A tribute to Dara Singh, 1928-2012

The outpouring of anguish on social media at the passing away of Dara Singh, the post-Independence icon of freestyle wrestling in India, provides a quick insight into what this “man of muscle” represented in popular imagination. Though he formally retired from wrestling in 1983, he remained a flesh-and-blood totem that survived as the original Indian metaphor for strength and virility for over sixty years. In song and story, in rumour and gossip, in fact and in joke, Pehalwan Dara Singh represents the vicarious fantasy, during the first decades of Independence, of an emaciated and underfed population mythologising musculature.

It is important today to understand how in Dara’s rustic physicality the “legend” of the body and the “legend” of the nation intersected. In fact, the hard corporeal affinity between pumped up muscles and pumped up nationhood is too real to be ignored and could be any semiologist’s delight. Dara Singh, with his over 500 undefeated victories in professional fights, had become a legend even as he won his first professional Indian wrestling championship in 1953. He had returned to India in 1952 after cutting his teeth in the wrestling circuits of Singapore and Malaysia for five years and, straightaway, walked into the mythical space in the minds of millions of Indians. He represented one of the oldest surviving myths of humankind — if not of “immortality,” at least of “invincibility.”

One of the key superheroes of Hindu mythology who conquered time and straddles multiple yugas is Pavanputra Hanuman and it is neither fortuitous nor arbitrary that in the highly problematic television serial of Ramanand Sagar’s “Ramayana,” the coveted role of the immortal, invincible simian-god eventually went to none other than our own epitome of desi akhara invincibility — Dara Singh. This was an ideal swansong for our muscleman who, otherwise, by the end of 1980s, was reduced to flexing his phenomenal biceps in a string of advertisements, to endorse dubious “energy” products like Horlicks and Boost.

Childhood stories

The end of Dara today almost signifies the finality with which my own childhood has faded. I remember with delight the endless stories exchanged with my mohalla and school friends, in half-a-dozen towns across north India through the innocent fifties, of the strategies adopted by Dara to vanquish his constant tormentors like King Kong (from Australia) and Gama Pehalwan (from Pakistan). In awestruck voices we would share the latest bit of precious information — of how Dara was in deep training, tuning his body to perfection with 50,000 dand baithaks (push-ups) a day; how he made a breakfast of 100 eggs and 40 seers of milk; how he dined on a dozen deep-roasted tandoori chicken and 50-60 chapatis; and how he daily churned up the milky mud in the akhara for 10 hours, squelching to pulp an endless line of luckless sparring partners.

This was all very real for us, and an occasional factual excess — usually to do with Dara’s propensity to consume ghee (one version claiming it was half-a-maund a day and a more devoted faction dismissing such conservatism to claim it was actually one full maund and how he even topped it with three dozen bananas) could easily be absorbed by us as immaculate truth about this amazing man who represented all that we lower middle class boys wanted to be — ample.

Even in my modestly well-off urban home in the fifties, an egg, meat or fish meal was a special occasion and milk was something we kids were forced to grow out of pretty early for being a luxury item. As for ghee, it was hoarded as much as gold. Dara, at one level, filled the imagination of the middle and lower middle class in post-Independence north India, for whom the spectre of insecurity was real in terms of jobs, salaries, food shortages and a general sense of unsettlement, compounded by the traumas of Partition and the trans-border Punjabi diaspora. In this environment of caprice, vagary and violence, the Dara phenomenon enthralled our imagination with its plenitude of ligaments and muscles, of food/gluttony, of manly work, of patriotism.

The Dara saga

It was a further endorsement of Dara’s prowess that he was also such a “patriot”; that post-Partition, he became the symbol of Indian (Hindu) virility, unlike the equally legendary Gama who chose to relocate himself in Pakistan and self-destructed his image. Dara became a national aspiration as well as a national treasure. The body of Dara Singh became the body of the nation. The title “Rustom-e-Hind” (1978) was but an acknowledgment of the visceral intersection of these two bodies. It was a patriarchal nationalism shot through with notions of potency and male virtue which “lumpenized” the idea of “strength” and taught us to scoff at “weakness.”

It took several years to comprehend the dangers of this “cult of the body.” It is a lumpenisation that happens through a sort of male bonding — the vyayam, the kasrat, the malla yuddh s— bodies with rippling pectorals glistening with oil and sweat, panting exertions, the sweet thunder of nubile thighs being struck in exaggerated challenge, the breathless desire to be merged in the Dara image, to become the “perfect male,” the “body-of-the-nation.”

Dara inhabited this male world of ambition and achievement that summarily dismissed the existence of the “other.” The “other” in this paradigm is “weakness” and has no right to exist. The “sissy” is a blot on humanity and women mere weak objects to be protected or aids to self-admiration.

That Dara Singh played out this role to the hilt in his films (over 50 in which he appeared as a hero) to emerge a big money grosser, is a signpost to the social psyche he appealed to.

Also, as the Dara Singh legend has foregrounded, the arena of freestyle wrestling is a controlled arena where all contradictions are resolved; an arena where “good” triumphs over “evil,” where uncertain conclusions are not permitted, where despite the signs of anarchy the game is played according to rules, where aggression and violence are exhibited in all their extravagance only to be eventually sublimated. In short, the wrestling arena provides the same nexus between morality, muscle power and “victory” as obtains in the larger arena of the State where virtue, political power and dominance play out their own carefully balanced equation. It is hardly a surprise that, into the nineties, Dara Singh emerged as one of the most influential power-brokers in the political circles of the Capital, disbursing patronage and privilege in equal measure, rubbing shoulders with the communal and the corrupt and even cornering (via the Bharatiya Janata Party) a Rajya Sabha seat between 2003 to 2009.

The entire Dara saga can be compressed into one category — that of “narcissism.” It was a convergence of individual with national narcissism — one real, the other imagined — that constitutes the meat of this legend. Dara Singh was the mirror into which the newborn nation — low on ego and self-confidence, beset by uncertainty and terror, dreaming of an imperialistic future in the nostalgia of its imperialistic past — gazed at itself, admiringly, and found strength. It did not particularly matter if the reflection was tinged with problematic contours of nationalism, male chauvinism, communalism, hedonism. In the flexion of Dara’s trapezius bulges, it was the nation that got formed. In Dara’s image.

(The article contains portions from an essay by the same author published in Seminar, March, 1995.)

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