A brief history of Indian body building

Or how to put your mother on top of a cupboard


Eugen Sandow. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Eugen Sandow. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The death of Manohar Aich, India’s Pocket Hercules and the second-ever Indian Mr Universe (after Monotosh Roy), earlier this month brought forth a stream of reminiscences about physical cultures in this part of the world. Much of what we know about the subject is anecdotal and dispersed, but if there is one work which speaks reliably on the subject, it is Sachindra Majumdar’s 1940 classic Balider Galpa (Tales Of Strength), now sadly out of print. Published by the Kolkata-based Deb Sahitya Kutir, the nearly 200-page book is a veritable who’s who of Indian strongmen and, on some occasions, women, interspersed with the rarest of rare photographs.

Majumdar’s book is dedicated to the wrestler Gobar Goho, with whom he attended the Metropolitan Institution in Calcutta, as it was then known. They were both thrashed severely by their Bengali teacher, which may or may not have contributed to their taking up careers in wrestling.

When Eugen Sandow, the legendary German bodybuilder, performed in Kolkata in 1905, the young Majumdar and Goho were in the audience. But Majumdar’s account isn’t one of the Calcutta scene—after his father was transferred from northern China to Kanpur, Majumdar immersed himself in the sporting cultures of north India. He writes thrillingly of the Allahabad exhibition in the winter of 1910-11, which featured wondrous feats of strength, such as Prof. Ramamurthy stopping two automobiles with his bare hands.

The exhibition was also the site of one of the greatest wrestling dangals of all time, headlined by the Great Gama who had just returned from England after defeating Dr Benjamin Roller and Stanislaus Zbyszko. The dangal had been held to determine the champion of the United Provinces and India as a whole. Langra Partaba became the champion of the United Provinces by defeating one Chaubey of Mathura, but Majumdar’s attention was reserved for the marquee bout between Hassan Baksh and Imam Baksh, in which the great Imam felled Hassan twice.

This was followed by another classic fight between the 26-year-old Gama and the older Raheem Baksh—it was, in a sense, the resolution of the “final problem” between two great wrestlers. Gama prevailed, after nearly 2 hours of the most riveting kushti.

A year later, Majumdar travelled to Calcutta in search of another legend, Bhim Bhabani. Born Bhabendramohan Saha, the strongman had graduated from being a champion eater to being one of the mainstays of Prof. Ramamurthy’s circus, one that he later left after he outstripped the professor in prowess. But Majumdar’s interest in Bhim Bhabani sprang from his fascination with the “globe barbell” at which the latter was a master. Majumdar believed that his technique with the shot-loaded globe barbell was so exemplary that he could have become one of the greatest weightlifters in the world had he lived longer. Unfortunately, Bhim Bhabani died in 1922 at the age of just 32.

For the most part, Majumdar’s book refuses to be bound by a straightforward chronology. This might disorient readers not familiar with the subject, and the chapters do give the impression that they might have originally been published as a regular column. But there is a clear sense of beginning in the opening chapter, which introduces perhaps the most enigmatic figure in the whole book, Shyamakanta Bandyopadhayay, who would later become Soham Swami. At this time, however, he regularly gave performances at the residence of Raja Digambar Mitra, where he would lie like a plank between two chairs, bearing the weight of a huge boulder that would then be smashed to bits. Then he would enter a tiger cage and perform hair-raising stunts with the tiger.

Majumdar would also visit Bandyopadhayay’s residence on his way to school every day and gawp at his three big cats. Bandyopadhayay would invariably be sitting in a cane chair, reading the newspaper. On one occasion, curiosity got the better of Majumdar and he started poking a sleeping cheetah with a pencil to test its temper; the next moment, his ear was being pulled vigorously by Bandyopadhayay.

But perhaps the most hilarious encounter was the one between young Majumdar and his long-suffering mother. Fed up of Majumdar’s repeated requests for pocket money for Prof. Ramamurthy’s circus, his mother finally put her foot down. Whereupon Majumdar picked up his mother, installed her on top of a cupboard and refused to bring her down unless she paid up. Negotiations began at 8 annas, and finally settled at the then princely sum of Rs.2. Majumdar received an added bonus of 10 mangoes at mealtime. “After this,” Majumdar observes, “my mother regularly found herself perched on top of the cupboard!”

Endpapers is a monthly column on obscure books and forgotten writers.

Abhijit Gupta teaches English at Jadavpur University, Kolkata, and is director, Jadavpur University Press.

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