India in badminton history: A starring role in a meteoric rise

The sport of badminton, as we know it today, is intrinsically intertwined with the history of Indian badminton. Here’s how.

6 min By Utathya Nag
Indian badminton stars PV Sindhu and Pullela Gopichand.

Badminton, in recent years, has seen an unprecedented rise in popularity in India, primarily sparked by the emergence of global superstars like Saina Nehwal, PV Sindhu, Kidambi Srikanth and others.

But India’s connection with the game of badminton goes back a lot further, even to the ancient times. In fact, India played a major role in badminton emerging as a sport of global renown.

Here, we take a look at the history of badminton in India and how the sub-continent shaped the sport as we know it today.

History of badminton in India

The exact origins of badminton, till date, remain obscure but there have been references of games involving shuttlecocks and rackets in historic records of ancient India, China and Greece. The mentions dated back almost 2000 years.

In medieval Europe, a children’s game called battledore and shuttlecock, in which players used a paddle (battledore) to keep a small-feathered shuttlecock in the air as long as possible, was also popular. Jeu de Volant was another similar game played by European aristocrats in the 17th century.

The transformation of the past-time racket sport to becoming a globally-recognised sporting discipline, however, started from India.

A game of badminton mixed doubles in India from 1874.
A game of badminton mixed doubles in India from 1874.

British army officers got introduced to the indigenous version of the game, played for centuries, while stationed in India around the 1860s.

They made their own adaptations to the sport, primarily adding the net and called it Poona or Poonah, after the town (Pune) the garrison was based in. The first informal set of badminton rules for the game were formed in India by the British colonists in 1867.

Interestingly, ball badminton – another variation of the game involving woollen balls instead of shuttlecocks - was popular in southern parts of India. The British soldiers in India took inspiration from that as well and used balls rather than shuttlecocks while playing the game in windy or wet conditions.

Soldiers returning from India took the game back to England and soon enough, it caught the attention of the erstwhile Duke of Beaufort. In 1873, the Duke introduced the game to his guests at a lawn-party held at his estate in Gloucestershire.

The Duke called it ‘the Badminton game’ after the name of his estate – the Badminton House. The name stuck, and thus sport became badminton.

Badminton House in Gloucestershire, England, is where the sport badminton got its name from.
Badminton House in Gloucestershire, England, is where the sport badminton got its name from.

Badminton’s popularity surged rapidly and it progressed from being a recreational garden activity to becoming a game popular at clubs.

The Bath Badminton Club, the first dedicated badminton club, was formed in 1877 and ten years later, the club rewrote the informal rules coined in India. The Bath Badminton Club rules established the framework for modern-day badminton.

The Badminton Association of India (BAI) was established in 1899, six years after the Badminton Association of England (BAE). It is one of the oldest badminton governing bodies in the world.

A game of badminton in progress in a garden on Monzong Road, India. circa 1912
A game of badminton in progress in a garden on Monzong Road, India. circa 1912

The International Badminton Federation (IBF) was established in 1934 as the world governing body for the sport. It was later renamed to Badminton World Federation (BWF). India joined the group in 1936.

Badminton became a part of the Summer Olympics at the Barcelona 1992 Games with men’s singles, men’s doubles, women’s singles and women’s doubles events added to the roster. In 1996, mixed doubles was added to the list.

Deepankar Bhattacharya and U Vimal Kumar were the first male shuttlers to represent India at the Olympic Games in Barcelona 1992. Madhumita Bisht was India’s sole women representative at the event.

Badminton in India also latched on to the trend of franchisee-based sporting leagues with the Premier Badminton League (PBL), which started in 2016.

Iconic Indian badminton players over the years

Every sport in India has its own set of heroes and badminton is no different. These shuttlers were key in putting their country on the global badminton map.

Prakash Padukone

Prakash Padukone was probably the first superstar in the history of badminton in India. Padukone was the first Indian to win the prestigious All England Open Badminton Championships in 1980 and reach No.1 in the men’s badminton world rankings.

He was also India’s first Commonwealth Games gold medallist in badminton, winning the men’s singles event in 1978. The ace shuttler also holds several other accolades, including a bronze at the 1983 World Badminton Championships and a gold in the 1981 World Cup in Singapore.

Pullela Gopichand

Mentored by Prakash Padukone, Pullela Gopichand took over his teacher’s mantle in the 90s and early 2000s. Gopichand won the All England in 2001 and etched his name in Indian history of badminton.

Indian badminton player Pullela Gopichand won the All England Open in 2001
Indian badminton player Pullela Gopichand won the All England Open in 2001

Like Prakash Padukone did for him, Pullela Gopichand, too, dedicated himself to moulding the next generation of Indian badminton’s torch bearers.

Saina Nehwal

One of Pullela Gopichand’s star pupils, Saina Nehwal is India’s first-ever Olympic medallist in badminton. Nehwal won the bronze in the London 2012 Olympics women’s singles event. She is also the only Indian woman to be ranked No. 1 in the world, reaching the summit in 2015.

PV Sindhu

Five years younger than Saina Nehwal, PV Sindhu has taken world badminton by storm and went a step higher on the podium after Nehwal’s bronze with a women’s singles silver at the Rio 2016 Games. In 2019, she became the first Indian-ever to win a gold medal at the BWF World Championships and is currently the reigning women’s world champion.

PV Sindhu has been extremely consistent at the World Championships and has also won two silvers and two bronze medals in the tournament in addition to the landmark gold. Like Saina Nehwal, PV Sindhu has also been mentored by Pullela Gopichand.

Kidambi Srikanth

Kidambi Srikanth has been the top men’s badminton player in India since Pullela Gopichand retired. Srikanth has six BWF Superseries and three BWF Grand Prix victories under his belt and was ranked the No. 1 men’s player in the world in 2018.

He’s the only Indian men’s shuttler since Prakash Padukone to be ranked top.

Apart from these, Syed Modi, Parupalli Kashyap, Aparna Popat, Jwala Gutta are some other notable names.

Interestingly most of India’s badminton greats have come up from the state of Andhra Pradesh (now Andhra Pradesh and Telangana) – with the region acting as a hotbed for badminton players in the country.

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