Man who lifted elephants

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  • Published 18.07.10

On my fourth birthday, my grandfather bought me a lavishly illustrated encyclopaedia titled Chhotoder Book of Knowledge, published by Deb Sahitya Kutir. Of the many pictures in it, I was particularly struck by the photograph of a grim, powerful, bare-bodied man with his arms folded across his chest, and going by the name of Bhim-Bhabani.

In a two-line entry, the encyclopaedia informed me that he was the only pehlwan capable of supporting two elephants on his chest!

Much later, I found out a bit more about this prodigy of Herculean strength. Born Bhabendramohan Saha in 1890, he started taking wrestling lessons at the Darzipara akhada of Khetu Guha, whose worthy descendant was none other than Gobor-babu (see my last column).

At the age of 19, he came under the tutelage of the legendary professor Rammurthy Naidu and began a tour of south-east Asian countries. Rammurthy ran a circus in which he performed astounding feats of strength such as supporting an elephant upon his chest, and stopping an automobile in its tracks. Rammurthy also travelled widely across the country, giving lecture-demonstrations, which included a historic appearance on the occasion of the foundation day of Jadavpur University’s parent body, the National Council of Education, in March 1909. But soon, Bhabendramohan outstripped his master in prowess and had to leave the circus.

Bhabendramohan then joined another legend, professor Basak’s Hippodrome Circus, which embarked on a tour of Asia.

On this trip, he performed extraordinary feats. He bettered Rammurthy’s record by holding not one, but two running automobiles at bay with both hands. Then he shifted a large cement barrel on which half a dozen people were sitting solely by the strength of his teeth.

He placed a huge stone weighing 40 maunds upon his chest, and then invited about 20 people to sit on top of that and give a khayal recital. A mightily impressed Japanese Mikado presented him with a medal and Rs 750.

Back in India, Bhabendramohan increased his repertoire to three automobiles, and took on an untamed elephant from the stables of the Murshidabad royal family.

At a swadeshi mela in Calcutta, he performed in front of such luminaries as Surendranath Banerjee, and Bipinchandra Pal and received the accolade “Bhim-Bhabani” from Amritlal Basu, though the cognoscenti of west and north-west India preferred the cognomen “Bhimmurti”.

In his 1940 book Balider Katha, Sacindra Majumdar wrote that Bhim-Bhabani could have become one of the greatest weightlifters in the world: his technique with the “globe” bar-bell was particularly exemplary.

But Bhim-bhabani passed away in July 1922, when he was only 32 years old, at a time when weightlifters usually come to their peak.