The sport, which once ruled Madras, is making a comeback. A.C. Muthiah talks to SRINIVASA RAMANUJAM on the game, then and now
Industrialist A.C. Muthiah’s first love, albeit for a brief while, was tennis. He trained under T.K. Ramanathan, Ramanathan Krishnan’s father, at a coaching school in Mandaveli.
That was before horses and polo came into his life.
The son of industrialist-cricket administrator M.A. Chidambaram, Muthiah’s early years were spent at the Chettinad Palace. His father rode horses, and the father -son duo would head off to a nearby ground to play stick and ball with friends. “There used to be this vacant land opposite the cemetery in Santhome… it wasn’t a polo ground, but it was wonderful, especially once the waters receded after the rains,” says a nostalgic Muthiah.
We’re sitting in the drawing room of the Adyar Villa, his picturesque house just off the Kotturpuram Bridge, and Muthiah is more than happy to see Polo 2.0, a recent initiative to revive interest in the sport, taking shape. The first match at a factory ground in Poonamallee, played in a smaller format (much like T-20 for cricket), saw six teams participating. “There’s a growing interest among youngsters, I’m told,” he says, “What we need first is a good ground… that will help harness the interest in the sport.”
His own interest in the game kicked off, thanks to Rama Rao, a player from Hyderabad who first taught him the basics. Those were the times when polo, a sport originally played by the Maharajas, had slowly shifted to men in the Army. The 61st Cavalry and the defence academies started encouraging it; there were two grounds in the Officers Training Academy (OTA) at that time.
Muthiah has vivid memories of training under General Habibullah, who encouraged many players. “He was a great strategist; he kept a matchbox to chalk out positions,” recalls the 75-year-old, “He went wild if we missed a shot during a match. It was under his coaching that many players honed their skills and made it big.”
He’s campaigning for grounds now, but back then, polo players had quite a number of options; the Island Grounds, which now usually hosts exhibitions, was one. “In my younger days, I remember watching matches between the Mysore Lancers and the Golconda Team,” he says. The OTA grounds, have also seen some pretty heated encounters. And then, there was a ground inside the Raj Bhavan that the players used.
Muthiah’s exposure to the sport outside the city got him really clued in. “The hub of polo was Delhi and Jaipur. When I played there, it was with renowned top-class players and that improved my game,” says the industrialist, who also regularly visited London and Cowdray to improve his skill set.
For Muthiah, it was the golden era of polo back then. He brought in an expert called Archan Singh from Rajasthan to train his horses. “The sport slowly picked up. M.A.M. Ramaswamy used to play it quite regularly,” he narrates. The decline of the sport started when the grounds started vanishing. “We lost the OTA grounds and the Raj Bhavan one. And then, it all slowly fizzled out.”
Now, after almost three decades, Muthiah and a group of enthusiasts (led by Irshad Mecca) are ensuring that the sport makes a grand comeback. “It was said that Akbar the Great selected all his generals from polo players because they were quick thinkers. It’s an interesting game and I wish it comes back to Madras in a big way,” he signs off.