Horseflesh and flirtation on parade

Street Life NEW DELHI
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The Independent Online
THERE IS an elusive nightclub crowd in Delhi, conspicuously rich and easily bored, that is rarely glimpsed by daylight. But I caught up with these diamond-studded youths one afternoon at the old Jaipur Polo grounds in Delhi, which turns out to be far less stuffy than you would imagine for a venue located across the road from the Prime Minister's residence and the elite Gymkhana Club.

Horseflesh and flirtation I'd expected. Thundering hoofbeats still thrill adolescent girls, and a coterie of suitors follows in their wake. India's bluebloods are also out in force. Maharanis in the front rows, kitted out in Pashmina shawls and Italian sunglasses, clutch the arms of their wrinkled rajas. Nearly all these erstwhile rulers wear flat wool caps, but themixed scents of French perfume, gentlemen's cologne, and traditional attar wafting up from this section is like an invisible barrier to lesser mortals. I wonder if the pong might scare the horses.

"Samsara, yaar," shouts one teenage boy, trying to ingratiate himself with a leggy socialite by identifying her scent by name. She smiles icily, then peers with renewed interest through her binoculars while cranking up the volume on her discman.

Traditional polo is undergoing an image makeover in India, and some of the changes are startling. Recently, a liquor company hired American- style pom-pom girls to cheerlead between chukkers. Unaccustomed to bare legs in public, the Indian crowd roared approval. The most popular stunt is putting fashion models astride nippy stud steeds - a change from tent-pegging exhibitions at half-time.

Refreshment tents, which used to serve only pyramids of sandwiches from silver platters, now flog mini-pizzas. Cellphone companies, private television stations, investment banks and hotel firms are keen to sponsor championships or teams - once the preserve of cavalry regiments or royalty.

Today's competition is Seagrams versus Chivas Regal. Disappointingly, instead of pert cheerleaders performing cartwheels, there is only a squadron of army bagpipers tuning up in the stands. The sponsors strive to be traditional today, although the jovial crowd punctures much of this pretension.

"Down in front, Bunty. You know nothing about polo," heckles a young stockbroker as his friend tries to start a standing ovation. "We cannot see through you." Shortly afterwards, two players collide and a rider goes down, his horse limping badly. Ambulances race out with an army doctor and the veterinarian on duty, who wears a red sari with an oversized stethoscope. As soon as play stops, a dozen vultures circle high overhead and mortality intrudes on the day out. Happily, injuries are minor and play resumes quickly.

After the first bugle sounds, Deepak Roy, a polo fan for decades, grabs a biscuit and swigs down someEarl Grey tea. "Not much of a spread today. I was hoping for giant prawns, like last week," he gripes. "And don't waste your time looking. There isn't a drop of Scotch on offer."

Indian Anglophiles occasionally whine about how crass breaks with polo tradition are, even though this Persian game of hockey on horseback has lent itself to infinite innovation over 4,000 years. Elephant polo, played with oversize mallets and softer balls, is a particular local favourite - although the game's pace suffers considerably. Bicycle polo is another variation but, even withmountain bikes, is no match for the real thing.

Frenzied girls in riding gear start shoving forward to get a glimpse of Shamsher Ali, the latest sensation in the saddle. At 16, he is the youngest and dishiest player on the circuit and when he rides by the stand there is a spontaneous swoon much like a Mexican wave. Every female sits straighter for a second, then slumps.

Moments later, a black stallion emerges, prancing to the theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey. It is not, as we all imagine, young Ali reappearing on a more suitable mount. It's a display of musical dressage for Anglophiles. "Bit of a damp squib after such a good match," Mr Roy observes, scoffing another biscuit.

Jan McGirk