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No takers for Mr Zoroastrian

Each year, in February, the prospect of admiring ripping biceps and well-oiled physiques of Parsi 'pehelwans' drew hundreds of people from the community to Byculla's Rustom Baug for the Annual Zoroastrian Body Building and Power Lifting Championship.

mumbai Updated: Dec 11, 2011 01:23 IST
Reetika Subramanian

Each year, in February, the prospect of admiring ripping biceps and well-oiled physiques of Parsi 'pehelwans' drew hundreds of people from the community to Byculla's Rustom Baug for the Annual Zoroastrian Body Building and Power Lifting Championship.

Now, for the first time since it started in 2001, the organisers have been forced to cancel the Mr Zoroastrian event for 2012. The reason? Low participation.

"Earlier, participants from Gujarat and Maharashtra used to register their names months before the competition in the hope of clinching the Mr Zoroastrian title. We had to even start a senior citizens' category to please the old-timers," said Rustom Jasoomoney, co-organiser of the event. "However, for the past three years, the response has been lukewarm since the same contestants participate in the competition over and over again," he said.

In the February 2010 championship, a majority of the 13 contenders were more than 60 years old. "There are many Parsi boys with great physiques, but they are too shy to strip down to the underwear on stage," said Jasoomoney.

"We have had some of the biggest names in body building showing off their gleaming bodies to the audience at the Rustom Baug ground," said Humiar Shroff, a co-organiser. "But today, even a decent line up of contestants seems unattainable," he added.

In the past three years, the organisers have found used syringes and strips of painkillers lying backstage, rued Hutoxi Doodhwala, a co-organiser. "Previously, working out in the 'akhada' (mud pit) and having a protein-rich meal was a part of the average Parsi man's lifestyle. However, in recent times, boys do not have the time and money to pump iron on a regular basis; they then rely on protein supplements and performance-enhancing drugs," said Doodhwala.

For Kaiven Panthaki, 33, who won the inaugural championship in 2001, marriage and family commitments are now a priority. He quit the contest in 2006. "After I got married, I could not justify my time and dedication to body building," said Panthaki. "On an average, body builders have to shell out at least Rs2 lakh annually. However, even the top spot in the competition means getting only a paltry prize of Rs10,000," he added.

"Most Parsi colonies had an akhada, where you could see young Parsi boys taking rounds and doing sit ups, dips and squats," said Tehemton Kekobad Gowadia, who won the Mr India title in 1974. "What was once a part of the lifestyle of several Parsi boys, has now turned into a mere fad or hobby. They do not realise the difference between modelling and body building."

According to Viraf Panthaki, a veteran body builder, the age-old tradition is dying because of changing priorities. "In my generation, the name and fame attached to winning bodybuilding competitions made up for the monetary lows," said Panthaki. "A majority of the national bodybuilders participating in international competitions belonged to our community. Broad shoulders and thin waists were a genetic gift," he added.

"Body building within the Parsi community has died a natural death. It is not considered to be a competitive sport in India. The community is small, making it very difficult to find young boys enthusiastic about the sport," said Mickey Mehta, a fitness and spiritual guru.


Priest who flexed his muscles
Inside the men's gym in Rustom Baug's Sir Ness Wadia Memorial Pavilion, a black and white frame of Tehemton Kekobad Gowadia has been strategically placed near the weights. Shot almost three decades ago, the picture has Gowadia strutting his biceps at the 1974 Mr India competition.

"As a child, I learnt my first few lessons in fitness and exercise by peeping into my father's room. He used to exercise tirelessly throughout the day, which in a way, helped me develop interest in body-building," said Gowadia, who has trained several bodybuilders from Maharashtra. "The trophies that we earned were tiny, which could be covered in our palms. But their value was what really mattered," added Gowadia, who represented India in the Mr Asia contest.

Gowadia started his career in Karnataka, where he won the Mr Mysore competition at the age of 17. He shifted to Mumbai in 1971, and took up a job as a priest in an agiary, where he continues to work till date. "I worshipped Larry Scott, who won the Mr Olympia competition in 1965 and 1966. Initially, I copied his poses from pictures I cut out from magazines, but soon, started sculpting my body on my own," he added.

With a diet consisting a dozen egg whites, two litres of milk and regular high-protein meals, Gowadia was popular for bending metal bars in the gym and allowing local children to swing on his shoulders. "Body building is a youth profession. It becomes very difficult to survive on it in the long-run," said Gowadia.

Parsi power: At 68, he works out for over 3 hours every day
The attic in Viraf Panthaki's house in Cusrow Baug is stocked with huge trophies and citations that are now gathering dust. Panthaki, 68, dedicated his life to bodybuilding and evolved from being a participant to a judge at international competitions.

"Every time I set my foot on the stage, other participants would begin vying only for the second spot. My wife never accompanied me to any of my competitions, fearing I will lose focus," said Panthaki.

Panthaki, who was conferred the Shiv Chhatrapati Award in 1979 for his contribution to body building and weight lifting, has represented India in several champions organised in Italy, Japan, Egypt and the US.

"Even today, my body is in shape because I haven't given up on my exercise and diet routine. I exercise for more than three hours daily and do not have any health problems," said Panthaki, who has helped renovate gyms in Cusrow Baug to motivate young Parsis to turn fitness conscious. "When I shifted to Mumbai from Gujarat in the 1970s, I did not even own a house. My coach, NK Apte, spotted my potential early," Panthaki said. "He used to make me run till I almost fainted and paid close attention to my diet. He always knew that I would never let him down even after retiring from the stage," he added.