In one of the most remarkable scenes from Jai Baba Felunath by iconic director, Satyajit Ray, a body builder displayed his muscles to the ace detective and his companions at a hotel in Kashi. It was really funny to watch Jatayu, the thriller writer noting down the nomenclature of body muscles for future reference. Body building is an ancient sport which got a boost during late 19th Century and the first half of the 20 th Century when akhras or desi gyms gained popularity among youths. Sadly, notwithstanding the craze of Sharukh Khan’s six packs abs the sport is declining in popularity.
Is it mere co-incidence that Eugen Sandow, the father of modern body-building conquered American hearts at the Columbian Exposition held in Chicago in 1893, the same city where Swami Vivekananda delivered his speech at the Parliament of Religions in the same year? Swamiji’s success at Chicago should not be relegated to the mere triumph of Indian philosophy over Western thought but he also brought home a confidence that Indians were truly at par with the Europeans. At a time when Bengalis were thought to have “legs of slaves” resembling either pipe-stems or fat globules but never muscular and shapely, Swamiji gave the call, ” arise and awake” and build ” muscles of iron and nerves of steel” infusing fresh blood among the youths.
A keen wrestler, Narendranath Dutta as Vivekananda was known as in his pre-monk days, had joined Amibika Charan Goho’s club. In 1876 when Nabagopal Mitra popularly known as National Mitra introduced Hindu Mela to showcase Indian culture and tradition and to infuse a spirit of nationalism among his fellow men. It was the true beginning of the culture for physical exercise, martial arts and body building. Incidentally, Narendranath got a silver butterfly as a prize for his skills on parallel bar on the occasion.
On his return to the city in 1897 January, from the West, Bengali youths were infused with the zeal prompting setting up of clubs and gymnasiums throughout the city. Every neighbourhood had an akhra where the youth practised physical exercise since they thought physical strength and courage were necessary to counter the British. In this backdrop Bishnu Charan Ghosh, the father of Indian body-building was born in 1900. As a boy he joined a local club commonly known as “akhra” where he learnt the basics of physical exercise. Later, he went on to set up a gymnasium at his house on Garpar Road off Manicktola. It was Ghosh who single handedly made bodybuilding a popular sport in Bengal. His half-bust statue can be found on the opposite pavement of Garpar Road.
He had his own circus where his students exhibited physical strength and these shows became very popular. Ghosh took his students to different colleges where they displayed physical fitness and muscle controlling. Two Bengalis who had won Mr Universe title in short group- Monohar Aich and Monotosh Roy were his students. Another pupil, Kamal Bhandari won the Mr India title five times in a row and became finalist in Mr Universe competition twice. In those days a group of body builders emerged including Shanti Chakraborty, Hiten Roy, Madhusudan Pandey, Robin Goswami, Satya Pal and many more. Reba Rakshit was country’s first women body builder who could lift an elephant on her chest.
Interestingly, Dr BC Roy, chief minister of Bengal, also took special interest in body building and took initiative to set up gymnasiums in medical colleges in the city. He believed that good doctors should have sound knowledge of their own muscles. Every year, on 24 and 25 December, Dr Roy organised inter medical college and intra medical college competitions. Dr Benoy Bhattacharya, a famous surgeon was both a body builder and weight lifter.
“Body building was fun. We practiced for four hours from Monday to Saturday and Bistuda would be there to inspire us. Braving the summer heat we practiced for hours together and felt a deep sense of satisfaction when people praised us for our well defined muscles,” said Kamal Bhandari, now an octogenarian who still exercises for four days in a week. Body building received a big boost in the early 1990s due to economic liberalisation and equipment from USA and Europe started pouring in. There are newer inventions like work stations where four to seven people could do different types of exercise. The old fashioned gymnasiums became obsolete. A change of attitude meant muscle building was replaced by the concept of keeping fit. Those who joined the multi gyms concentrated mostly on the development of their biceps and triceps, shoulder muscles and chest neglecting leg muscles. They were no more interested in joining body building shows or competitions. The attendance in traditional clubs became thin and even Ghosh’s College set up by Bishtu Ghosh was closed down. The famous gymnasium at Sanskrit College suffered the same fate. The old gyms were converted into multi gyms with air conditioned rooms. However, the gyms at University Institute and Aggragami continued with the traditional training along with the multi gyms. The liberalisation also led to availability of high protein food supplements. Many of the gym goers take food supplement for faster growth of their muscles. Also, hormone injection allows faster growth of muscles. But a word of caution; “It has often been see that those who take supplement often develop heart disease and high cholesterol level,” said a body builder of the past.
So, the future is not too distant when body building will be a forgotten sport in Bengal. In the past two decades all the national level prizes in the senior category have been bagged by body builders from Punjab, Maharastra and Services where the old traditional gyms have been upgraded along with multi gyms. “I really do not know what will be the fate of this ancient sport after another ten years hence. But no one is interested in muscle building which is the mother of all sports and without physical strength no one can actually excel in any sport,” said Mr Bhandari.