I have written this biography as a humble tribute to the revered memory of my late father, Phanindra Krishna Gupta, who was a Major in the Indian Medical Service during the Second World War.
My father was born in Calcutta in 1882, in a middle class Bengali Hindu, Baidya family, which lived in a pucca house and owned some land. He was a maternal grandson of the noted Bengali poet and writer Ishwar Chandra Gupta, who was, in the middle of the nineteenth century the editor and publisher of the Calcutta-based Bengali newspaper Sambad Prabhakar. Phanindra was born in a large family – he was the fifth in line among his six brothers and three sisters.
His immediate elder brother, Manindra Krishna, was interested in acting, music and drama, and at the age of 16, became a Grihisisya (in-house disciple) of Shri Ramkrishna Paramhansa Deb at Dakhineshwar Temple, near Calcutta. Here he came in contact with Swami Vivekananda, who fondly called him Khoka or Mani, and became one of his many Gurubhais (close follower). Later, Manindra became the last editor and publisher of Sambad Prabhakar.
Phanindra’s immediate younger brother, Satyendra Krishna, was a reputed oil painter, who became well known in Burma, where he lived for some years. He was also a playwright, and some of his plays were performed on public stages in Calcutta.
Like his brothers, my father also had interest in music and arts but did not pursue them because he wanted to become a doctor.
At the age of 14, my father was frail and dyspeptic, and an easy target for his school mates, who ridiculed him as a “small mouse”. He did not like this, and made up his mind to become tough and strong. He began a programme of regular physical exercises with a rich and famous teacher, “Ambu Babu”, whose grandson was the world- renowned Bengali wrestler “Gobar Babu”. Within two years, Phanindra became strong enough to defeat many of the well-established members of his wrestling club. By regular practice and patience, he was able to maintain a strong and muscular body, full of strength and stamina until almost the end of his 70-year life.
After graduating from Calcutta Medical College, he started his own private practice in Calcutta. In 1903, he married Smt. Kanaklata Devi, the second daughter of Dr. Priya Nath Gupta, who was then the doctor in the Princely State of Jodhpur, located in what is now Rajasthan. They had five daughters and one son.
One of his contemporaries in Calcutta Medical College was Bidhan Chandra Roy, who went on to become not only a famous doctor but also the Chief Minister of West Bengal. Some of his other classmates also went on to become reputed doctors, such as Bireswar Mittra, a renowned surgeon, and Shib Nath Bhattacharyya, a well-known physician.
Phanindra was commissioned in 1915 as a Lieutenant in the Indian Medical service, and served the Indian Army until 1923, when he retired at the age of 41. He travelled to many places within India with the troops, and went abroad to various countries, including Iraq, Egypt, Palestine, Turkey, Burma, Australia, and New Zealand. He found that most foreigners considered Indians to be physically weak.
During the years he was in active military service, he continued his daily routine of physical exercises and bodybuilding, and came to be known as the “Indian Sandow”, after Eugene Sandow, the famous European strongman who is considered the father of modern bodybuilding.
Once, while he was camping somewhere in the Middle East, two British officers, both Captains, came to his tent and challenged him to a friendly fight. My father said he was ready to fight both of them at the same time, but asked them to first pass a basic test. He asked one of them to lift and swing one pair of his wooden gadas (Indian club), which weighed about 10 kilos. This was a routine exercise for my father, but the British officer, to his surprise, could not even lift them properly!
So, the British officers gave up the idea of the fight, and instead challenged him to a test in general knowledge. My father told them he would win here too, as he was confident that he had much greater knowledge than they did about subjects such as Geography, History, Philosophy, and even English literature. They then dropped the idea without asking him a single question.
He retired from the Army when he was 41 years old. Once he was out of the Army, he decided to build his body further. And he succeeded marvellously – the numbers speak for themselves.
|Results of Phanindra Gupta's bodybuilding efforts|
|Measurement in inches|
|At age 41||Two years later|
At this late age, his strength and stamina were superior to that of many young Indian and European athletes of those days. How did he do it?
He led a healthy life – always up at 5 a.m. and asleep at 10 p.m. He totally avoided alcohol and tobacco. And he exercised, exercised and exercised!
He had a well-equipped gymnasium and a wrestling arena in his house in Calcutta. He did traditional Indian exercises such as duns (pressups) – 1,500 every day - and baithaks (situps) – 2,000 everyday. Later, he increased the duns to 2,000 and baithaks to 2,500. Apart from swinging a pair of wooden gadas, he also worked out with iron dumb-bells, followed by whole-body massage. Moreover, he had regular wrestling bouts with his pupils, to gain strength, stamina and agility. This he did six days a week, with Sunday being his rest day.
Even though he exercised hard, his meals were plain and simple. Being a Bengali, he had to have fish - which he ate for lunch. At dinner, there was chicken or mutton, but in reasonable quantities. These he ate with rice or chapattis, dal, fresh green vegetables, milk or dahi (yogurt). During the time when he increased his workouts, he increased the amount of fish and meat in his daily diet and sometimes supplemented it with some half boiled eggs. The cooking was always light, with little oil, very small amounts of spices, and no chillies.
He also ate almonds (ground and stirred in water with sugar), mostly on winter mornings. The very first thing he regularly used to have every morning was some quantity of ripe fruit like bael (wood apple), banana, papaya or mango, which he believed kept his bowels regulated and healthy. He used to have a cup of tea only in the afternoon everyday.
After retiring from the Army in 1923, he restarted his private medical practice. It was during this period that he decided to prescribe specially planned physical exercises, mostly free hand and massages, to treat his patients, who had various obstinate ailments like hypertension, diabetes, cardiac disorders etc. He called it “Physical Culture Treatment”, similar to what is now known as physiotherapy, for both men and women. Unlike other physicians, he tried his best to prescribe both medicines and “physical culture treatment”.
In 1927, he wrote and published his first book My System of Physical Culture, which dealt mostly with physical exercises for men and women. In 1936, he wrote and published his second book My System of Physical Culture Treatment, which described specific physical exercises, dietetics and massages for various ailments.
Netaji Subhas Bose and Dr. Shyama Prasad Mukherjee, who founded the Hindu Mahasabha, were patients in the 1920s and 1930s. In addition, he had a large number of patients, including Sri Jyotindra Mohan Sen Gupta, a well-known freedom fighter who was known as Deshapriya, and Sir Hari Shankar Paul, a wealthy industrialsist and Mayor of Calcutta.
He was associated with many clubs and organizations devoted to the cause of physical culture. Among the younger generation who were inspired by him were Shri Bishnu Charan Ghosh, the founder of Ghosh’s Gymnasium, Nilomani Das, who was known as “Iron Man”, and Dr. Narain Chandra Das, a physiotherapist and masseur.
One of his prominent pupils was Bijoy Krishna Pathak, of Calcutta Port Commissioner, who was an all-around athlete, very good sportsman, and an excellent muscle-poser and wrestler with a very strong body. Upendra Nath Banerjee was also a student: he was a fine weight lifter and muscle-poser, and won the first prize for the finest muscular body in the All-India Weight Lifting Championship in 1925. Another well-known pupil was Kanai Lal Mukherjee, who acquired a very well built muscular body in a short time and won many muscle-posing competitions.
He headed the panel of judges in many wrestling and body building competitions in and around Calcutta. He was the organizer and expert advisor to Student Welfare Committee and the children’s Playgrounds Committee of Calcutta Municipal Corporation. He lectured on physical culture under the auspices of the Calcutta University.
He fully believed in the proverb mens sana in corpore sano (a sound mind in a sound body). His foremost social aim in life was to see all Indian men or women physically and mentally strong, so that they could ultimately make India a strong nation. But he knew that many were poor and the weak, and he tried his best to help them, including never charging a fee from his poor patients.
He had other interests too. There was a small aquarium in his house, in which he kept goldfish. Gardening was another hobby, and he had a variety of flowering plants in his garden. He sang Bengali classical music songs, and played on the harmonium and esraj (stringed instrument) whenever he found time. Reading daily newspapers and books on various subjects was his daily routine and he liked to have discussions on subjects like world history, politics, astronomy and astrology.
He had a pleasant personality and was well liked by all who came in contact with him. He kept his cool whenever his children, grandchildren, or others did something he did not approve of. He dealt with the offenders with compassion and understanding, instead of scolding and punishing them.
Given his social and physical stature, he was often called upon to settle everyday disputes; he liked to settle matters peacefully, avoiding physical assaults as far as possible. Once, as part of a marriage party in Calcutta in 1929, he found that the some people were getting ready to thrash an intruder, taking him to be a petty thief. My father immediately intervened and found out that the intruder was not a thief at all - he was an unemployed man who just wanted a meal after starving for many days. To the surprise of the crowd, my father arranged for a good meal for the intruder, who was very much moved by this rare gesture of magnanimity. Then, my father gave him some money to feed his family, and later got him a job in an automobile garage.
He was 59 years old in 1941. Yet, given his extraordinary fit physical condition, the British gave him an emergency commission as a major in the Indian Medical Service, and he served until the end of the Second World War in 1945. He was the recruiting officer-in-charge for medical officers for the armed forces in the Bengal area, serving under Surgeon-General W.C. Paton, who had been his colleague during the First World War.
He was happy when British rule ended and India became independent. My father with all his family members celebrated the whole day on August 15, 1947 in various ways. He praised all the brave freedom fighters in the country for their enduring agitations as well as the Indian National Army, which under the able leadership of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose had fought for independence from outside the country.
He advised everyone to follow these ideals:
- Never lie
- Respect elders
- To always help the poor and the needy
- To have belief in God
- To be educated by all means
- To attain and maintain strong health with a sound mind
- Not to use physical force unnecessarily
- To totally avoid alcohol, tobacco, etc.
Epliogue. By the grace of God and his blessings, his daughters and son have all flourished well in different fields of activities and so have his grandchildren.
© Rabindra Nath Gupta 2008
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