Edwin Lutyens and Herbert Baker, the architects who designed India's new capital when colonial British rulers decided to move it from Kolkata in 1911, must have been men of the outdoors type. By the time, about twenty years later, when work on creating New Delhi was completed, it was a pretty little city outside the walls of old Dilli, notable as much for its expansive greens and gorgeous trees as for the imposing red sandstone structures at Raisina like the Viceroy's House (now Rashtrapati Bhavan) and the two secretariat buildings called North and South Blocks.
The celebrated planners did not forget to reserve space for playgrounds, any number of them and all over the place, serving as healthy lungs to the people of both New and old Dilli. You didn't have to go far to find a ground to play a game of football, hockey or cricket. For example, just outside Delhi Gate half a dozen grounds were leased out on an annual basis to clubs and colleges. The area to the north of Kashmiri Gate and Mori Gate was ringed with greens serving the needs of boys keen on sports of their choice.
Where have all those playgrounds gone? A hundred years ago not even a Lutyens, busy as the great man must have been at his drawing board, could have foreseen the exponential growth of Delhi as it transitioned from a city run by two municipal committees to a Union Territory and finally to a National Capital Region. Going back in time, the new capital contained a population of a few lakhs. Now a single of its nine district packs a teeming population of 20 or 30 lakhs. Those old playgrounds vanished because of the tremendous pressure on space. Ugly concrete came up where it once was all green with inviting goal-posts.
A stone's throw from Delhi Gate there were about half a dozen grounds which would be leased out to football or hockey clubs at a princely sum of Rs.50 a year, and the places came to be known as Moghals Ground or Crescent Ground or Independents Ground, although they were properties of the municipal body. In bygone times the Ambedkar Stadium was better known as Young Men's Ground because footballers of that century-old club played there. On summer nights, well after the players had gone home, the municipal authorities would arrange to screen Hindi movies there, watched by people who would stroll out of their crowded homes for a breath of fresh air after dinner. Yours truly, though not a film buff, remembers having watched the classic "Do Bigha Zamin" there on a summer's evening in the 1950s, starring, if memory serves right, Balraj Sahni.
Few, if any, will remember that in the territory where now stands the Kashmiri Gate Inter-State Bus Terminal there were cricket fields, breeding grounds of several stalwart Delhi cricketers. What a pity also that the grounds at Talkatora, home to well known football clubs like New Delhi Heroes, Simla Youngs and Raisina Sporting, no longer exist.
These grounds were within walking distance of the homes of players from families housed in the government flats in New Delhi's "squares." There were any number mini football tournaments held in these homely squares itself. The proximity of these playing areas was a great help. Playing within hailing distance provided a sense of security to both children and parents. On open air courts in these squares were bred some of the country's famous international badminton players, Amrit Lal Dewan and CL Madan, to mention just two. Covered courts came much later, but in spite of the increasing number of modern facilities, welcome as they no doubt are, the quality of players using them can't match that of the golden oldies.
For lack of covered wooden courts Delhi's organizers of state and national badminton tournaments in the good old days were forced to hold them in community halls with concrete floors. But no-one complained. Then came the indoor arena at the Karnail Singh Stadium, Paharganj, to be followed by the multi-purpose Indira Gandhi indoor stadium in the 1982 Asian Games and finally by the courts at the DDA's Siri Fort Complex in the 2010 Commonwealth Games.
But Dilliwallas who played their games out in the open in the freezing cold winters and searing temperatures of summers were hardy persons who demanded little. Delhi created a stir in the country's football scene when, hosting the 1944 national championship for the Santosh Trophy, defeated Bengal 2-0 in the final which was played on the patch of grass which has now become the Shahid Bhagat Singh bus terminal. Admitted, Bhagat Singh, martyr in the cause of the country's freedom, deserves every honour we can think of, but why ruin football grounds?
Footballers and hockey players cycling all the way to the ground after office and changing in full public view was a common sight. Also the Amrit Lals and the CL Madans pedaling their home on icy winter nights after their delayed badminton matches. Next morning they were back at their jobs on time. It was a different life that Delhi's "aam aadmi" led. He was not stressed out as he is these days.
The Roshanara Club, where the cricket board was founded in the 1920s, had a special charm of its own. Come what may, the late Prem Bhatia would drop his pen in mid-sentence to be in time for his Saturday afternoon cricket there. Nothing could keep the fondly remembered newspaper editor from being there for cricket. And later for the bubbly. Somebody had put up a placard at the bar which read "work is the bane of the drinking classes." Not having been to the place in years, I can't be sure if it is still there. It was there to remind you were there to unwind.
(Born in 1932, the writer is a former sports editor of the Times Of India.)