For a man who made history for India, Keshav Chandra Datt led a remarkably simple life. Up until his death on 7th July 2021, Datt was the only living link to the golden era of Indian hockey and independent India's first gold medal-winning hockey team at the 1948 London Olympic Games.
On a muggy July day in 2019, at the age of 93, the former hockey star was resting in his home in Kolkata’s Ajoy Nagar. Upon finding multiple calls unattended, we had decided to go directly to his residence, and after finding his home taking help from the locals, we introduced ourselves and asked for his interview. But he was not amused. Lying on the bed, the old, frail man asked, "Did you take my permission?" We hadn’t.
We had travelled 100 km to interview Datt. He was one of the 24 players from West Bengal, more specifically from Kolkata, who had represented the Indian hockey team at the Olympic Games. Datt’s favoured position on the hockey field was half-back, and he set the turf on fire with his fancy stickwork. Now all that was left of those glory days was a fading gleam in his eyes.
Datt was the first non-football sportsperson to be conferred the Mohun Bagan Ratna, and we wanted to know what he thought of it.
As we mentioned ‘Mohun Bagan’ a smile slowly lit up his face. The annoyance on his face soon took a backseat. As we entered his apartment, a hockey stick was on display, but no medals. To Datt, Mohun Bagan was not just a club; the historic name triggered a cascade of nostalgic memories. You could almost see the years roll back as he said excitedly, “I have played a lot of matches for the club, for a long time.”
Regarded as one of the finest half-backs of Indian hockey by hockey maestro Dhyan Chand in his autobiography Goal, Datt was born on 29th December 1925 in Lahore, in undivided India. It was at Lahore's Government College that his love for hockey blossomed. The college had been the alma mater of renowned Olympians like Syed Jaffar, Commander Nandy Singh and Munir Dar.
After spending his formative years in Lahore, Datt moved to Bombay post-1947 partition and soon attracted the eyes of legendary Dhyan Chand and former India skipper Kunwar Digvijay Singh with his dazzling skills. Impressed by his impeccable technique and tremendous potential they selected him for the 1947 East Africa tour of India. As a young half-back, Datt played 22 matches on that tour and scored two goals.
When the Indian team for the 1948 London Olympics was selected, Datt was among the few players from outside Bombay who made it to the squad. In the national team, he played hockey at a time when the late Balbir Singh Senior was taking the game by storm. After Dhyan Chand retired, Balbir Singh became the new national hero. And Datt, a centre half-back, was a key member of that Indian team.
– At London's Wembley Stadium, the team created history, winning independent India's first gold thrashing Great Britain, their former colonial rulers, by a massive 4-0 margin. When Singh scored a brace, Datt held the Indian defence like a rock.
In 1950, Datt moved to Calcutta from Bombay on the advice of his parents, and he lived there till the very end. He loved Calcutta so much that he even refused to leave the city when his wife and children settled overseas.
When he arrived in the city, the owner of the Broadway Hotel, Iqbal Singh, made sure he got hold of Datt before any other clubs. Singh's awareness helped him to sign Datt for Calcutta Port Commissioners. While playing for the railway team, Datt’s skills impressed the then Mohun Bagan Secretary, Jahar Ganguly, who didn’t waste any time signing him for the club. In 1951, he joined the esteemed Mariners and won his first cup double for the club in 1952, winning the CHL and Brighton Cup. He played for Mohun Bagan till 1960.
Owing to his scintillating performance in Calcutta, which was then a rich hub of hockey with so many clubs making the sport triumph, Datt was an automatic choice for the 1952 Helsinki Olympics. In Finland, he won his second gold medal for India, when they handed the Netherlands a 6-1 drubbing in the final. Balbir Singh Senior ripped apart the Dutch defence, netting five goals.
By the age of 26, Datt had become a two-time Olympic gold medallist, a rare achievement for an Indian athlete. He was also selected for the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, this time he was chosen captain of the Indian team.
– But Brooke Bond, his employer, a London-based tea company, refused to grant him leaves; as a result, he was denied of completing a hat-trick of winning gold medals.
Datt’s English bosses always meted out poor treatment to him. During his club career with Mohun Bagan, he was not allowed to leave the office early before 4:30 o'clock, so he always used to be the last person to join the team for matches.
However, despite facing challenges he was instrumental in Mohun Bagan’s Brighton Cup win in 1952, 1958 and 1960. Now known as the All India Brighton Cup, it is one of the oldest- surviving field hockey tournaments in the world. As a Mohun Bagan player, he also won six Calcutta Hockey league (CHL) titles. The defunct league was played in the line of Calcutta Football League.
Datt also had the rare distinction of playing in the National Championship for three different teams - undivided Punjab, Bombay and Calcutta.
The star of the 1950s was never recognised by his country for his achievements. Despite being a two-time Olympic gold medallist, he was never honoured with an award by the Indian government. However, in 2013, the West Bengal government awarded him the 'Banglar Gourav', while Hockey Bengal, the governing body of the state hockey, gave him the Dhyan Chand Lifetime Achievement Award in 2020.
Acknowledging his contribution to the Mariners, on July 29, 2019, Datt was conferred with the Mohun Bagan Ratna on Mohun Bagan Day, which the club has been celebrating since 2001.
But did these honours mean anything to the starlet of the golden era of Indian hockey since it came at the twilight of his life?
“I have never begged for an award,” Datt said, his voice betraying a bitterness he seemed to have harboured for a long time. “You play brilliantly and win gold in the Olympics. They remember you for it for a few months. And then what?”
In his heyday, Datt was idolized by his fans. It helped that he rode a Harley-Davidson and pulled up on his motorcycle for practice at the Kolkata Maidan, in style. It drove his fans crazy! Such was his charisma that young women fans would gather on the touchline of the hockey field to watch the tall and handsome Datt play.
The fearless half-back of the Indian team was also a badminton player of repute. Though his focus was on hockey, he also played badminton sporadically and once held the No. 1 position in state rankings. Such was his talent in the racquet sport that he once defeated Bengal legend Manoj Guha and became state champion.
– He had a large heart too. Post-1962 Indo-China war, when the Indian Army was facing a cash crunch, patriotic Datt had donated his 1948 gold medal to the National Defence Fund, while his son Arun preserved the 1952 medal.
In his final days, Datt lived in Ajoy Nagar, in the southern suburb of Kolkata, in the care of an attendant, who had been looking after him since 2013. His daughter Anjali Keshav Poulsen, who lives in Copenhagen, used to visit him frequently. On 7th July 2021, the hockey great joined the galaxy of his legendary teammates on the other side.
Homage and tributes came thick and fast from all walks of life. Suddenly, legends of Keshav Chandra Datt came into the limelight. But in his lifetime, he was perennially ignored. Maybe in his heavenly abode, he will finally find the due recognition he had been denied.
– ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sudipta Biswas is a sports journalist and author of Mission Gold: India’s Quest for Olympic Glory (2020). Biswas started his career covering grassroots sports in Kolkata and is currently researching and reporting on the Olympic movement in India.