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Obituary: Dara Singh, from wrestler to Bollywood star

The champion wrestler became a muscle-bound Bollywood star after playing the Hindu monkey god Hanuman

  • In this photograph taken on May 3, 2011, Veteran Indian Bollywood actor and accomplished wrestler Dara Singh (Image Credit: AFP
  • Dara Singh locks China’s Wong Chang Yung in a vice-like grip during a wrestling bout atAl Maktoum Stadium, AImage Credit: Gulf News Archives
  • Veteran actor Dara Singh was also honoured with the senior most cine-artist award. Wrestler-turned-actoImage Credit: Yogen Shah/ANM
  • Dara SinghImage Credit: Ramachandra Babu/©Gulf News

Dara Singh, who has died aged 83, was a champion wrestler turned Bollywood star who became famous for his depiction of the monkey god Hanuman in the hugely popular Indian television series Ramayan, an adaptation of the Hindu epic the Ramayana.

The Ramayana, one of the two great epics of India (the other being the Mahabharata), tells the story of Rama, Prince of Ayodhya (an incarnation of the God Vishnu) and his quest to rescue his beautiful wife Sita (an incarnation of the goddess Laxmi) after she is abducted by the evil 10-headed Ravana from Lanka (modern-day Sri Lanka).

Rama gathers an army of monkeys to search for her and together they track down Ravana, kill him and rescue Sita. The couple’s triumphant return to Ayodhya marks the beginning of a Golden Age for mankind.

Hanuman is the resourceful monkey general who helps Rama defeat Ravana and rescue Sita. With the elephant deity Ganesh, he is one of Hinduism’s best-loved gods.

When Ramanand Sagar’s 78-part television series was broadcast in India in 1987-1988, it drew more than 100 million viewers, bringing the country to a virtual standstill every Sunday morning. Streets were empty; trains and buses stopped running; religious services (Hindu and non-Hindu) and political meetings were postponed. In villages, hundreds of people would gather around a single screen to watch the show, while in millions of Indian homes incense burners were lit on top of the television set.

Singh’s broad shoulders and wrestler’s physique suited the character of the simian action hero perfectly, and he played the role with such conviction that many Indians thought he must be the real Hanuman.

Dara Singh was born Deedar Singh Randhawa on November 19, 1928 into a Jatt Sikh family in a village in the Amritsar district of the Punjab, then under British rule. The Jatt Sikhs comprise about half of the Sikhs in the Punjab and are known for their fine physiques and their fondness for wrestling and weight-lifting. Historically they have always proved a fruitful source of recruits for the Indian Army.

As a young man Singh trained in the Indian style of wrestling, known as Pehlwani, taking part in tournaments and displays for Indian princes, and performing at fairs and carnivals.

Subsequently he learnt American-style wrestling and made his name on the international stage, winning the Commonwealth title for India in 1959 and the World Wrestling Championship in 1968. In some 500 fights as a professional wrestler, he remained unbeaten.

In 1952 Singh starred in his first film, Sangdil, and he went on to appear in more than 115 films, both Hindi and Punjabi. He was said to have started the practice, now something of a cliche in Bollywood films, of the hero removing his shirt to reveal finely-toned pectorals. The Bollywood sex symbol Mumtaz appeared with him in several films.

Singh also directed films and, in 1978, founded his own studios at Mohali in the Punjab. In later life, from 2003 to 2009, he was a member of the upper house of the Indian parliament, the Rajya Sabha, for the Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party.

Singh was twice married and had three sons and three daughters.