Champion Dara Singh lost a bout on Thursday — his last.
The final pin-down came at 7.30am after nearly a week in a Mumbai hospital where he had been admitted following cardiac arrest. He was 83.
“He was on ventilator support for nearly 24 hours before the family decided to take him home on Wednesday night,” said a family member. Dara Singh’s final rites were performed this afternoon at a Juhu crematorium not far from his home, Dara Villa.
Born Deedar Singh Randhawa in 1928, he won the Commonwealth Wrestling Championship in 1959 against Canadian George Gordienko and the World Wrestling Championship in 1968 by defeating Lou of the US.
But the feats didn’t sit heavily on him. He would often joke that he had to take up wrestling and later join films to make money as he never went to school. “I went to school for exactly seven days. My grandfather scolded me and took me out of school saying it was just a lazy excuse to avoid working in the farms, the true calling of a farmer’s child,” he once said.
A recipient of titles like the Rustam-e-Punjab in 1966 and the Rustam-e-Hind in 1978, Dara Singh retired from the sport in 1983 when he was 55.
The entry into filmdom had hardly been a fight. And that journey had begun in Calcutta for the strapping six-foot-two hunk from Punjab when he was offered a cameo in a film called Sangdil — starring Dilip Kumar and Madhubala — after a bout in 1952.
Dara would often visit Calcutta for wrestling tournaments then, recount veterans. “When we would ask him from the audience what he had for lunch, he would shout back, ‘100 chapatis and three dozen eggs’,” said Mumbai-based retired bank official Tarun Ghosal who is from Bengal.
Calcutta’s Jeeban Malik would walk from Burrabazar to makeshift wrestling rings near the Eden Gardens only to watch Dara Singh. “These professional tournaments were very popular with the young men in Bengal at that time — they were kind of a cross between the modern-day WWE and the traditional kushti. Dara Singh would often adorn the posters of these tournaments.”
“In the 50s and the 60s, Calcutta used to have regular ‘wrestling season’ almost every winter,” recalls Kallol Banerjee, a corporate consultant.
Dara Singh didn’t tire of acknowledging that he owed his film career to Calcutta. “One day, a man just walked up to me after a bout in Calcutta and asked if I would be interested in a Hindi film. I thought, ‘Chalo yeh bhi karke dekh lete hain (Let’s do this as well and see how it goes)’,” he had said on the sidelines of a film premiere. Sangdil went on to become a superhit.
Several decades of films followed, including 16 with Mumtaz who made her debut opposite Dara Singh. His last movie was Jab We Met, the 2007 Kareena Kapoor-Shahid Kapur starrer in which he played the stern daarji (patriarch) of a Sikh family.
Cut to Dharmu Chakk, Dara’s village near Amritsar, on Thursday afternoon, and it’s clear he was hardly stern in real life.
“We used to be regaled by stories about his bouts in front of kings, heads of state and even actresses. He always told us to abstain from alcohol and smoking. His motto was simple: never abuse your body. Everyone was welcome to his house, friends to schoolchildren. He never boasted about his achievements,” said Jarnail Singh, a villager and a budding wrestler.
Dara Singh’s cousin Darbara Singh echoed the sentiment. “He was our Hanuman and will live in our hearts. Like his roles in his films and serials, Pahelwanji (as he was known) will continue to guide us to fight social evils,” said the 70-year-old Darbara, himself a wrestler and trained by Dara Singh, alluding to his mentor’s role as Hanuman in Ramanand Sagar’s TV serial Ramayan.