City City Bang Bang, Columns

Of ghee & good-heartedness

As a child, countless hours were spent hotly debating the question ‘if my father and yours were to fight, who would win’ and variations thereof involving public figures and film heroes. An endless succession of combinations in escalating order of presumed strength would be tried till someone pulled out the name of Dara Singh, whereupon the discussion would come to an end. It was impossible to conceive of anyone ever competing with him; the only name bracketed with him was that of King Kong but it had been established by the grapevine that this fearsome-sounding exotic monster from foreign lands too had been decisively vanquished by the great Dara Singh. In a world with few absolutes the legendary wrestler was the definitive culmination to our quest for strength in a human being.

At a time when desi ghee was seen as a distillation of all that was desirable in the world, Dara Singh was its undisputed ambassador. Ghee masculinity came from an authentic source, and carried with it qualities of rigour, discipline, loyalty and was encased in a strong moral code. Ghee placed a premium on the robustness of the intrinsic over the glossy slickness of the surface, valuing the real over the simulated. Using only ghee meant that one’s values were not tarnished, and the cheapening of the spirit had been kept at bay.

Ghee reconciled notions of masculine strength and respectful domesticity; it conferred both worldliness and detachment, great power and cooling softness. Its ability to reconcile opposite qualities lay in its own origins; it was an extract from a creature known for its gentleness distilled till it turned into a potent elixir. The masculinity that came from the world of ghee was regarded as the real thing; where deep power came to the surface not as brute force wanting to impose itself on the world but as restrained strength that offered protection to an existing way of life.

The wrestler is a product of this culture. Strength is cultivated by staying away from what are seen as contaminating influences and by going inwards in a search for purposeful purity. Rigorous practice, unquestioned obedience to the guru, and a highly regulated lifestyle are necessary ingredients in one’s quest to be a wrestler. Unlike other sport, one could not be a wrestler along with having other pre-occupations; when one was a wrestler, there was nothing residual that remained, no other description that could fit. One was a wrestler to the exclusion of everything else.

Part of the culture of wrestling comes from the nature of the sport. Wrestling uses strength non-violently; its harnesses force not to injure but to subdue. Wrestling underlines the fact that application of physical strength directed against another individual need not necessarily be violent in nature. It is an exercise in competitive physics, in manipulating the slippery balance between two forces, and is applied in order that one prevail over the other. Unlike the modern cinematic representation of strength, where its purpose is very specifically rooted in an intent to cause damage; where every fist is dying to explode inside every skull it encounters, shattering it in slow motion, the wrestler dances with his opponent in what writer Joseph Alter calls the ‘poetics of fluid movement’ in order to pin him down. The wrestler’s power lies in his imposing presence, in the promise of unimagined strength that he brandishes much more than in its use. The bouncer of today is an extension of the wrestler; his role is to prevent violence

rather to deal in it. The fact that Dara Singh is almost always described as gentle, has much to do with his personality as it has with the world he comes from.

The form of masculinity of which Dara Singh was an ideal, was rooted in the ideas of preservation and purity rather than transmission and use. To be a man was to find reservoirs of strength within oneself, to define an internal ideal and to seek it with discipline verging on the devotional. In his wonderfully illuminating treatise on Indian masculinity Moral Materialism, Joseph Alter argues that traditional notions of masculinity were rooted in the desirability of celibacy and the need to preserve semen; in a scenario like this gender, ‘becomes a purely self-referential question rather than a problem of distinguishing between masculine and feminine attributes’. Even the desire for celibacy has more to do with self-control and ideas of truth than with power and domination; celibacy has a moral value in terms of its positive effect on the individual’s health but is not ‘moral in a puritanical or prudish sense simply by virtue of being intrinsically opposed to sex or sexuality’. This was a masculinity that was deeply conservative but was not arrayed against the feminine, and did not define itself with respect to it. The desire was to avoid the feminine, rather than to attract it or to acquire it with force. Which is why Dara Singh is more Hercules than Adonis, and some commentaries that describe him as a sex symbol might be guilty of retrospectively imposing today’s view of physicality on yesterday’s reality. Dara Singh remained a reservoir of self-contained strength; In some ways, Dara Singh’s great achievement was to manage to remain a wrestler at heart in the midst of the glittering new worlds he found himself in.

Contrasted with today, when force translates quite effortlessly into power, and musculature into a transactable commodity, Dara Singh reminds us that this need not be the case. To be strong can be as much about what you withhold, of what you choose not to do as it is about your actions. Dara Singh has left us only now, but the world he lived in and believed in has left by a much earlier flight.