Making muscles is not easy. It can get lonely. There is no end to how much you need to eat. And then there's the nagging question: 'are you big enough?'
The bodybuilder has no friends. The bodybuilder likes to be alone with her bars and weights.
She walks over to a bar loaded with two enormous plates. She breathes evenly and her eyes are soft. She grips the bar, arms spread out wide, and drops her hip. Now her back is straight like a plank, her feet planted firmly, her elbows locked out. The veins in her arms and neck begin popping out in sinuous trails as she straightens with the weight hanging from her hands. Now her eyes are wide and glazed, she is breathing hard. Her shoulders swell with thick muscles. Her back separates into anatomical slabs. She drops the weight with a thud.
The bodybuilder is a girl who has just turned 18, with a body rippled with bulging muscles, and shaped like a wide V that ends in a narrow waist, and hard, strong legs. Every day she enters the gym with the same thought: She is not big enough or powerful enough. “My arms are small and weak," she says, flexing them into frozen waves.
The notion of weakness has haunted Europa Bhowmik, who lives in Kolkata and has just finished school, for a long time. She is the youngest competitive woman bodybuilder in India. Last year, she stood third at her debut Senior National Bodybuilding Championships. She will represent India at the Asian Bodybuilding and Physique Sports Championships in Seoul, South Korea, from 20-26 August, her first international competition.
Four years ago, she was just another girl wrestling with the demons of her teenage years. Her friends and peers considered her a rare beauty. She had this idea that she would be a model, but she thought she was not thin enough. People around her also knew her as ill-tempered. She had difficulty making friends because she found herself, quite often, in physical fights. As a child, her response to bullying was to fly in with fists and legs.
“I remember I was 10 years old, and four boys, they were at least three years older than me, were ragging me in school about how short I was," Bhowmik says. “I was mad. I grabbed and pulled one’s hair, kicked and punched at the others, I landed a hard kick on one boy’s butt," she laughs, enjoying the story. “But then everyone started hating me in school because I would get into these fights. The ragging did not stop, but became inappropriate as I got older. I had no friends. I think that’s what happens to smart girls."
When she was 14, she changed schools and also joined a gym in the hope of losing weight. At first, she did the usual stuff—long hours on the treadmill, crash diets; when she tried weights, she was told, “Girls don’t lift." She wanted to lift. Within a few months, she discovered that she found a joy in working with weights.
“I had played football and rugby, basically rough sports, but I could not fit into a team because it required other people and I hated people and they hated me," says Bhowmik, sitting in the Kolkata gym that she co-owns. “In the gym, I could be on my own, it was my escape. Well, first it was my escape and then it was my home."
Bhowmik began to dream of muscles. She started looking online. She was awestruck by images and videos of female bodybuilders. She had no idea that the feminine form could look like that. She printed out and put up posters of female bodybuilders on the walls of her room. She flexed her biceps for her parents—her father is in the merchant navy (he was captaining a ship called the Samko Europe when she was born, thus the name “Europa". If the child had been a boy, he would have been called Sam), her mother a qualified doctor who chose not to practise to focus on the family. They laughed at her childlike enthusiasm for what was clearly a phase, quite sure that it was too hard and too strange for a girl barely in her teens to actually become a “muscle monster".
Then Bhowmik began to transform.
Women’s bodybuilding is a difficult beast to confront, even within the bodybuilding community where everyone walks around with freakishly large muscles. This is because women’s bodybuilding is exactly the same as men’s bodybuilding. It rewards the same poses and the same musculature. Which means a woman must work towards whatever is thought to be the ideal male physique, which in current bodybuilding terms means actually looking like The Hulk, an out-of-control proliferation of muscles of a size that’s barely believable on the human anatomy.
Rohit Shetty, one of India’s most accomplished bodybuilders. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
Women have to transform their bodies to a male physique: protruding deltoids linked to wide, “winged" lats; abdomens that cut into three squares on each side, hemmed in by thick, ropy obliques that end in the narrowest of hips, and immediately swell into large thighs streaked with tectonic plates of flesh. This is not an easy thing for a woman to get; anatomy and genetics are both against her. For proof, look at elite women athletes. Whether they are wrestlers or boxers, footballers or long-jumpers, tennis stars or gymnasts, few female athletes develop a muscular physique that’s “manly". When they do, like Serena Williams, they are branded “freaks", or, in the case of track athletes, reported to a medical panel that checks if they are men disguised as women.
The Olympia, the equivalent of the Olympics in the bodybuilding world, dropped women’s bodybuilding in 2015.
“But they kept Women’s Bikini!" says Bhowmik, who mourns this betrayal of her sport, and whose idol is the US bodybuilder Lenda Murray, an eight-time Ms Olympia. Bikini Olympia is a category in the Olympia contest that is exactly what the name suggests. A fitness expert writing an article on the cancellation of Ms Olympia put it bluntly: Women’s bodybuilding was just “too ugly".
The Arnold Classic, a competition founded by actor-politician Arnold Schwarzenegger, held every year in the US, also dropped women’s bodybuilding, preferring to stick to a category called “Women’s Physique", which, according to the competition’s website, “is a division that walks a fine line between being muscular enough and being too muscular...a look that builds on what female bodybuilding started as in the ’80s, sans the extremities of the two decades that followed it."
But while it is struggling on the international circuit, women’s bodybuilding has seen a slight increase in popularity in India, where it was introduced five years ago. There are barely 15 competing bodybuilders in the country; a sport does not get more niche or more nascent than this (Bikini and Women’s Physique categories see far higher participation).
Bhowmik runs her own gym, in the solidly middle-class suburbs of Kolkata, near the airport, with her trainer, an accomplished bodybuilder called Indranil Maity. It’s a small, weight-heavy room done up in black and red, on the first floor of a typically cramped and fraying Kolkata apartment building.
Bhowmik finishes her morning session and changes into a short-sleeved Superman T-shirt and grey gym Capris. She suggests going across the street to a Subway for a meal. She does not eat out often, but when she does, it is usually at Subway, where she can control the carb-protein-fat ratio that’s always on her mind. She pulls a face. “Chicken, turkey, chicken, turkey, no masala, so boring," she says.
As soon as we exit the building, two boys in school uniforms, riding cycles side by side, stare at her and collide with each other. Bhowmik gives them a sideways glance and smiles to herself. In the few short steps it takes for us to get to the sandwich joint, I am acutely aware of the effect she has on people. The entire street stares at her, without exception. People in cars hang their heads out to get a better look. The bodybuilder can hardly hide behind clothes.
“Yes, I know everybody looks at me," she says. “People stare at me all the time, but they are in awe," she explains. “There is no disrespect in it. I hear comments all the time too. Like, ‘look at the muscles on that girl, dude, she is bigger than you!’ Or, ‘wow, those muscles, is that a boy or a girl?’" She laughs. “I think it’s very encouraging."
Just a few days back, when Bhowmik was in a mall, a man walking past squeezed her biceps and walked away. “Maybe that’s just another form of harassment, or maybe it was appreciation," she says.
Over meat-loaded sandwiches, Bhowmik expresses her disdain for bikini competitions at bodybuilding championships, and schools me in the differences between a bodybuilding bikini and a normal one: the bodybuilding one is not meant to be swimwear, the material is different, the cut is different, the pant line is very high. But most Indian women bodybuilders can’t afford the more expensive sport-specific costume and go on stage wearing swimwear. It hurts Bhowmik’s aesthetic sensibilities, so she designs and gets her costumes cut herself.
Then she speaks about the most painful part of her transformation into a bodybuilder. As her muscles began to grow, her parents, who had first dismissed her interest in working out as a passing fad, became increasingly alarmed.
“Every time I flexed, my mom cringed," Bhowmik says. “My parents tried very hard to stop me. They thought I was torturing myself. I could not explain to them that I actually liked what I was doing."
Suparna, Bhowmik’s mother, admits that she and her husband were “very disturbed" by their “pretty, petite and headstrong girl" growing muscles. Relatives berated them constantly. In their apartment complex, people began to look strangely at the family and avoid them. Many of their friends stopped meeting them entirely.
“We used to feel terrible," Suparna says, “I don’t think any parent will willingly choose this for their daughters. Europa was not social to begin with, but I was, and it hurt me to lose friends."
Bhowmik’s parents started taking her regularly to a psychiatrist, with the aim of weaning her away from bodybuilding. In the end the psychiatrist told them that instead of trying to change Bhowmik, perhaps they should change their attitude and accept what she was doing. But for Bhowmik, it was her friends at school who offered the most scathing resistance to her metamorphosis.
“My close friends had very bad reactions," she says. “They told me I was going mad; that I was on drugs. I was undergoing a sex change. Everyone thought they were helping me, putting me back on the right track."
She lost all her friends.
“It was better that way," she says. “I felt lighter, liberated. Now I could be in the gym without distractions. The weights were my friends."
Her parents came around first. Her mother accompanied her to her first championship last year, and now faithfully follows her to every competition.
Rohit Shetty’s student Varsha Bhagchandani
“The first time she took me to a competition," Suparna says, “I was shocked. Looking at all those muscles, I wanted to run away from there. I thought, ‘what have I gotten myself into?’ Now, of course, I have lots of fun."
Once Bhowmik started winning at competitions, some of those lost friends wrote to her on social media saying they were proud of her, and came to the gym to work out with her.
This refrain of the loss of a social life appears in the story of all women bodybuilders in India. I met Varsha Bhagchandani, from Nagpur, at the qualification for the Asian Championships, which was held in Meerut on a hot July evening. A cosmetologist with a seven-year-old daughter, Bhagchandani joined a gym when she became a mother, in the hope of losing weight.
“I was so happy there!" Bhagchandani says. “I wanted to lift day and night and day and night. I wanted to lift heavy, heavy, heavy. From the very beginning, I did not see myself as an average fit woman, but something much, much stronger."
People around beginner bodybuilders tend to notice the change in shape in two instalments. The first instalment leads to a question everyone yearns to hear: “Are you working out?" The second time people really take notice, there is dismay: “Why are you turning so muscular?"
But for the beginner bodybuilder, the shift towards muscularity is a slow, barely visible process.
“Do you change overnight? No," says Bhagchandani. “It’s days and days together, working every single day. You slowly start seeing changes in the mirror that only you can see and no one else can. Those first signs are thrilling. I could feel myself changing, I could feel the strength in me and it was such a wonderful feeling, and it’s not a feeling that comes and goes in a day, it stays with you every day you go to the gym, and every day you think, I can lift more!"
I think when someone looks at me, they fall in love with the way I look. But they don’t always know it, and they struggle with accepting it, and the ill feelings come from that struggle.- Varsha Bhagchandani
Predictably, when her muscles started thickening and taking shape, her parents, in-laws, and friends reacted with shock and disbelief. Bhagchandani’s father-in-law, like her husband, is in the garments business, and is a senior functionary with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. He found it particularly hard to accept her new passion, especially since, in competitions, she has to pose in bikinis.
Bhagchandani makes light of the opposition; “I faced a lot of emotional pressure, but I think the friction has to be there, it made me do more," she says. “But people started supporting me a lot once I started winning competitions. The love that I got from my society, from my community, began to change opinions. I am a star in Nagpur! My father-in-law is still uncomfortable with it, but he’s also proud of me." It helped that her husband stuck to her side and encouraged her. Like Bhowmik’s mother, Bhagchandani’s husband accompanies her to all her competitions.
“I think when someone looks at me, they fall in love with the way I look," says Bhagchandani. “But they don’t always know it, and they struggle with accepting it, and some of the ill feelings come from that struggle."
What is bodybuilding? In its purest essence, it is not about health, or fitness, or power, or athletic performance. It is about aesthetics, the development of the body for no other reason but to celebrate its complex musculature.
“Bodybuilding is an art, the art of muscles," says Indranil Maity, who trains Bhowmik. “In competition terms, it means that we need to show each and every muscle we have. They should be separate, defined, voluminous, strong. The more visible I can make my muscle tissue, the more artistic I am."
It can take years or months for the body to get into that shape. Maity compares it to a rock being shaped by a river; the constant flow of the water hewing and sculpting the stone, making it smooth and shiny. This is not entirely a fanciful comparison—the modern bodybuilder’s physique is more akin to a geological formation than a study in anatomy.
Bodybuilding is making your gym your home. Bodybuilding is funny words that mean the same thing: ripped, shredded, sliced, cut, pumped. Bodybuilding is about understanding anatomy, targeting muscles big and small, lifting heavier and heavier. Bodybuilding is the clank of iron and steel as a weight is slipped on to a bar.
But above all, bodybuilding is about food. A bodybuilder from a small town just outside Kolkata offers me another geological metaphor: “It’s like an iceberg. The 30% you see above water are the muscles, the 70% that’s hidden is food and steroids."
A bodybuilder consumes enormous amounts of food, at regular intervals, through the day, most of it in the form of protein, and needs to change the diet according to whether he or she is in the bulking phase (gaining muscle), or the cutting phase (losing fat).
A regular “maintenance" diet for a 60kg bodybuilder could involve a daily ration of 30 eggs, a kilogram of chicken, rice, a smattering of vegetables, a couple of bowls of dal, 100g of paneer, various kinds of supplements (caffeine, whey protein, glutamine, creatine, etc.), vitamin pills and liver tonics. By most accounts, that’s roughly Rs50,000 per month for a single person’s diet.
“Maybe you will spend 2 hours a day lifting weights," Maity says, “but from the moment you wake up till the moment you sleep, you will be involved with your diet—what will I eat, when will I eat it, how long will the gap be between two meals, how much water will I drink..."
Before a competition, this relationship between food and the body gets especially tricky. To make all the muscles visible, to get the fibrous striations and a richly veined look, there can be no obstacle between the muscles and the skin.
“The skin and the muscles are separated by water and fat," says Bhagchandani. “So right now, I’ve been on a no-salt diet for two weeks, and I’ve forgotten what food tastes like. I am so dehydrated that I can barely speak. The more water and fat you can remove, the more striations and fibres you will see. The skin becomes a shrink-wrap over the fibres." Bodybuilders commonly use diuretics to flush out water and salt from the body before a competition.
“But also, water gives your muscles a certain fullness, carbs make them ‘pop’," says Maity, “so you can’t be entirely dehydrated and carb-starved. It’s extremely hard to get that balance between fullness and ripped."
It is not without irony that bodybuilding is embraced most by those who cannot really afford the diet it demands. Most bodybuilders come from poor families, from small towns, dilapidated suburbs and villages. They make their money from competitions (the 2016 National Championships offered Rs30,000 for the winners of various categories, and Rs2 lakh for the “Champion of Champions"); from exhibitions and shows where they are invited by clubs and institutions during the festive season (rates per show vary from Rs500 for a novice to Rs15,000 for well-known bodybuilders); as personal trainers, where there is no limit to how much money can be made; as gym trainers; and by hustling supplements and steroids, a lucrative side business for those who work in gyms. A select few at the top (like Bhowmik) get endorsement deals from supplement manufacturers.
Maity, who comes from the industrial town of Kharagpur, over 100km from Kolkata, got hooked to bodybuilding when he was 15, a weak, thin boy weighing all of 39kg. His father ran a shop selling livestock feed. His mother earned by recycling newsprint into paper bags.
His search for nutrition was desperate. He bought overripe, blackened bananas in bulk because they were sold cheaper at the fruit shop. He worked in a computer shop cropping wedding photos and used all his money to buy eggs and chicken. It was still not enough, so he would go around collecting the starch water that’s thrown out after making rice from neighbours, and drink that. But bodybuilding also yanked him out of poverty, and gave him his flourishing fitness business.
“Bodybuilding is everything for me," Maity says. “I love it more than I love my family."
Bodybuilding is about escaping your childhood, your weakness; it is about overcoming the deep wound of not being able to afford enough food.
In Madhyamgram, a busy small town outside Kolkata where the preferred mode of public transport is an open cart attached to a cycle, I meet Devasish Chowdhury, who has recently started competing at the national level. Chowdhury’s father was an itinerant fish-seller, and in a bid to run away from poverty, Chowdhury left home when he was 10 years old. He made his way to Mumbai, where he found work in a sweatshop making gold jewellery. He returned home five years later and fell in love with a girl.
“But I was so weak, just 33kg," he says. “I wanted to work out. I remember doing my first push-up. I went down and smashed my nose into the ground and could not come back up." He pushed on. He stood outside gyms watching people working out inside. He asked friends and neighbours who looked fit.
“The whole idea was, when I put on my shirt, was it getting tighter on me or not?" Chowdhury says. “Whether that was because of a belly or biceps was not the point."
Eventually he found a gym, began to understand nutrition and exercise. He opened his own gold workshop, got married, fathered a child. He stopped bodybuilding to save money for the family. He put his savings into a chit fund that all his friends were using. Two years later, the date of maturity for his investment approached.
“There was just a month left before I got all my savings plus the interest back," Chowdhury says. “I was plotting and planning. This much will go into the business, this much into the bank, this much into my re-entry into bodybuilding."
Then the chit-fund collapse hit West Bengal, in 2013. Chowdhury lost all his money. “This changed me," he says. “I decided whatever I wanted to do, I had to do it now. No waiting, no long-term plans. I went back to bodybuilding. I wanted to forget that I was once weak."
Women bodybuilders may face deep social pressures, but at the heart of it, in their pursuit of this extreme and fetishistic sport, there is little to separate the genders. The husbands or boyfriends of most women bodybuilders are bodybuilders too; they are in this together.
Bodybuilders are, mostly, self-aware people who have spent a considerable amount of time thinking about their bodies, their craft, and why they do what they do. They have a good grasp of nutrition, anatomy, exercise, and of the body as a medium. They come to different conclusions through this quest: For some the body becomes a temple, for others it is a commodity you buy or sell.
“Bodybuilding is about money," Chowdhury says. “What kind of body do you want? If you have Rs10,000, you can get one kind. If you have Rs50,000, you can get another. If you have Rs1 lakh, I will take you to the national championships in six months. The body is bought."
Whether a body is bought or not is of no concern at the selection trials for the Asian Championships. What is of importance is whether you can sell it to the judges.
“Representation is everything," Maity says, as he prepares Bhowmik and himself for the trials. A competition is judged on the athletes striking six mandatory poses. “I am a salesman for my body. I need to make sure you think it is the best in the market. So I need to know how to represent it, and that is posing."
The trials are being held inside a college campus, and the main stage has been set up on the edge of a football field. The competitors, both men and women, are milling around in a circular hall close to the field. They don’t talk to each other much. The bulk of the athletes come from Manipur, Tamil Nadu or Maharashtra. Manipur, which has a strong grass-roots sporting culture, makes up half of the women’s pool.
There is Robert Meitei, 35, the star of the Manipur team, a smiling, jovial man who stands at barely 5ft. His father was a drug addict, and everyone around him told him that the son of an addict becomes an addict. He took up bodybuilding to prove them wrong. Now he is the principal of a government school in Ukhrul, a mountain town in Manipur. He wants to use education and health as twin weapons against drug addiction, cancer, and HIV/AIDS.
Bodybuilding is like an iceberg. The 30% you see above water are the muscles, the 70% that’s hidden is food and steroids. - Devasish Chowdhury
“In the Bible, it says, ‘Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you?’" Meitei says with a smile. “This is the best way to honour that temple."
The bodybuilders prepare for the show in their own islands. In one corner, Bhagchandani is in a tiger-print bikini, getting her tan on. All bodybuilders have to go on stage heavily tanned and bronzed—it’s a competition rule—because it brings the muscles into sharper relief. Bhagchandani has a large tattoo of Hanuman in his all-fierce form on her right arm, with a towering bridge in the background, representing the setu he built to Lanka with his monkey army. Next to that is a tiger in mid-roar. The tattoos are disappearing slowly under the layers of tan that her husband is applying on her with a roller. She has false eyelashes on, and her lips are coloured a blazing red. There’s an “Om" inked above her right eyebrow.
Bhowmik is standing next to a stand fan in a velvet bikini, refusing to move. Sweat will make her tan run. Her mother appraises her critically.
The islands are broken when Rohit Shetty, a bodybuilder from Mumbai who is currently India’s most accomplished competitor, walks through the hall, drawing the crowds with him. He walks towards Bhagchandani, whom he trains, and raises an eyebrow critically at the tan. He takes the roller and makes deft little movements, like a painter putting finishing touches to a canvas. When he leaves, the athletes return to their corners. They stare at mirrors. Except Bhowmik, who prefers not to, because she inevitably feels she is too small, and too weak.
You would think that bodybuilders are vain, always looking at their own reflection, but you would be wrong. They look at themselves in the mirror and see failure. They are never happy. One day the quadriceps are not separating enough. Another day the triceps are not full enough. Or the skin looks tired and wrinkled. Or the striations on the rotator cuff have disappeared. Are they eating right? Are they hydrating too much? Do they need to tweak their training? When bodybuilders look at the mirror, they see a body that’s not strong enough, big enough, or beautiful enough. They are constantly battling an image disorder.
At rare moments, they can see their journeys in their reflection.
“When I look at my old photos, I see a weak, skinny and fragile girl," Bhowmik says. “And then I look at the mirror and I think I’ve come a long way."
Pumping iron, Indian style
Largely concentrated in Manipur, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu, bodybuilding finds the strongest grass-roots interest in the North-Eastern state. Not only do Manipuris participate in all kinds of sporting activities, there is a refreshing lack of social stigma attached to sportswomen. As a result, the state produces a greater number of women bodybuilders.
Maharashtra’s extensive akhara culture feeds into its interest in bodybuilding and competitive weightlifting—Bollywood and the Tamil film industry have helped in the proliferation of this sporting culture. There is a steady demand for bodybuilders for bit roles while the more accomplished ones are sought after as trainers and training partners for actors. They hold the key—the particular mix of individually tailored diet, exercise and steroids— that gave Shah Rukh Khan his abs; transformed Aamir Khan into a wrestler; or turned Prabhas into a mass of muscles for Bahubaali (in his case, by the professional bodybuilder Laxman Reddy).
The art of manliness
Bodybuilding began in India the same way it began in Europe and the Americas, with the improbable rise to fame of a man called Eugen Sandow. Born Friedrich Wilhelm Müller in the Baltic port city of Königsberg, Prussia (now Kaliningrad, Russia), in 1867, Sandow started off as a “strongman" performing physical feats in music halls across Europe and America. On his manager’s urging, Sandow included a display of his physique as part of his show. Clad in only a tight pair of briefs, he would move through a set of poses that made very specific allusions to classical Grecian and Roman statuary.
Before Sandow, exercise had little mass appeal. But as Sandow toured the world with his shows, he sparked an unprecedented craze for exercise and a firm belief that developing the body was essential for a strong mind and strong morals. In Victorian England, he was co-opted as the perfect specimen of “manliness", and it is from there, following the trail of the British empire, that he became a global star. King George V befriended him. Through Sandow, England’s Royal Military Academy first established a physical training regime for recruits. In the US, Thomas Edison filmed him, creating one of the first moving pictures. James Joyce worked him into Ulysses, where Sandow’s book, Strength And How To Obtain It, sits on Leopold Bloom’s bookshelf.
Sandow’s fame has left strange cultural remnants, both lofty and mundane. Sukumar Ray’s seminal book of nonsense rhymes, Abol Tabol, features one man threatening another—"janish ami Sandow kori (Do you know I do the Sandow)?" The name for a men’s sleeveless vest across most of eastern India is “sando-genji".
“Sandow came to India in 1904 and he was an immediate sensation," says Abhijit Gupta, who heads the department of English at Jadavpur University and runs a project called Physical Cultures of Bengal. “He came at just around the time when a wave of muscular nationalism was running through Bengal, and he lit a few fires."
Reacting against a decades-long campaign by the British that stigmatized Bengalis as a “frail and effeminate" race, Sandow arrived in the middle of a sharp revival in physical sports in the region: wrestling and other indigenous martial arts, boxing, football, gymnastics, strongman circus acts, and, with the coming of Sandow, bodybuilding. In Kolkata, Sandow was asked by a reporter what would happen if Bengalis took up his system en masse. “From delicate they will become strong," Sandow had replied, inadvertently opening up fault lines in the well-entrenched colonial propaganda of innate weakness and “racial inferiority".
In the two decades after his almost year-long visit to India, Sandow’s gospel of strength would become an intrinsic part of armed revolution against the British, Hindu right-wing thought, and nationalism.
Sandow’s legacy flourished in West Bengal and Maharashtra, the two states where he left the most profound impression. The first Asian person to win Mr Universe, the topmost amateur title in the world, was the Kolkata-based Monotosh Roy in 1951. In 1952, the title was won by another Kolkata man, the iconic Manohar Aich, who died in 2016 at the age of 104 as a globally renowned bodybuilder. Aich lifted weights and gave performances well into his 90s.