At almost every gym and health club across India, the name of Arnold Schwarzenegger — not to mention his massive frame — is ubiquitous with bodybuilding, the inspiration for hundreds of thousands to flex their muscles in search of that perfect physique.
Well before the Austrian had ever heard of flexed pecs, however, a short man from West Bengal had already made bodybuilding history by becoming, in 1951, the first Asian to be crowned Mr Universe. Monotosh Roy died in Kolkata last Wednesday almost forgotten and unheralded, yet he was the inspiration for two subsequent Mr Universes, Manohar Aich — who won the title the next year — and Premchand Degra (1988).
That first title was won on a night of sheer drama at London’s Scala Theatre. First, an impersonation of Christ on the cross could have been seen as blasphemous but, say family members, instead inspired the audience to rise and cross themselves in religious fervour.
Next, two minutes of daredevilry in which Roy apparently impaled himself on a dagger. The dagger was fixed to the end of a rod, so it resembled a spear. The point was placed just below his Adam’s apple and, with a dramatic lunge, Roy thrust his full weight upon it. The rod bent under the pressure, Roy emerged laughing.
That was typically Roy. It hardly fitted with what he sought to achieve but he considered himself an artist and so always picked on a theme for his performances.
He began exercising at the age of 12 thanks to his fitness-freak father Rashik Lal, drawing inspiration from yoga guru Bishnu Charan Ghosh, whose photograph he would keep in front of him. The latter saw Roy working out one day and — despite the Roys’ misgivings — took him under his wings.
There was no looking back.
Mr Universe — all of five-foot-five — returned from London to a hero’s welcome, a celebrity in his own right. He combined his skills in body building with yoga and soon his services were sought by the rich and the powerful. From President Rajendra Prasad to Tollywood’s leading men and women, he was the last word on yogic asanas.
But he also gave back to the sport, setting up several bodybuilding and yoga centres across Kolkata — including, seven years ago, the Body Fit Multygym near his family home. And he used his fame to develop the sport, getting it government recognition and, by founding the Indian Body Building Federation in 1958, giving it a separate identity to weightlifting.
Today his legacy lies in the hands of his eldest son Moloy, an Arjuna Awardee and eight-time Mr India. ‘‘My father never got the recognition he deserved while living’’, Moloy said. ‘‘When he died the sports minister and the PWD minister visited us and I suggested that the BT Road (running outsiode the house) be named after him. They’ve agreed in principle, let’s hope he’s not denied again.’’
His legacy also lies in the hands of those who visit his gym, and the countless others across the country. Jasdir Singh, a regular at Body Fit for four years, remembers Monotosh Roy as more than just a bodybuilding great. ‘‘More than anything, he was a great human being. I joined this gym because he was associated with it, and I’ve got far more than I expected’’, he said.