, but nothing came of it,” Ranjit says. “What will be our financial condition? What will we eat? Our craft and livelihood is dead, we asked them.”
“Maybe because polo balls are not beautiful to look at, it mattered to few,” Ranjit pauses for a moment and adds, “…no one ever thought about us.”
Minoti is cleaning and descaling bata (freshwater minor carp) fish for lunch at a distance. Overhearing Ranjit, she says, “I still have hope though of getting some recognition for our continuous toil.”Ranjit, however, is not so optimistic. “The polo world was completely dependent on us craftspeople until a few years ago. But they moved on very quickly,” he says. “Now, I am the only proof of an extinct craft.”