Dara Singh was perhaps the greatest wrestling icon of his generation. There are so many stories which compare him to two other legends — Ramdhin and Gama pehelwan, who had captured the imagination of the country much before he occupied centrestage.
Dara Singh wrestled in an era when there was no WWF on television. Very few can dispute the fact that had he been in his prime during the past two decades, he would have been the most celebrated freestyle wrestler on the international circuit.
For someone who watched his bouts as a kid in the 1960s, he was unparalleled. Delhi had its share of wrestlers visiting the city from all over the world and their fights were a huge attraction. Most of the bouts were held at the Corporation Stadium (now Ambedkar Stadium) and people would turn up in hordes to watch Dara Singh humble his adversaries amidst allegations of match-fixing. Dara Singh's accomplishments
The Corporation Stadium would be decked up for the big occasion and outside it, the stretch between Delhi Gate and Khooni Darwaza, larger than life cutouts of the wrestlers would be put up to give the showdowns a colossal hype.
I do recall Dara Singh’s cutout, in a combative mode, being even bigger than those of King Kong, another big star of that time, Bill Robinson, Bill Samara, Chief Martini, Tiger Joginder Singh and many others.
Dara Singh was known to fight with unmatched deftness and had reflexes like greased lightening. The recollection of a Dara Singh, caught in the ropes, and ejecting Chief Martini with his legs to catapult him out of the ring remain etched in my mind. Martini was the only one during that tournament who had threatened to create an upset but that did not happen because Dara Singh showed his superior skills.
Tiger Joginder Singh, though shorter in height but heavier in built, used to kick his opponents with unmatched ferocity, leaving them at a point where they could not find their feet again.
However, Dara Singh, who was once knocked to the ground, did not allow Tiger to overwhelm him. In the next round, he caught Tiger by his ankles and threw him out of the ring.
Bill Robinson’s rugged moves caused a bloody nose, but it infuriated the Indian so much that he picked Robinson up and threw him on the ground to settle who the Lord of the Ring was. His confrontation with Bill Samara is also remembered till this date, but his most famous clashes were with King Kong, a wrestler of enormous size, but who could never succeed against the star’s prowess.
Along with his younger brother, Randhawa, Dara Singh formed an invincible duo to take on other grapplers in a two vs two fight. Needless to say, the Randhawa brothers — Dara and SS — always won.
I also watched Dara Singh in Dehradun, where my paternal grandparents lived, and the result against all the wrestlers was always the same — victory for Dara Singh, who was crowned Rustam-e-Hind or the emperor of the wrestling ring.
An interesting story which used to do the rounds was that before Dara Singh shot to fame, another wrestler by the same name and later called Jailwala Dara Singh had dominated the wrestling world. Jailwala Dara Singh, who also appeared in many bouts but never against Dara Singh, was a tall and hefty man who had to serve a jail sentence, which interrupted his professional career.
Dara Singh’s involvement with politics also led him to campaign for the Congress to begin with and he later became associated with the Bharatiya Janata Party. When Sanjay Gandhi contested against Ravinder Pratap Singh from Amethi in 1977, it was Dara Singh and the wrestlers from Badri Pehelwan’s akhara in Delhi who were deployed by the Congress to counter the campaign by the late Jagjiwan Ram.
Dara Singh’s bouts were always a big attraction and the villagers preferred him to any politician even if they decided to ultimately vote against the then ruling party.
The wrestling legend became a movie legend too and his first movie, if I can recall correctly, was `King Kong’, which went on to become a big hit. Most of his movies catered to his fans and had at least half-a-dozen full-fledged encounters with famed wrestlers of those times. Dara Singh stood out because of his heavy Punjabi accent and the use of colloquial language in his dialogues. He paired with Mumtaz, Nishi and Helen in ‘C’ grade films, which were as comical and interesting as the icon.
In one movie, ‘Trip to the Moon’, made to coincide with man’s landing on the moon, Dara Singh walked up to his mother and said, “Ma mein chand pe jaa raha hoon, kuch mangwana ho to thela de de (Mother, I am going to the moon, if you want something from there, please give me a carry bag).”
He was picked by the late Raj Kapoor for his magnum opus ‘Mera Naam Joker’, where he played the ringmaster of the circus and stood out in the cameo.
Dara Singh was a sporting icon whose popularity was as widespread as that of another superstar, Milkha Singh. He will be missed, but his legend will live on.