This project is aimed at recovering the history of physical cultures of Bengal, during the colonial as well as the pre-colonial period. It is well-known that various genres of physical cultures received an unprecedented impetus during the nationalist phase in Indian history, dating from roughly the end of the 19th century till the third decade of the 20th. During this time, a kind of muscular nationalism gained ground in Bengal. Fed up of being stigmatized as a ‘frail and effeminate’ race, Bengalis—both men and women—began to participate in various kinds of physical cultures, ranging from martial arts to gymnastics, trapeze acts to hot-air ballooning, wresting to body-building. While there were plenty of accounts in the contemporary periodical press about the new forms of bodily activity, there is no reliable body of data from which one might construct a history of the same.
The aim of the project is threefold: first, to bring to in one electronic platform all the sources that are available on the subject. This would include books, articles, and most importantly, papers of the institutions (such as clubs, akhadas, circuses) which were associated with physical cultures. Second, to create a biographical database of all the practitioners of the genre; and third, to write a history based on the data made available from the first two strands of investigation.
The following physical cultures (not limited to) will be covered under the project:
The Physical Cultures of Bengal Project facebook page has over 500 subscribed members and is constantly updated with historical events from the worlds of wrestling, indigenous martial arts traditions and contemporary performances revolving around the body. Facebook link: https://www.facebook.com/Physical-Cultures-of-Bengal-School-of-Cultural-Texts-and-Records-264933537182453/
Online link: Please subscribe here, https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCQGe4RlNAhq-jH56XygfXGg
The school regularly organizes talks and seminars on different aspects of culture and history. The last two speakers were veteran journalist John Zubrzycki, who spoke on Magic in India and Prof. Carey Watt on Strongman Eugene Sandow in India.
The project is funded by the University Grants Commission, under the rubric of UPE, PHASE II and is based out of the School of Cultural Texts and Records, Jadavpur University.
The Principal investigator of the Project is Professor. Abhijit Gupta, Head, Jadavpur University English Department.
Research Fellows: Sujaan Mukherjee, Nikhilesh Bhattacharya, Sarbajit Mitra, Deeptanil Ray, Anirban Ghosh.
The Physical cultures project is also enthusiastically helped by fellows from other projects of the University.
Brief encounters and introductions.
These excerpts from different archives seek to introduce some of the major actors of the physical cultures world of the 19th century. These people came from various socio-cultural sections of Bengal and left a lasting imprint on different cultural traditions which involved the usage of the body as the primary mode of performance.
A man on a mission, a figure permanently etched within annals of Bengali adventure and escape stories, Suresh Biswas is a striking character. His exploits ranged from being a stowaway in a British ship (and then starting his career as a circus wrestler in Kent) to being the Royal zookeeper of Brazil. Suresh Biswas was born into a relatively wealthy family in Bengal and was sent to Calcutta in the 1870s to learn English under the Jesuit Missionaries, He excelled in gymnastics and acrobatics instead.
The Era in 1881 reports: "among the beasts are three lions, which leap and perform other acts at the bidding of their keeper, Suresh Biswas, who enters their cage. This exhibition, which takes place frequently, attracts great attention, and this daring young Hindoo master of the king of beasts is loudly applauded for his display of temerity".
The Hindu reports around 1919,
"The show of the night ended with the usual burial of Sushila. Such a feat is, of course, not unheard of to any Indian as skilled Hathayogis have done this feat over the ages and are still doing it. but Sushila was no yogi; as far as i know, she was just a common woman, but strong of body and very courageous, for, she tamed and played with Bengal tigers, which show, like her burial, used to be her principal acts in the circus. She was also a horsewoman of great ability".
One of the first famous female performer in Indian Circus was Sushila Sundari of Great Bengal Circus, Sushila Sundari came from a similar background to theatre actresses of late 19th century and was said to be a distant cousin of Golapbala. There is very little known about Sushila’s early life before her circus career. Mentored by Professor Priyanath Bose of Great Bengal Circus, Sushila went on to become one of the greatest circus artists of her time.
Professor Priyanath Bose of the Great Bengal Circus also mentored a very famous gymnast called Krishnalal Basak. A product of S. O Abel's (Abel was an European gymnast and animal trainer working in India around the late 19th century) training and a person who had performed and earned fame in the Paris expositions he sought to create a circus group called the Hippodrome Circus around early 1900s. Following the touring traditions, this successful company toured diverse parts of south Asia, namely Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaccan peninsula, Java, Sumatra, China and Japan. It was in Japan that Krishnalal Basak faced all sorts of adventures. He wrote an enduring travel memoir known as Bichitro Vraman.
A curious case of an acrobat turned hermit, Shyamakanto was a gymnast and a magician performing in different circus companies in Bengal. Apart from his usual acts, he was also a ringmaster and is said to have mastered the art of 'calming and hypnotising' Royal Bengal tigers. Shyamakanto was known for his double bar, single handstand and the 'flying babu' act. Shyamakanto became a hermit later in his life but occasionally taught hathayoga to his disciples.
'Gobor' Goho was born Jatindra Charan Goho in 1892, to a family who had been wrestlers for three generations.He had been overweight from childhood which had earned him the nickname 'Gobor' (literally 'cow-dung'). Under his uncle’s watchful eye, however, the boy Gobor began a regimen of physical training. By the age of 15, his physique was sufficiently developed, and Rahman, the pehlwan from Amritsar, was engaged to train Gobor, along with his father and his associate Nrityalal Roy. Goho went on to win the receive the title of 'British Empire Heavyweight Wrestling Champion' in 1913 as one of the first Indians. (Excerpted from: Abhijit Gupta (2012) Cultures of the Body in Colonial Bengal: The Career of Gobor Goho, The International Journal of the History of Sport, 29:12, 1687-1700, DOI: 10.1080/09523367.2012.714931 (online: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/09523367.2012.714931)
Link to the documentary by the School of Cultural Texts and Records, Jadavpur University, on legendary Bengali wrestler Gobor Goho:
Fighting Bodies: Gobor Goho and his legacy
Sushila Sundari's contemporary in Great Bengal Circus, Mrinmoyee was a brilliant bare back rider and a knife thrower. The circus show, however, coded her with a nationalist image and publicized her shows as ' the ‘mother who is no longer in chains but the free ‘Mother India’ controlling beasts as her destiny and power has ordained her'. She was known to ride, fight and play with two of her tigers, Lakshmi and Saraswati. One of her major acts was the leap back and forth across the two tigers, with their mouths wide open.
Pulin Bihari Das
Pulin Behari Das was one of the founders of the Dhaka Anushilan Samiti (1906), and the first on the Indian subcontinent to research the use of weapons. His vast illustrated account of and manual on the use of weapons is singular in the history of armed martial practice in India, and possibly the world. Das was largely responsible for the development and dissemination of an indigenous and synthesized tradition of armed martial practice. (Excerpted from https://jupress.wordpress.com/2016/06/20/astracharcha-pulin-behari-das-rachanasamgraha/). Copies of this brilliant book are available at Jadavpur University Press, 2nd Floor, Raja S C Mullick Road, Kolkata-32
Damoo Dhotre, a wrestler and an animal trainer had a lasting impact on the circus industry. After his brief stint in India with his uncle's company he traveled to North America to perform with the Ringling Brothers and Barnum/Bailey Circus companies. He also acted as a stuntman for early cinema in Hollywood. Here is an excerpt from his biography.
'The band played and we waltzed and I felt that oneness with an animal that a trainer, if he is lucky, sometimes experiences once in his entire life. I had that wonderful dream come true. This was the night I had dreamed of all my life, and, as the audiences’ frenzied applause burst in on the music, I wondered whether any man could be happier'-
Damoo Dhotre (as told to Richard taplinger), Wild Animal Man: Internationally famous trainer of wild animals (Boston & Toronto: Little Brown & Company, 196.1) (http://www.abebooks.com/servlet/BookDetailsPL…)
Lakshman Murti was a Punjabi who travelled far from his hometown in Sri Lanka to Calcutta and became a strongman and a sideshow marvel. His repertoire included walking on burning coal and lifting stones, elephants, stopping cars, snapping iron chains and breaking glass with his teeth.
The Hindu in 1911 reports " A zinc trough about twenty feet long containing almost to the brim a merry charcoal fire was brought into the arena by the circus attendants and we were informed that Lachman Murti would not only walk on the fire but take in his company any one from the spectators desirous for a merry walk in the trough. In almost every show I attended I always counted myself in the first group of volunteers to help in the teats (sic) but I recoiled in this as playing with fire did not suit either my temperament or my stock of courage. Lachman Murti appeared in the arena and discarding his wooden sandals strolled about leisurely on the fire as if he was taking a constitutional walk in an attractive park"
To see the Raibenshe performers of Charkol-gram, Birbhum, putting on their best show for the Physical Cultures of Bengal team who stayed with them while working on a documentary click on the following youtube links:
Fighting Bodies: Raybneshe warriors
To View Physical Cultures of Bengal Photo Gallery, Please Click Here.