A showman who brought wrestling into the spotlight

A wrestling enthusiast,Chanchal Kumar perks up at the mention of Dara Singh

Written by Shivani Naik | Mumbai | Published: July 13, 2012 1:57 am

A wrestling enthusiast,Chanchal Kumar,the doorkeeper to the main entrance at the National Sports Club of India in Worli,perks up at the mention of Dara Singh. He knows nothing of the actor-wrestler’s passing away on Thursday,but with a hand pointing towards the swanky chrome-and-glass stadium dome,Chanchal indicates just where his wide-eyed memories of the big pehelwaan,lie frozen.

Every gesture with his expressive hands is grandiose: Dara ji was massive wrestler,he says. His opponents too were men-mountains. The makeshift stands for Dara Singh’s fights,inside what was then a velodrome,came in huge lorries. And the sea of people coming to watch him could stretch right upto where land met water across the Haji Ali sea indent. Some,or all of it could be exaggerations,but it tells you that Dara Singh’s aura was near-mythical.

Pioneer pehelwaan

“Dara ji never lost to any foreigner here,” he says with visible pride,his hand still pointing to what was once a hollow space with a mud pit. “Wrestling was finished after that,” he says.

Jumping up from the dangals of akharas across Indian villages,Dara Singh in fact,brought in what was the earliest avatar of WWE to Mumbai,and across Indian towns. It was still WWE in slow-motion,and they didn’t smirk at the antics back then — as Jagmal Singh,mentor to the London-bound Narsingh Yadav — explains. “Oh,public loved the stunts. Picking up opponents,hurling them around,throwing them with a bang and jumping with them to the mat. Kids would go mad,” he says.

Transcending boundaries

Dara Singh never won an organised Olympics-rule title,still he inspired a generation of amateur wrestlers who went on to win medals at the international stage. Like the 1982 Asian Games gold medallist,Satpal Singh.

Satpal concedes,he always used to hear: “Pehelwaan ho toh Dara Singh jaisa,” even after the big-built Jat had transcended into a matinee macho-man.

The Rustam-e-Hind’s fights with the Hungarian-born pro wrestler Emile Czaja,aka King Kong,drove Indians wild. The fame the rivalry brought to Dara Singh also rubbed off on the sport.

Up north,they never stopped celebrating his wins,and were glad that an Indian pehelwaan could satiate their yearning of nascent nationalism,especially after the ‘Great Gama’ went to Pakistan post-Partition.

In Mumbai — well before the IPL was bandied around as sport-entertainment — Dara Singh mixed the two to stunning effect. They created the Rustam-e-Zaman title for him,and news of a ‘Boston-grab’ — Dara Singh’s latest weapon,arrived in town and was advertised across newspaper ads — before the man returned to defend a title. However,Satpal remembers his ‘naag-phaans’ (the cobra-clutch) as his signature move,with which he would crush opponents — on demand from audience. “He might be a showman,but he remained a role model for young wrestlers across India. For many,Hanuman and Dara Singh were the same,” he remembers.

Dara Singh had handed Satpal five crisp hundred rupee notes after his Bharat Kesri title in 1975. “But what I’ll remember always is what he told me after I returned from Munich Olympics in 1972. I fought in 62 kg,and he warned me to not drop down the weight category,for I would one day be a big pehelwaan,” says Satpal,who went on to win the heavyweight gold at the Asian Games in 1982.

Jagdish Kaliraman,son of Dara’s peer Chandgi Ram,says that he remained accessible to all. “But the last two years he was very lonely,with the country seemingly having forgotten him. He was too tall-statured to crib about it. It hurt to see a man who was all-powerful,so dejected. Especially since all he cared about was entertaining the masses.”

Much before WWE became a TV phenomenon.

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