Time stands still around India’s only natural bowling green

Despite the signboard just off the crossroads of Outram Road and Dufferin Road, it’s easy to miss the Royal Calcutta Golf Club pavilion at the maidan. A stone’s throw from the Indian Army’s Eastern Headquarters at Fort William, tucked behind a thicket with a muddy road leading up to an old gate, time has stood still in this leafy part of the maidan. It’s quiet. It’s serene. Steeped in history, the clubhouse oozes an old world charm. It’s also unapologetically rich and exclusive. The crown jewel of RCGC—its 18-hole par-72 golf course—lies about 10 km away in Tollygunge but nestled in this pavilion is an eight-lane lawn bowling green, India’s only natural grass playing venue.

Inside, Akshara Gupta is busy perfecting her curls with the help of a lawn assistant. A seasoned player among the 100-strong lawn bowling fraternity in the RCGC, Gupta is psyched by the gold-winning feat of the women’s fours team at the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham. “The best thing about the game is there is no age limit. Anyone from nine to 90 can play. It’s but natural for us to be excited after what the women achieved,” says Gupta.

Devender Saigal, member of RCGC’s lawn bowling sub-committee, gave a lowdown on the heritage pavilion. The oldest golf club in India and the first outside Britain, RCGC was established in 1829. This pavilion came up in 1885 after the club relocated from Dum Dum to the maidan—an Army-owned, roughly three-square km green stretch in the center of the city. Two years later, the lawn was set up for members to bowl.

It is a wooden pavilion—the Army doesn’t allow concrete structures on the maidan—and has undergone several renovations over 135 years. The honors board dates back to 1910 with RA Murdoch and H Curtis mentioned as pairs winners. In front of it is the bowling green: an eight-lane ‘selection’ grass-topped marvel standing on three feet of sand. Upkeep of the green is an exacting affair, especially in the monsoon when the grass grows faster. There are private tournaments, at least one every month, for which it needs to be in top shape. A greenkeeper is seen to that, along with several assistants who work to keep the green leveled all the time.

With Fort William—the first army cantonment of the British in India—across the road, the club’s colonial influence is irrefutable. Only in 1963 did the club elect an Indian captain. Membership stood at 420 in 1892, 1,770 in 1931 and 2,500 at the last count. Entry is limited and a prospective member can be on the waiting list for decades. Everything, from the staff livery to the valet and even the pristine white china, is a throwback to British gentility. Everyone speaks in hushed tones. The last order is at 8:30 pm and the club closes at 9 pm, all in keeping with maidan rules that were written more than a century ago. Since there can be no exception to the rule, members flocked the RCGC’s main premises in Tollygunge to watch the women’s fours team make history at the CWG.

Almost all members of India’s bowling teams at the Commonwealth Games have played at RCGC, club members say. But as a sport, lawn bowling has remained pretty much an elite pursuit. There is no lawn bowling club as such in Kolkata although members of private clubs can play the inter-club tournaments.

The only way enthusiasts can play at a competitive level is through a corporate tournament. “When the sport was included before the 2010 Delhi Commonwealth Games, RCGC was the only natural green. So three artificial greens had to be built in Delhi, Guwahati and Ranchi,” says Saigal, a member since 1984.

“It was a sport introduced and inculcated by the British but only now are more people talking about it. This gold will definitely spike interest.”

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