A ball of a time

Updated: Sep 11, 2019, 22:24 IST | Snigdha Hasan

Head to Girgaum Chowpatty and try your hand at the much-loved French game of petanque, which is as much a social activity as it is a competitive ball sport

A ball of a time
The seafront is a popular venue among the French to play pétanque. Pic/AFP

The objective is clear. You throw or roll a heavy ball called boule as close as possible to a small target ball called cochonnet. If you get the most number of boules closest to the cochonnet, you win. Sounds familiar to our own desi game of kanche or marbles? Halfway across the globe, the French call the ball or boule sport pétanque. And much like marbles, this game — a form of which dates back to ancient Rome — was first a social activity, perhaps born in town squares, before it also acquired a professional competitive side through national and international tournaments.

A still from the film La cuisine au beurre (1963)

On September 22, after the visarjan revelries fade out, Girgaum Chowpatty's seafront will come alive once again with a community spirit thanks to Alliance Française de Bombay's Pétanque by the Beach, an event that aims to introduce Mumbaikars to the much-loved French game. "Pétanque is a tradition in a large part of France. It is a game of precision. What makes it special is that it is not so common to come across a game that anyone and everyone can play together," says the institute's executive director Frédéric Simon. This element of inclusivity, in fact, is what led to the modification of the rules of one of the boules sports, which came to be known as pétanque.

Frédéric Simon

It all began in 1910 in the small town of La Ciotat in southern France, where a game called jeu provençal was popular among the residents. Its rules were such that they required a player to gain momentum by running for a couple of steps. One day, it so happened that a local star of jeu provençal got confined to the wheelchair as a result of severe rheumatism. The prospect of never being able to play the game again left him heart-broken, which his fellow residents couldn't bear to see. So, they tweaked the rules, eliminating the requirement to run. A player now had to aim at the cochonnet while being stationary. And this is how pétanque came into existence.

The boules are usually metallic spheres the size of an orange

Simon helps us further visualise the social setting in which pétanque developed. "It is played during aperitif time, which is just before dinner. It is an engagement between working hours and family time," he says, which perhaps explains the rule that when it is not their turn, players must be a little away from the spot of action with a glass of cold pastis, an anise-flavoured liqueur, in their hand.

Though born in southern France, it didn't take long for pétanque to become a beloved sport across the country. In fact, the game enjoys a special place in French popular culture, where actors are often seen playing pétanque in films. Today, pétanque championships are held not just in France, but also in Algeria, Morocco, Italy, and even Malaysia and Vietnam.

What led to the idea of giving Mumbaikars a taste of pétanque, we ask Simon. "Apart from the fact that it is good for practising French, it is an inter-generational game, that brings people of all age groups together," he says. A simple game with inexpensive equipment, which acts as a unifier — that's a recipe for communal bonding that was as successful in 1910 as it is in 2019.

The rules

  • Petanque is played between two individuals or two teams, where the number of boules per team should not exceed 12.
  • The play area should be ideally rectangular and the game must be played on a reasonably flat and hard surface.
  • The boule should be thrown from a distance of 6 to 10 metres from the cachonnet.
  • While the target score is not a fixed number, a pétanque match is usually played for 13 points.

Other French games you can try

  • Jacquet is a game from the backgammon family, where the board is marked with thin triangles across which pieces are moved.
  • Le jeu de sept familles is a card game featuring fictional families of different occupations, where the aim is to collect complete families.


ON September 22, 6 pm 
AT Girgaum Chowpatty.
REGISTER communication.mumbai@afindia.org (limited seats)

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