For Indian revolutionaries in the struggle for freedom, gymnasiums and akharas were a cover for politics
IIn the early decades of the twentieth century, those aligned with the Bengali bodybuilding society Anushilan Samiti, advocated the use of violence as a means to end colonial rule in India. In the northern region of Calcutta Garpar Maniktala, the Jugantar movement emerged under the leadership of Sri Aurobindo Ghosh, among others.
It started out under the guise of a fitness club, but took in young teens and turned them into revolutionaries. Sri Aurobindo, who was “imprisoned by the British for plotting a sannyasi revolt against the empire â, combined its yogic spiritual impulse with nationalist efforts. Violence emerged in Calcutta, with assassinations and underground groups creating chaos. Akharas and gymnasiums served as a means of physical strengthening, as well as a cover for their political organization efforts.
As the organizational capacity of the Bengalis increased, colonialist Lord Curzon and other British leaders countered the emerging threat to their hegemony by attempting to divide Bengal in 1905. The Swadeshi movement, which was both a boycott of the British products, and a promotion of native products, emerged in protest against partition. It provoked and became a springboard for Indian nationalism as a whole, and for subsequent Hindu and Muslim animation along community lines. Swadeshi was successful and Bengal was finally reunited in 1911, but not without divisive societal ramifications taking root in the communities. As community differences faded, Indians in general hardened their claims.
“In the wake of the Swadeshi movement,” “anti-colonial revolutionary organizations” flourished. The British responded by moving the colonial capital from Calcutta to New Delhi in 1912. The British crackdown on the insurgency in Calcutta was brutal. Freedom fighters and revolutionaries were persecuted and served long prison terms.
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Violence was less attractive in the 1920s, and intellectuals fled during this time. Sri Aurobindo Ghosh, once an influential Indian independence leader in Calcutta, gave up politics altogether to focus exclusively on spiritual practice. Yet fiery nationalism has remained in Bengal. Subhas Chandra Bose, who served as mayor of Calcutta and leader of the National Congress, advocated violence when necessary. This conflicted with the idea of ââahimsa (non-violence), a principle within the Swadeshi movement, which Mahatma Gandhi promoted.
Bishnu’s good friend and neighbor, Nilmoni Das, a bodybuilder known as’ Ironman ‘, ran a competing neighborhood gym and would have known’ that many freedom fighters would practice strength training from his graphics and he loved that idea. This is how he indirectly supported the freedom fighters. However, there was no indication that Bishnu Ghosh was active or involved in the independence effort, as supporting Indian nationalism was not one of his father’s priorities. Much of his clientele consisted of British colonialists such as Stanley Jackson, who served as governor of Bengal from 1927 to 1932, and his successor John Anderson, who served from 1932 to 1934.
Sir Hassan Surabardi also loved me very much and once we were invited to hold a show in his house. Sir Stanley Jackson, Governor of Bengal, and his wife were present. They were completely mesmerized by the performance of Buddha and in fact Lady Jackson hugged and caressed Buddha. Sir Hassan began his yoga classes with Buddha on that day.
On another occasion, Bishnu wrote:
The Maharajah of Santosh held a tree planting ceremony and invited the Governor of Bengal, Sir John Anderson. He also arranged for my students and I to put on a show in his honor. My oldest son, the late Srikrishna, was only 3 years old at the time. The main attractions of the show were Buddha, Moni Roy and Srikrishna.
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This should not present Bishnu as the equivalent of an English babu. Hateful colonialists were too common in his eyes; he considered himself the equal of any Englishman. In fact, Bishnu was not afraid of clashes with the colonialists, even if they were triggered by something trivial, like a bit of road rage: âWe were finally in Calcutta, and on the way back, I was had a road – I won. ‘ Recalling another confrontation, Bishnu continued: We were an object of ridicule and hatred in the eyes of the English people at that time; no wonder we have developed a similar attitude towards them as well. They would not give us a chance to humiliate or insult us. Once, on a trip, I remember an Englishman lifting his shod feet straight up to my face. I picked up a pair of slippers and shoes with my big toes on and put my feet in front of her face. He put his feet down – me too. He had met his equal.
Bishnu loved competition and his approach to physical culture was one of professionalism rather than insurgency. This is an alternative “trajectory” of physical culture, which is not only about nationalism, but rather “a concern for bodybuilding and feats of strength”, which ultimately led to the inclusion of Hatha yoga. .
For Bishnu and his students, physical culture and feats of strength were a sport, and his students were professionals with repeated performances. Strongman exploits were part of the tradition of Bengal and India as a whole, but âa tensionâ arose âin the physical culture movementâ between the hobbyist and the professional. With Bishnu, the emphasis on the physique and the demonstration of muscular control on stage came to the fore, a break from the way Indian feats of strength and stage performances had been achieved in the past. A whole new system has emerged, focusing on exterior form, printed photographs and the integration of European methods (dumbbells and other equipment). Bishnu assimilated them to the yogic techniques of breathing, contraction and relaxation which he had learned in his youth in the ashram of Dihika. Soon this would also have an impact on the formation of a modern yoga system.
This excerpt from Calcutta Yoga: How Modern Yoga Traveled the World from the Streets of Calcutta by Jerome Armstrong was published with permission from Pan Macmillan India.
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