Nagendra Prasad Sarbadhikari – The first visionary of Indian football

Two of Eastern India’s best known educational institutions, Hare School and Hindu College (present Presidency College) was established between 1816 and 1818. Both possess glittering lists of alumni and over two centuries many of their students have played a vital role in pre, post independence India. Curiously, Indian football also has a great debt to them. How Indian football started its long journey is often lost in the sands of time but it involved a young boy, an enthusiastic professor and a chance encounter on a winter morning in Calcutta. 

Nagendra Prasad Sarbadhikari was born in 1869 to Dr. Surya Kumar Sarbadhikari and Hemlata Devi. His early life was unremarkable but it would change on a September morning in 1877. Accompanied by her son, his mother had the habit of taking a dip in the holy river Ganga to start off the day. On that day, en route to the river, their horse drawn carriage passed through a road just north of Calcutta FC training ground. Nagendra Prasad was intrigued when he saw a number of British soldiers practicing with a circular ball. He got down from the carriage, moved closer to the ground to observe. After a while, the ball rolled towards him, prompting Nagendra Prasad to pick it up and marvel at how light the thing was. One of the soldiers came up to him and laughingly asked, “Kick it to me, boy”. He obliged. According to legend, this was the first time an Indian had kicked a football. Whether it was the first kick or not is a matter of conjecture, but this seemingly insignificant incident and that young boy would play a major role in snowballing the popularity of football in India – making the country arguably the most vibrant footballing scene outside Britain in the Victorian age.

Sarbadhikari’s story has passed into folklore but football in India stretched further back to early 19th century. In History of Indian Football Nirmal Nath states that the first recorded football match in India happened in Bombay (present Mumbai) in 1802 – a 30 minute game between teams named as “Military” and “Island”. Having taken place more than half a century before formal codification of football rules, it is very likely that this match was a hybrid form of football and rugby. This was followed by instances of football matches from Calcutta – Etonians against Rest of Calcutta (1838), Calcutta Club of Civilians against Gentlemen of Barrackpore (13th April, 1854), Etonians against Rest of Calcutta (1868).

As the 1870s dawned, football matches became more frequent in Calcutta, mostly involving British soldiers, tradesmen or sailors. These matches eventually led to the formation of Trades Club (later renamed to Dalhousie Club) by British businessmen in 1878. Armenian traders had been a major player in the field of commerce in Bengal since the 17th century and they also formed a football club. However, till late 1870s football was mostly limited to participation from non-Indians. This completely changed when Nagendra Prasad Sarbadhikari arrived on the stage. 

Soon after his first brush with the game, an ebullient Sarbadhikari narrated the incident to his classmates in Hare School. His enthusiasm was infectious and his friends decided to start a group subscription in order to purchase a football. In the partly fictionalized Ekadoshe Surjodoy (Eleven Rising Suns), Rupak Saha mentions that they pooled in an amount of Three Rupees and Seventy Five paise. A little group of boys then made their way to Messrs. Manton & Co. in Calcutta’s Bowbazar area, a famous dealer of sporting goods. They purchased a ball but given their inexperience and lack of knowledge, what they bought was a rugby ball!

Sarbadhikari and his motley group had no idea about the rules of the game but undeterred, they started a kickabout in the grounds of Hare School. Given its novelty, a sizable crowd had gathered to watch a game which was played with little rhyme or rhythm. Among the spectators was Professor GA Stack, who peered from the balcony of neighbouring Presidency College. Amused, he came down and questioned Sarbadhikari which sport was they trying to play – football or rugby? Sensing confusion Stack graciously agreed to not only gift them an actual football but also offered to teach rules of the game. 

Professor JH Gilligand joined ranks with Stack to teach the basics of football. Although young, Sarbadhikari showed remarkable aptitude in learning the game. He also had natural leadership and organizational abilities which meant he began to play an active role in popularizing football among students. He established Boy’s Club which was the first football club in India with only Indian members. The game soon spread as students of Presidency College also began to participate in matches with Hare School boys. He was younger to the college boys but still played the role of a leader. 

Sarbadhikari’s classmate Nagendra Mallick was a scion of a royal family from Chorbagan area of Calcutta. Their joint efforts saw football permeating into royal families with the birth of Friends Club inside premises of the royal household of Raja Rajendra Mallick (whose Marble Palace remains a tourist attraction).

Sarbadhikari eventually joined Presidency College where he continued to spread the game in different age groups. He also kept on creating new clubs, each one bigger and more ambitious than the previous. His activity was not just limited to Calcutta as he combined with his friend and protege Bama Charan Kundu to start Howrah Sporting, which introduced football to natives in the district of Howrah. Under Sarbadhikari’s leadership spawned Presidency Club and then in 1884, Wellington Club which crossed the threshold of school and college students, drawing players from different sections of the society.  

Within a few years since that “first” kick, football had already become significantly popular in Bengal. To decipher the reason behind this popularity it will be relevant to step back and understand how physical activity and sports was viewed in society at that time.  

In most middle and especially upper class Bengali families physical sports were looked at with suspicion. Most of the traditional games like chess or flying kites involved little or no physical strain and it was preferred that a game could be played lying down. Expert gymnast and circus artist Krishnagopal Basak (1866-1935) wrote in his autobiography, “Performing gymnastics wasn’t considered to be a sign of a good boy. Bodybuilding, wrestling, gymnastics, performing on parallel or horizontal bars were all perceived to be activities of hooligans”. 

Unsurprisingly, this had earned Bengalis a reputation of physical frailty and laziness. By mid-1850s two streams of sports emerged which aimed to change this perception about Bengali society. The first was wrestling. Ambika Charan Guha, a mostly self-taught wrestler began the culture of “akhara” or gymnasiums in 1857 which gained some level of popularity.  

The second stream was circus which combined wrestling, gymnastics and animal taming. In early 1880s Nabagopal Mitra made the first attempt in Bengal at an indigenous circus but it was Priyanath Bose’s “Great Bengal Circus” that became the first successful enterprise, touring all over India and multiple foreign locations.  

Both wrestling and circus might have started a change in outlook but physical sports had still not garnered wide popularity. They had limited scope and for a subjugated people, there was no chance to test one’s physical prowess against the rulers in these sports. Football solved both these problems.  

Swami Vivekananda and his teachings also had an influence on the propagation of football. A great spiritual leader of modern India, Vivekananda preached a form of spiritualism which combined knowledge of scriptures along with nationalism, physical and mental strength. His emphasis on the development of a strong physique meant many of his followers took up physical sports like football as a means of self-improvement. 

There was also an actual connection between Swami Vivekananda and football. Legend has it that he witnessed a number of football matches in 1880s and saw Nagendra Prasad Sarbadhikari in action. In a felicitation ceremony in Sovabazar Royal Palace Swami Vivekananda reportedly pointed at him and said, “We need more strong men like him”. The impression made by the beautiful game is best captured by an oft quoted statement of his. 

In his book Lectures from Colombo to Almora under a chapter titled as Vedanta in its application to Indian Life, he says, “Be strong, my young friends; that is my advice to you. You will be nearer to Heaven through football than through the study of the Gita”. It is likely that Swami Vivekananda didn’t state this as a football fan but rather as a social reformer who was impressed with the physical strength and teamwork the game fostered. The iconic Salt Lake Stadium in Kolkata, which is India’s largest stadium is officially named after Swami Vivekananda.  

The great spiritualist might have viewed football as a device to fulfill his vision of social reform but Nagendra Prasad Sarbadhikari performed his own version of a mini social revolution by setting up Sovabazar Club in 1887. Higher caste members raised a furore when Moni Das, son of a potter and a young man of lower caste tried to join Wellington Club. Enraged by this discrimination Sarbadhikari decided to dissolve the club. In Goalless, a scholarly work based on the socio-political impact of football in India, sports historians Boria Mazumdar and Kaushik Bandopadhyay write, “Nagendra Prasad was the first Indian to voice a critique against caste discrimination in the sporting realm. Although he belonged to an orthodox Hindu family, he chose to ignore all cast prejudices while establishing a series of sporting clubs”.  

Through marriage Sarbadhikari had gotten linked with the Sovabazar royal family, a powerful entity in socio-political stage of Bengal. Sovabazar Club was founded in the premises of famous Sovabazar royal palace in Northern Calcutta. It contained over 500 members who had left Wellington Club along with players from Boys Club and Friends Club. Moni Das was one of the first members to be inducted. Sarbadhikari was joined by Jishnendra Krishna Deb Bahadur, a member of the Sovabazar royal family as joint secretary and Bhupendra Narayan Bhup Bahadur – the Maharaja of Coochbehar, as club president. Remarkably, the club’s principle was to recruit players irrespective of caste, religion or creed – a significant step in a society still divided on those lines.  

Royal patronage was vital in Indian sports, arts or music as it brought in greater interest from the public and funds. The royal house of Coochbehar played a major role in the early development of Indian football. The Maharajas of Coochbehar were involved first with Sovabazar Club and then with Mohun Bagan. Irked by the tendency of British organizers of barring Indian teams from major tournaments, Coochbehar royal family started the Coochbehar Cup. Other royal houses that provided patronage to Indian football in its nascent stage were royal houses of Sovabazar, Bhukailas, Tajhat, Patiala, Mahisadal, Burdwan and Santosh.

Sovabazar was, without any doubt, the first big native club in Indian football. The royal family was held in high esteem by the British, ensuring the club got ample opportunities to play against British teams. Led by Sarbadhikari, it was the first club to capture the public imagination, which led to the formation of clubs in different parts of Calcutta.  

Two successful clubs of that era were also founded by people linked with Sarbadhikari – Manmatha Nath Ganguly’s National Association and Dukhiram Mazumdar’s Aryan Club. National was the first football club in India to directly link football with nationalism. Ganguly, an idealistic teacher, conceived the idea of beating the British by playing like British – meaning players from National wore boots. This was in sharp contrast to clubs like Sovabazar where members preferred to play barefoot – a way of Indianizing the foreign game.

Indian Football
Art by Onkar Shirsekar

Published in 1955, Kolkatar Football (“Football in Kolkata”) by Rakhal Bhattacharya, is one of the first books chronicling the history of Indian football. Bhattacharya wrote, “Sovabazar made immense contribution to spread football among Bengalis. A competitive edge soon crept into what was initially a hobby of a royal family. From North Calcutta, many middle class players joined the club. Eventually the influence of middle class eclipsed the royal influence in Sovabazar Club”. He further added, “Bengalis of that era were most interested to get a field where they could closely compete with the British. It was very likely that they would end up on the losing side but still they would put up a fight and who knows someday they could even win!”

Bhattacharya also said, “Nagendra Prasad wasn’t just a player but he also influenced a number of young men to join Sovabazar”. He also mentioned Nagendra Prasad’s playing prowess and called him one of Sovabazar Club’s greatest players. There aren’t any detailed descriptions of his playing style or stats about how many goals he scored but Nagendra Prasad Sarbadhikari was most likely a bustling center forward who relied more on physical strength than skills. There are multiple references to his physical strength. 

In 1911 Bangalir Oitihashik Football Juddho (1911 – Bengal’s Historic Football Battle) Kaushik Bandopadhyay quotes Manmatha Nath Basu, one of Sarbadhikari’s admirers, “On the field, anyone who was elbowed by Nagendra Prasad remembered it very well. He also proved to Indians and non-Indians that barefooted Bengalis could kick harder than booted players”. Nagendra Prasad’s biographer PL Dutt wrote, “That (physical regeneration of Indians) was the nationalism which Nagendra Prasad preached and practiced in all his life”. Sarbadhikari was a great sportsman and also took part in athletics, rifle shooting and even rugby.  

The best example of Nagendra Prasad’s physical strength lies in the following anecdote from Goalless – “A young family member ridiculed Nagendra Prasad’s powerful stature and stamina saying that a man only needed so much strength that he would be able to drink a glass of water by himself! Surrounded by armed retainers the babus present broke into laughter at the comment. Nagendra Prasad, not amused in the least, stunned everyone present by lifting the fellow off the ground and asking, “Now shall I fling you down, what do you imagine you will require to escape that fate? It was only after the man apologized that Nagendra Prasad set him down”.  

Sarbadhikari’s reputation is very much in sync with how football was viewed at that time – a stage where an average Indian could go up against their imperial oppressors and physically match them blow by blow – something that would earn punishment outside the field of play. The Bengali term “gorer mathe gora thangano” – “beating up a Brit on fort ground” (many football matches took place on the fields alongside Fort William, the army headquarters for British empire in Eastern India) has been often used in Bengali literature to describe bravado. 

By the late 1880s and early 1890s Mohammedan Sporting and Mohun Bagan were established. British teams still held positions of power, they were now joined with these young, enthusiastic native clubs with the support of the general public. With so many teams on the scene, the need for an open tournament was felt, leading to start of “Trades Challenge Cup” in 1887 – India’s first football tournament.  

British traders donated 500 rupees for the trophy and it was an “open” tournament, meaning both Indian and British clubs could participate. As the biggest club of their day, Sovabazar Club was first Indian club to play in Trades Cup. Playing with eleven barefooted players against booted opponents, they struggled in the first edition of the tournament.

In 1892 Sovabazar Club finally did the unthinkable and defeated a British team. In the opening match of Trades Cup they beat East Surrey, a British regiment team 2-1. This result got some degree of fame and was covered by both Indian and British press. Sarbadhikari was felicitated by royal houses in Bengal as well as Patiala in Punjab. With Sovabazar Sarbadhikari broke another glass ceiling, setting up a club house (commonly known as “club tent”) in Calcutta’s Maidan area, which used to be an exclusive right of British teams. 

Fresh from his club’s triumph against East Surrey, Sarbadhikari then focused on the next big project. Two tournaments, limited to British participation, had started outside Bengal – Durand Cup in winter capital of British India, Shimla (1888) and Rovers Cup in Bombay (1891). Sarbadhikari envisioned a tournament modelled after English FA Cup that would attract best teams from different corners of India. In 1892 he convened an informal meeting with officials from two foremost British civilian teams – Calcutta FC and Dalhousie FC to chalk out the blueprint.  

The first football association in India, Indian Football Association (IFA), was formed in 1893. Unfortunately, the division between ruled and rulers became evident with a governing body devoid of any Indian member – ironic for an organization whose name began with “Indian”. IFA’s major task was to manage the IFA Shield – the first “open” all India tournament. Financial contributions came from royal houses of Patiala and Coochbehar as well as AA Apcar (Armenian Club) and J Sutherland (Dalhousie Club). The Shield trophy was designed by Walter Locke & Company (Calcutta) and constructed by Elkington & Company (London). The day it arrived in Kolkata, a crowd of hundreds thronged just to catch a glimpse of it.  

Staying true to Sarbadhikari’s vision the inaugural IFA Shield tournament was conducted in two zones. Allahabad hosted Western zone where four army teams participated. The Eastern zone took place in Calcutta with nine teams – four British civilian teams, four British regimental teams and Sovabazar Club as sole Indian club. Sovabazar were out of their depth, bowing out in first round after a 3-0 reverse against 5th Royal Artillery.  

Between 1890 and 1900 football became more popular among the masses outside Bengal. Football was introduced to school students by Cecil Earle Tyndale-Biscoe, a missionary in Church Missionary High School in Srinagar, Kashmir and by medical missionary Theodore Leighton Pennell, in Bannu, North West Frontier of undivided India. In Southern Indian city of Thrissur, RB Ferguson Football Club was founded in 1899. Spurious Cup tournaments were not enough to cater to the growing interest of an ever expanding football fan base and hence, league football was conceived. Calcutta Football League was started in 1898, making it the oldest football league in Asia. Four years later Bombay Football Association was born to organize the Harwood League with seven teams. 

In 1900, a final glass ceiling was shattered when an Indian was inducted into IFA’s governing body. Native clubs had been insisting for their own representative and IFA finally buckled under their persistence. Sarbadhikari was offered the post but he declined, graciously offering it to Kalicharan Mitra, a close associate since his school days. In Goalless this selfless act is attributed to Sarbadhikari’s “indifference to the lure of either power of position”.  

1900 witnessed another landmark achievement when National Association won Trades Cup – the first reputed trophy won by an Indian club. National and 1893 Coobhbehar Cup-winning Fort William Arsenal (consisting of Indian employees of the British army) were continuing on the path broken by Sovabazar Club in 1892. However, by this time the influence of Sovabazar Club had waned with both National and Mohun Bagan becoming the trailblazers in Indian football.  

After leading the Indian football movement for the best part of twenty five years Nagendra Prasad Sarbadhikari left the scene in 1902, becoming an attorney in Calcutta High Court. The details about why he left the game are sketchy. Sovabazar Club and National Association, two clubs which had led the emergence of Indian football, also didn’t survive long as the mantle was taken over by Mohun Bagan, Mohammedan Sporting and East Bengal.  

Mohun Bagan’s victory in 1911 IFA Shield was a singular turning point in Indian football and sporting history. Playing with ten barefeet players Mohun Bagan strung a series of well publicized victories over British teams to become the first Indian team to win a major domestic trophy. It was not just a sporting victory but a victory which had a larger socio-political impact in terms of India’s freedom struggle. Sarbadhikari and Manmatha Nath Ganguly had sown the seeds to connect nationalism with football and 1911 solidified that connection.  

Nagendra Prasad Sarbadhikari passed away on 17th January, 1940. By the time of his death, native clubs were dominating and Indian football had truly become “Indian”. Mohammedan Sporting had won Calcutta League five consecutive times in the 1930s. In 1938, Bangalore Muslims became the first Indian club to win Rovers Cup while Mohammedan SC did the same with Durand Cup in 1940.  

In 1977, Indian football’s hundred year anniversary was celebrated in honour of Nagendra Prasad Sarbadhikari. His role is acknowledged by most works on Indian football including Barefoot to Boots by India’s prime football historian Novy Kapadia. Sarbadhikari may not be celebrated as much as he deserves to but his almost single handed efforts in popularizing football among Indians make him a perfect fit for the moniker of “Father of Indian Football”.