Courtesy: Bhadrakok Debroy @samraggi_debroy
Read about a Bengali wrestler of the colonial period. Bhabendra Mohan Saha, better known as Bheem Bhabani for his wrestling prowess, was connected to the akhada of another eminent wrestler family of his time, the Gohos of North Calcutta.
A physically weak child, Saha was often bullied by other kids. Moreover, he contracted malaria frequently causing his physical strength to deteriorate. This is when he decided to join akhada and build his body.
He initially joined Atindrakrishna Basu’s akhada, where he learnt the basics of wrestling. He gained prominence after defeating senior wrestlers of his time by employing superior tact and speed. He next moved to Kheticharan Goho’s akhada (relative of the great Gobor Goho).
Next, he taken under the tutelage of Ramamurthy Naidu, along with whom he performed circus across South Asia. He soon outperformed Naidu and had to quit his circus. He was acquired by Professor K Basak’s Hippodrome Circus where he broke Ramamurthy’s record
of holding 2 automobiles instead of 1 with his bare hands.
In India, his eminence grew amongst the royal families. Acting on the request of the Maharaja of Bharatpur, he held 3 automobiles with his hands, while the Maharaja and British Resident occupied one of the vehicles.
In another performance, Saha took on his chest an untamed elephant from the stable of the Murshidabad royal family.
He received wider recognition from the masses by performing in the Swadeshi Mela of Calcutta in front of Bipinchandra Pal, Surendranath Banerjee & Amritlal Basu.
It is here where he received the title of Bheem Bhavani from Amritlal Basu.
However, he passed away in his early 30s, probably before reaching his peak. This lesser known Bengali muscleman inspired Bengali youth to reacquire their dominance in physical culture.
Masculine nationalism was not limited to the 19/20th ce Bengali men, but was also propagated by prominent women of the Bengali society. One such woman was Sarala Debi, who comes from the Tagore family, a Brahmo family that has been constantly accused of promoting effeteness.
Sarala Debi Ghosal was Gurudev’s niece and had close ties with Swami Vivekananda. She was introduced to militant nationalism through Bankim Chandra Chatterjee’s Anandamath & Aurobindo Ghosh. She felt that the Bengali society needed to regain manhood through martial training.
She oft quoted, “battles of England are fought & won in the fields of Eton.” which credits public schools of Eton that promoted careers in military, civil services & church for the martial success of England. She believed only muscular nationalism could revive the civilization.
In 1902, Manilal Ganguly, nephew of Satish Chandra Mukherjee, editor of Dawn, invited her to run a literary society. Instead she requested him to conduct Pratapaditya Utsav to commemorate his coronation as the ruler of Jessore after defeating the Mughals.
Manilal organised the first Pratapaditya Utsav in 1903. She addressed a gathering of Bhowanipur, Kalighat, Ballygunge & Bagbazar Boy’s Ass. to celebrate the first Pratapaditya Utsob. This was the 1st time that someone placed Bengalis on the same plane as heroic martial races.
The program included the reading of Pratapaditya’s biography, display of indigenous martial arts like wrestling, boxing, fencing, stick fighting etc. by Bengali youth. The famous family of wrestlers, the Guhos of Masjidbari actively participated in the event.
Boxers like Sailen Bose, nephew of Bhupen Bose also graced the event. It was noted that the event was one of a kind where a woman presided over a predominantly men’s function & promoted masculinity. The event hugely promoted martial arts amongst young Bengali men.
In 1904, Sarala Debi organised Birashtami Utsav on the 8th day of Durga Puja to celebrate martial prowess. Men vowed to Durga Ma in the name of Hindu martial heroes like Krishna, Bhishm, Shivaji, Pratapaditya, et al to dedicate their lives to building a strong & manly nation.
Another festival popularised by Sarala Debi was Raksha Bandhan. She used the event to promote national fraternity where women and men would tie Rakhis to men and urge them to join the battle for independence through Hindu revivalism.
Apart from addressing events, she was also a fiery writer. She suggested (The Bengalee ’03) that sword should be the symbol of new national self consciousness. Her journal Bharati carried many articles on Bengali Hindu heroes incl. Senapati Kali, general of Pratapaditya’s army.
She believed that the only way to answer back to aspersions of effeminacy cast by the British on Bengali character was through reviving old traditions and re inventing rituals. She was well conscious of the humiliation and indignity attached to such blatant stereotypes.
Sarala Debi, a mere footnote in the history of Bengal’s Hindu revivalism must be celebrated for promoting “martial heroism within the limits of Hindu ritualistic practice.” and for using Hindu martial heroes of the past to reinvigorate a new generation of Bengali Hindus.