Wrestler Dara Singh’s life and times in Singapore, Malaya

Deedara aka Dara Singh, a book authored by Seema Sonik Alimchand, captures the early days of Dara Singh who went on to become a wrestling champ and a famed actor

| Malaysia / India | 28 Dec 2016 Asia Samachar |
Seema Sonik Alimchand with Hindi filmstar Akshay Kumar at the launch of Deedara aka Dara Singh in Mumbai in December 2016 – PHOTO / SUPPLIED

By Anandpreet Kaur

Dara Singh, the famed Indian wrestler and actor, began his wrestling career with a couple of tough bouts in the ring in Singapore and Malaya. He was also invited for a fight in Indonesia.

The journey to Southeast Asia by Dara who was then in his 20’s, is captured in a newly released book called ‘Deedara aka Dara Singh’.

“There is so much in the book about his South East Asia stay,” author Seema Sonik Alimchand tells Asia Samachar.

The book was recently launched in Mumbai, India with Hindi film star Akshay Kumar as a guest of honour.

Dara Singh won the world wrestling championship in 1960. The 6ft 2in (1.82m) had studied pehlwani, the Indian style of wrestling. His real name is Deedar Singh Randhawa. Born in Punjab in 1928, he joined Bollywood films, appearing in more than 115 films.

Dara was one of the sports personalities featured in Nation At Play: A History of Sport, a book by Ronojoy Sen which was launched in March 2016. The book captured how the Indian wrestling icon bridged the gap between South Asia and Southeast Asia and even wrestled in 1948 to raise anti-tuberculosis funds in Singapore.

SEE ALSO: ‘Dara Singh bridged gap between South Asia and Southeast Asia’ – BOOK

In the Deedara aka Dara Singh, the book captures the journey of a young Sikh boy called Deedara, who was pulled out of school to work in his father’s farm; who was coerced into a teenage marriage; who did petty jobs in Singapore; and finally strode like a lion into wrestling arenas across the world starting with the Southeast Asia.

As one of the first stars of Hindi stunt films, Dara Singh mesmerised his audiences with his rugged looks. And in 1986, while essaying the role of Hanuman in the iconic TV series Ramayan, he was deified by the entire nation, according to a statement from the book publisher Westland Ltd.

“Deedara aka Dara Singh! is a fascinating account of an extraordinary man, who started his life in the most ordinary way, but became an icon for an entire generation,” it adds.

In the same statement, author Seema says: “Daraji once said, ‘You have to become mud to work with mud’.. This sentiment became the foundation of my story Deedra.”

Seema, born and raised in Mumbai, is the daughter of the music composer Sonik, of the musical duo, Sonik-Omi. She is also the writer, presenter and producer of 100 Years of Hindi Film Music, a 13 CD album, which was released by HMV Saregama in 2014.

Dara Singh won the world wrestling championship in 1960. The 6ft 2in (1.82m) had studied pehlwani, the Indian style of wrestling.


Book: Deedara aka Dara Singh

Author: Seema Sonik Alimchand

Publisher: Westland Ltd, 2016


Much like Singapore, Malaya was also teeming with the Indian diaspora. After their arrival, Dara and Harnam contacted one Kundan Singh, who owned a hotel in Irpu, and gave the two a room to stay. Once settled, the duo sssssssbegan scouting for challenges and within a week, the first was brought to Harnam. He was to fight a local Malay wrestler. Dara was also slated to fight a preliminary bout in the same match. T hey had forty-five days to prep.

And from henceforth began an intense training period. The local Indian patrons supported the two wrestlers whole-heartedly. One day, Kundan Singh said, ‘Harnam, you and Dara don’t have to worry about your diet. Our community has agreed to pitch in to pay for your khuraak (special food intake). You just concentrate on your exercise regimen. We have to win this one.’

Sure enough, the next day a sackful of almonds, sugar and cans of clarified butter were sent over to their hotel room. Harnam not only feasted on the special concoction of soaked almonds mixed with sugar and ghee, but plied Dara with double portions. Dara had never eaten so much of this super food in his entire life and soon looked and felt super strong.

This was to be the twenty-year-old Dara’s first mid-level, professional fight. On a cool evening in January 1949, the match commenced with the lower and mid-level bouts first. Dara strode in as his name was announced, and took his place on his corner of the mat. He then shook hands with his opponent, who was an Italian wrestler. The referee checked both the wrestlers for any traces of perspiration or oily substances. Dara gave a good fight, and the match, a truly well-fought bout, was declared a draw. As the two wrestlers retreated, a deafening cheer went up in the stands to show how much the audience had enjoyed the spectacle.

It was now time for the final match between the Malay wrestler and Harnam Singh. Once again, the stadium erupted and Indian fans screamed out Harnam’s name, interjecting their loud cheers with offensive words directed at the other wrestler. Ignoring all the riling and the Punjabi abuses, the Malay bounced on his feet, punching the air in readiness to take on his opponent. The whistle blew. The Malay looked menacing as he charged towards Harnam with a fierce yell. Then all Dara saw and remembered was a series of head butts, flying kicks and violent bear hugs. Harnam won the match and was carried to his dressing room by a bunch of ecstatic Indians. Dara was also equally feted and lauded for his excellent display of strength against the Italian wrestler. ‘You have a great future as a wrestler,’ was all he heard from sundry fans and experts alike and was doubly euphoric when he received a sum of $50 for the win and fantastic gifts as celebration of his first victory. As the beaming wrestlers readied to change in the dressing room, there was a knock on the door. An important important-looking Indian was ushered in. He congratulated them and invited them over for dinner. The next evening, a big car arrived at their doorstep, driving them to Gurinder’s palatial home. Both, the guru and his disciple, stared in wonderment at the large villa. The boisterous Gurinder welcomed them and as soon as they were comfortably ensconced in the soft leather armchairs, he pulled out a bottle of whisky from the bar and declared, ‘Great fight yesterday! Let’s drink to our Indian wrestlers.’ ‘Great wrestlers are offered almonds and ghee, not liquor, Harnam said jocularly.

Their host smiled politely but proceeded to pour the golden liquid into crystal glasses. ‘Drink with me and fight well. Your special diet will be taken care of.’

Harnam accepted the drink, but Dara declined saying, ‘I don’t drink.’ ‘A glass of juice for the young pehalwan!’ Gurinder called out to the waiting servant in his room. The three men clinked their glasses. ‘Cheers!’ shouted Gurinder, downing the drink at one go.

A little later, they proceeded to the dining room. Dara’s curious eyes took in the luxurious beauty of their host’s home. This is how the rich live, he thought. As the house boy placed the food on the table, Gurinder pulled out a slim, rectangular notepad from his pocket. He first wrote on the front page of a piece of paper, then tearing it off neatly, handed it over to Dara.

‘Here you are, young man,’ he said, scribbling again on the reverse of the paper.

Dara leaned close to his guru, and whispered, ‘What’s this?’ ‘It’s important. Keep it safely in your pocket. I’ll explain later,’ Harnam whispered back, as their host tore out a second sheet, handing it to Harnam.

Gurinder then lifted the wooden lid off an old gramophone and placed the pin over an HMV record. A sad, melodious song wafted into the room. Gurinder sang the first few lines along with it, even as his eyes welled up with tears. ‘I miss my wife. Oh! I miss her.’ The servant later explained that Gurinder’s family was on their way to India and whenever they were not around, this act became a routine: drink, sing and cry.

After dinner, Dara and Harnam were dropped back home in the same car.

‘What a weird man!’ exclaimed Dara.

‘One of the advantages of being rich. You can cry over silly things,’ Harnam laughed.

Dara then asked Harnam about the strips of paper the man had given them.

‘I don’t know much, but these are called cheques. We can exchange these for money. Fifty dollars for you and a hundred for me!’ ‘Really?’ Dara pulled out the thin strip of paper and stared at it with renewed respect.

‘You have to give the cheque to a bank, and they will give you fifty dollars.’

‘Just like that? The bank gives whatever amount that man writes. Wow! He is so powerful.’

‘Yes, he is.’

‘Then he should’ve written a cheque for a 1,000 dollars,’ Dara shot back earnestly.

After Malaya, Harnam and Dara decided to try their luck in the capital city of Kuala Lumpur. When they arrived, the city was gearing up for one of the most popular fairs in Southeast Asia, the wrestling matches of which were undoubtedly the biggest crowd pullers. Here too, Dara and Harnam stayed with a friend, Dileep Singh. ‘We definitely must get a match here,’ Harnam said, ‘First, I will fight a match, then Dara can call out a pheri (when a wrestler gets into a ring and throws out an open challenge).’ But when they sent out word looking for a challenger for Harnam, they found none. Stories of his wrestling expertise and indomitable strength preceded him and no one was willing to fight him. Harnam then decided that they should reverse the order.

‘First, we will find a challenger for you, Dara and then, I will throw an open challenge to anyone willing to fight me.’

Tarlok Singh, an Indian wrestler, who’d recently arrived in Kuala Lumpur, accepted Dara’s challenge, and from the next day onwards, the two opponents were scheduled to train together daily. Tarlok was older than Dara, but of the same height and weight. However, on the first day, and after a couple of hours of training, Tarlok said, ‘Enough for today! I’ve only arrived yesterday from India, so will take it slow.’

‘Sure! Until tomorrow then,’ Dara said.

Tarlok instantly perked up, ready to leave. But before doing so, he turned to Harnam and threw him a mock dare, ‘Four days max. And I will be ready to give your boy a good fight.’

But the following days were no different. Tarlok tired easily, boosting Dara’s confidence. Meanwhile, Harnam Singh still had no takers and realizing that he may not fight at all, he scheduled a piles operation, which he’d been postponing for some time. ‘Dara, tomorrow is the surgery. Obviously, I won’t be fighting.’

‘What about my practice?’ Dara asked.

Guruji pointed at Tarlok and said, ‘You have your opponent practicing with you. You don’t need anyone else.’

Tarlok nodded his consent, but his mind was elsewhere. He had a plan. The next day onwards, Tarlok did the disappearing act and Dara had no one to practice with, till the day of the match. On the day of the fight, as always, Dara and Tarlok’s names were announced.

Within twenty minutes of the fight, and as soon as he realized that Dara was gaining an upper hand, the referee declared the match a draw. Although Dara wanted to shout out against this injustice, he was far too young and new to protest. The incident left Dara so upset that he didn’t talk to anyone and kept to himself for several days. It was left to Harnam to help him to move on. ‘Dara, don’t worry. You will get your chance soon,’ he said, pacifying his young disciple.

And sure enough, a few months later when they returned to Singapore, Dara got the opportunity to wrestle Tarlok again. It was a tough match with both opponents holding out for long, and unwilling to give in. They grappled for nearly two hours, before collapsing, exhausted in the ring, their bodies covered in bruises. Each had secured one fall, until finally the match was declared a draw, yet again. The physical hurt aside, Dara was shattered by the beating his ego had taken. Maybe I am not meant to be a wrestler. Maybe I am not good enough He was overcome by self-doubt and a feeling of immense insecurity which seeped into every part of his aching body, filling his heart and eyes with an unending pain. Harnam rebuked him in a sharp tone of voice, ‘Self -pity is a luxury. Snap out of it. Some of the greatest wrestlers lost several matches before they became popular. You are still young. Never give up.’

Dara adhered to his guru’s advice, which helped heal his battered body and soul and brought with it a renewed sense of hope. He got back to practice with a vengeance and thought—I am going to become the greatest and strongest wrestler on Earth. Every person, in every part of India, and the world over, shall know my name. Dara Singh! Soon after, the duo received an invitation from Indonesia by one Mr. Ranak, who was a well-known boxing manager, and had the unique distinction of presenting both boxing and wrestling matches on a single platform.

(Excerpts from Deedara aka DaraSingh! by Seema Sonik Alimchand, published by Westland Books)


[ASIA SAMACHAR is an online newspaper for Sikhs in Southeast Asia and surrounding countries. We have a Facebook page, do give it a LIKE! Visit our website: www.asiasamachar.com]


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