Passion Play in Kolkata
Image: Ronny Roy for Forbes India
t all began with a kick of the ball. In 1877, when Calcutta was still capital of British India, 10-year-old Nagendra Prasad Sarbadhikari was mesmerised by a ball game being played by Europeans in the vast open grounds in the heart of the city. He descended from the carriage taking his mother to the riverfront and watched from the sidelines. At some point, when the ball rolled over to him, Nagendra Prasad picked it up and, on being encouraged by a European player, kicked it back to the playing arena. That, it is said — if apocryphally — was the first time an Indian kicked a football. The Indian, it so happened, was also a Bengali.
Widely regarded as the father of Indian football, Nagendra Prasad went on to set up a string of football clubs in Calcutta. Gradually, a clutch of native Bengali clubs led or patronised by Nagendra Prasad – Boys Sporting, Friends, Presidency, Wellington and Sovabazar – began to challenge the British monopoly of the field.
Then came the triumphs. Sovabazar Club opened the native account with a stunning 2-1 win over the East Surrey Regiment in the Trades Cup of 1892. A year later, Fort William Arsenal — a team made up of Indian workers — won the Coochbehar Cup. The feat would be repeated by Mohun Bagan club (established in 1889) in 1904 and 1905; in 1905, they would also win the Gladstone Cup. Between 1906 and 1908, Mohun Bagan would pull off a hattrick of victories at the British-instituted Trades Cup. The victories cemented the relationship of Bengalis with football, based on the belief that, on the field, the Bengalis could better the British.
The stage was thus set for the ultimate assault. When Mohun Bagan lifted the IFA Shield in 1911 beating the all-British East Yorkshire Regiment in the final after overpowering four other British teams, the victory transformed football’s status in Kolkata, notes Boria Majumdar, sports scholar and author of Goalless: The Story of a Unique Footballing Nation, “from a relatively insignificant leisure pastime to an important cultural institution with redefined socio-political meanings”.
For Indians of the era, there was no sporting moment more significant than Mohun Bagan’s 1911 triumph, especially as it played out in the backdrop of the 1905 partition of Bengal and the decision to move the capital from Calcutta to Delhi. “It galvanised Bengalis like never before and fuelled their nationalistic pride. Football was seen as a powerful tool against the British,” says former India football captain P.K. Banerjee. After Mohun Bagan’s 1911 IFA Shield victory – the centenary of which is being celebrated this year – football found a permanent space in the Bengali imagination, Banerjee adds.
As a player, Banerjee was an important member of the Indian side that won gold in the 1962 Jakarta Asian Games and the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, when India reached the semifinal, a first for an Asian team. Despite being a local boy, Banerjee spent only one year in Mohun Bagan and never played for East Bengal, the other Kolkata giant: For most of his career, he represented Eastern Railway. “I had an insatiable hunger for football,” Banerjee explains the lacuna somewhat obliquely. “It wasn’t necessary for me to play for the big two clubs.”
So it seems a bit of an overstatement when an East Bengal club official declares that “if one is a Bengali, one has to either support Mohun Bagan or East Bengal”. Banerjee isn’t alone in his pure devotion to the game; nor is it an anachronistic emotion.
A day before a crucial I-League match between the two traditional Kolkata rivals, I bump into Sanjay Mazumdar at the East Bengal grounds. One of a handful of spectators for a Aryan-BNR local league match, Mazumdar has his eye on the ball and his heart with BNR. It is a team he once represented and in which he has invested his support for life. He knows (former Indian football stars) “Balaram and Appalaraju went on to play for the nation after representing BNR” but can’t remember when BNR last topped the Calcutta League or even came close. Yet, his support for BNR is unstinting and unconditional.
As he speaks, a cheer rings out from the northern end of the field: BNR has scored. Mazumdar looks distraught at having missed the goalmouth action. “I think Asim scored,” he mutters. “Now they should go for a 4-2-4 formation.”
Then, dragging his attention away from the field, he says, “I come from a poor family. As a child, I dreamt of being a footballer, not only because I loved the game but also because I’d be able to get a Railways job in the sports quota.”