A century-old small wonder

A century-old small wonder

Among the pantheon of greats in the world of Indian sport, Manohar Aich would probably be a ‘Small Wonder’. 

India’s most famous bodybuilder, the man, who captured the imagination of the country by winning its first Mr Universe title in 1952, is a legend like no other. At 100 years and three months, the diminutive Aich is an icon of fitness, epitomising strength and longevity in equal measure.  
    
Born in Comilla, in present day Bangladesh, on March 17, 1912, the four-foot, 11-inch Aich's life has been one of extraordinary achievements in the face of hardships. Coming from a humble background, the ‘Pocket Hercules’ blazed a trail of glory and inspired generations of bodybuilders.   
“I am very old now,’’ Aich, who was in Bangalore for the National Bodybuilding Championships recently, replied with a chuckle when asked if he still packed a powerful punch. 

Aich's journey started at the age of seven when he took a liking for traditional sports like wrestling and kabaddi in his village Puntia. 

Although in relatively good health, Aich struggles to recollect the astonishing feats in heydays. The centenarian is assisted by Deb Narayan Ganguly, general secretary of the West Bengal Amateur Body Builders Association (WBABBA), during an interview. “Manoharji was the undisputed king of the bodybuilding world and because of his efforts a strong plat form was laid for Indian bodybuilders in later years,’’ Ganguly says.  

The rustic brawn of Aich needed to be polished before his career could take off. “Aich’s initiation into serious bodybuilding started when he joined the Royal Air Force(RAF) as a physical instructor in 1942,’’ says Ganguly. 

Aich's journey took wings thanks to an RAF officer, Reub Martin, who encouraged him to take up weight training. The stint at the RAF didn't last long as he slapped a British officer for his colonialist remarks in 1947.  Aich has a glint in his eye when queried about the episode. “The officer used certain unkind words, Manoharji lost his cool and slapped him,’’ Ganguly says.

RAF conducted a court martial and sentenced Aich to 12 years imprisonment but he was free in five months after India became independent in August that year. Aich never looked back after that and began his title winning spree in right earnest in 1950 when he clinched the Mr Hercules contest. 

Life-changing trip

Before he went on his life-changing trip to London in 1952, Aich did shows in Kolkata where people would come in large numbers to see his incredible body. It was during those days that he met renowned magician of yesteryear PC Sorcar.

“Sorcar was blown away by the response to Manoharji’s shows and came up with an idea of partnering together and performing. He suggested Manoharji could showcase his body and he will simultaneously weave his magic tricks,’’ Ganguly explains.

This paved the way for the popular ‘Physique and Magic’ shows that helped Aich earn some much-needed money. His triumph in the Mr Universe contest at the Scala Theatre in London in 1952 then immortalised him. Later that year, he won the World Championship of Spring Pulling contest in Scotland tearing a spring of 275 pounds tension.

Aich’s insatiable appetite for silverware pushed him to compete at the Mr Universe in 1955 where he finished third and in 1960 at the age of 47, he ended fourth at the prestigious competition. But there was no change in the living conditions of Aich who relishes ‘panta bhat’ -- rice cooked a day before and left to ferment by adding water. “Manoharji used to sell tender coconut at Sealdah railway station when he came back after winning the Mr Universe title,’’ says Ganguly.

One of the lesser known facts about Aich is his ability as a football player. He was even offered a chance to play for Mohun Bagan but he politely refused.

Despite his immense contributions, Aich, sadly, has not received any honours from the government, although his successors like Premchand Dogra have received the Padma Shri and the Arjuna Award.
India’s bodybuilding standards have risen tremendously over the years and Aich says they are getting good backing now. “It is at a very high level now, the bodybuilders these days are getting a lot of support compared to our times,’’says Aich.

Asked about the secret of Aich's long life, Ganguly attributes it to his simple lifestyle.
“Manoharji used to smoke cigarettes for a few days after the Mr Universe win but he stopped it soon and has been a teetotaller since,’’ he adds. 

Aich believes the key to becoming a successful bodybuilder is hard work and perseverance. “One needs to pay attention to the diet and have a good exercise regime and the rest will fall into place.’’
One of Aich’s enduring legacies would surely be the setting up of the Studio De Physique gym at his residence in Kolkata. The gym has produced national champions such as Satyen Das, Satya Paul and Hitesh Chatterjee.

The muscleman’s family comprises two sons and two daughters. Rajeev Banerjee, Aich’s grandson, looks after the gym in Kolkata. “It’s a great privilege that I am Manohar Aich’s grandson, we all are very proud of him,’’ the stocky Banerjee adds.

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