Philanthropy and sport- the Bangalore story

The importance of informal networks when it comes to supporting sport must never be underestimated, writes Dev Sukumar

The importance of informal networks when it comes to supporting sport must never be underestimated, writes Dev Sukumar

Action from a football tournament in Pillanna Garden in August 2010. Around 10,000 people turned up for the five-a-side tournament. Events such as these are as much a social celebration as a sporting occasion. Pic: Dev S Sukumar (Creative Commons license)

In the romance of our imagination, sport is a vehicle for the discovery of heroes. Central to this theme is the do-gooder – the man with means who goes about seeking sporting stars on the streets and in slums. There’s a certain allure there that’s hard to resist. Countless movies have been made on the hero living in obscurity who is suddenly discovered thanks to the benevolence of a stranger.

While there is logic to this narrative, and several sporting heroes have thus been discovered by individual and collective acts of philanthropy, the situation on the ground is, in reality, less romantic. In Bangalore especially, we see a near-absence of philanthropic spirit as far as sport in concerned. People would rather gift crores to a temple, than back the dreams of a prodigious talent. This is not the case just with sport, but other spheres as well. There is however a certain idealised notion of the do-gooder that’s hard to shake off.

In concrete terms, what has worked in my opinion in Bangalore so far is not so much individual acts of charity as it is the existence of informal networks.

Take the low-income neighborhoods of the erstwhile British Cantonment – areas such as Austin Town, Frazer Town, Gautampura (Gun Troops), Pillanna Garden, and so forth. They have produced 90 per cent of the state’s footballers, some of whom have gone on to play for the country. This phenomenon began during the British rule – and must count as one of the most remarkable examples of people’s sport in the country.

Let us digress here, for a moment, to the romance of the imagination I mentioned earlier. The popular idea is that –

a) the government is useless at administering or propagating sport

b) so this is a task best left to private enterprise

c) if private companies were encouraged, they would shovel money towards the national endeavour of finding the next sporting hero

All three assumptions are deeply flawed.

I was chatting the other day with Reginald Rajan, former captain of the Indian basketball team, and currently the sports officer with the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) Sports Club. HAL had qualified for the first division of the national football league (or the I-League), and Rajan was talking of how difficult and expensive it was to stitch up a competitive team. “People don’t give enough credit to the public sector,” he said. “Actually, government companies and the public sector are the only ones investing in sport. Look at our Commonwealth medallists. Most of them are from the Railways or the Air India or petroleum companies. Private companies talk big, but they’ve hardly done anything for sport. Public sector units are the only ones recruiting sportsmen, and people say they are losing money and should be shut down!”

The examples of private companies consistently supporting sports are so few that they could be counted on the fingers of one hand. In Bangalore, the only two examples that come to mind are the Prakash Padukone Badminton Academy (earlier sponsored by BPL and now by Tata), and the Jain group of institutions, which has a rigorous policy to support sportsperson.

The flaw is in assuming that the only way to support sport is to depend on private companies or government support. But, sport is people’s activity, so how come nobody thinks of the importance of the community in fostering sport?

The Cantonment area has a legacy of producing footballers (and to a lesser extent, boxers and athletes) from the Forties. S Raman, the captain of the 1956 team that reached the semifinals of the Olympics, hailed from Austin Town, as did several other luminaries such as T Shanmugham, Venkatesh, Ahmed Khan, Varadaraj, among others. The legacy of producing international footballers has continued until the present time.

What is it about this area that makes it such a nursery for footballers?

The soundest explanation for this is that, in these places, football is a people’s sport. Football is not recreation; it is not a pastime to keep fit until one gets to the more serious business of studying or making a career. Football is community life. It is as much a part of the life of the people as attending a temple festival.

Sport thrives here in Austin Town, Bangalore, thanks to support from the community. Pic: Dev (CC license)

The local first division league happens at the Bangalore Football Stadium; on any given day there may be a hundred-odd spectators. But, visit any tournament that’s held in Austin Town or Pillanna Garden- the difference in turnout is astonishing. At a recent tournament in Pillanna Garden, 10,000 people turned up at a small Corporation Ground for a five-a-side tournament! Players were feted and given washing machines, and mixer grinders as gifts. It is the community connect that has sustained football here not the charity of a general do-gooder.

I asked a player why it was that nobody turned up at the Bangalore Football Stadium (where the state association office is located), and he said: “You know, nobody cares for the players there. The officials have no connect with football. Here, we are the central figures.”

The importance of informal networks must never be underestimated. Every kid in Cantonment grows up with the awareness that football is the passport to a better life – either through a contract with a professional club, or regular employment with the public sectors (BEL, HMT, HAL, etc), or defence establishments (MEG, ADE, LRDE). In recent years, though, the public sector has stopped recruiting sportsmen, and it has hit the dreams of a whole generation of youngsters.

Within an informal network, everything required to support the competitive footballer is available – coaching clinics, five-a-side matches, and even social acceptance. Footballers become household names. They may be lost in the larger narrative of sports in the city, but within their social spheres, they are heroes.

Dev Sukumar writes about sport for DNA, Bangalore. He has also been covering badminton since the 90s and recently wrote the biography of Prakash Padukone called ‘Touch Play’. more


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Dev Sukumar writes about sport for DNA, Bangalore. He has also been covering badminton since the 90s and recently wrote the biography of Prakash Padukone called ‘Touch Play’. more

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  • Mani Vannan

    Well Written Truth About Sport & Football in general, i Lived through it & Still Experience the same which’s captured well by Dev Sukumar.