When Dara Singh was a young man, India was still 545 kingdoms and the British Raj. As his fame spread, the strapping lad from Dharuchak village in Amritsar district, who trained in the akharas (wrestling academies) of his home state, began to get invitations from kings to wrestle in their states. By 1948, when he was 20, he had arrived on the international stage. That year, Dara Singh defeated an Australian wrestler named Bill Verna in a bout in Singapore.
Sixty-one years have passed. Dara Singh, India’s original ironman, is now making a comeback to the ring — this time in a reality show on television. The 80-year-old pehelwan is part of an Indian version of WWE called 100% De Dhana Dhan with home-grown stars. He will be mentoring the contestants, who glory in names like Danger Anna and Sando Paaji.
Saurabh Tiwari, creative director for fiction shows at Colors, the channel on which the show has been airing, since August 29, says, “Dara Singh is the man who brought wrestling out of the akhada and into the homes of common Indians.”Singh’s association with wrestling goes far beyond money or glory. "The young wrestlers on his show will not only find an idol but an ideal teacher, mentor and vanguard. And what makes it even better is how he instils the killer spirit in them but with a touch of patriotism and good intent," Tiwari adds.
If Hema Malini was a byword for the Indian woman’s beauty, Dara Singh signified the powerful Indian male. Bollywood lore has it that when Manmohan Desai was looking for a man who could play Amitabh Bachchan’s father in Mard (man), he could think of only one man who was man enough: Dara Singh.
The 6 ft 2 inch, 130-kilo gentle giant is, however, feeling some of the effects of age. His knees have been troubling him of late, for which he recently underwent surgery. Gajendra Chauhan aka Yudhisthir from the TV epic Mahabharat says he misses bumping into Singh at Mumbai’s Juhu beach early mornings. “His knees have been a problem, but it was lovely to see him doing eight to 10 kilometers on the beach in a T-shirt that read ‘50 plus’.”
Singh himself remains excited about wrestling. “From the time I’ve seen those young boys win medals at the Olympics, I’ve become hopeful that the sport will survive for a generation more, at least,” he says.