A Many Splendoured Life
"The Tallest Punjabi Terror," are references we find to 6 feet 2 inches tall seventeen year old Dara Singh in the 1940s. "He was a big lad," said Sam Betts, "muscular, tall and weighed about twenty stone."
Following his visits to Britain the reputation of India's Dara Singh reached almost mythical proportions in the 1960s with both the Wrestler magazine and Kent Walton often reporting that some plucky Brit had travelled to India and held Dara Singh to a draw. No one seemed to win against this God like figure of wrestling but he didn't seem averse to letting our lads have the odd drawn result.
We are not being dismissive of Dara Singh's talents; he was widely acknowledged as one of the world's best with our own esteemed historian, Charles Mascall, quoted at the time of Dara's death in no less a publication than The New York Times, as placing Dara Singh tenth in the all-time rankings of Heavyweights worldwide.
Born in India in 1928 Deedar Singh Randhawa already combined wrestling with acting in 1957 when he arrived in Britain. His filmography lists 195 films to his credit, from Sangdil in 1952 to Ata Pata Lapatta in 2012. His first starring role came in King Kong (1962) and he took one of the leading roles as Hanuman in the television series of the Hindu epic, Ramayan.
Our earliest wrestling find goes back to November, 1945. Dara had recently travelled to Singapore and wrestled at the Great World Stadium, first opponent the Malay champion Kartar Singh. We find Dara wrestling in Singapore and Malaya from 1945 – 1958 often wrestling British opponents including Jeff Conda and Stan Garside, Whilst not invincible in those early years his record was outstanding and Dara was a popular vanquishor of the many overseas stars working the Malay peninsular at a time when a newly independent India was in need of sources of pride and confidence. Dara provided that source, hero worshipped by fans in his native country and a cultural icon for decades to come.
Was that hero worship justified?
We asked a man who knew him very well, Sam Betts, who wrestled as Dwight J Ingleburgh. So was the worshop justified Sam? "Definitiely. Dara was The man in India, and a good wrestler." A good wrestler but a professional in the sense that we understand and respect. Working with Dara, according to Sam, was like working with one of our own lads, someone who you knew well. "He was a good wrestler but very easy to work with. Generous, gracious, willing to give to his opponent and make a good match." Sam wrestled Dara,and worked for him, numerous times. The men knew each other well and became good friends. At time sam would stay with Dara's monther, "A lovely lady who enjoyed her afternoon tea, always drank Darjeeeling."
By the time he arrived in Britain in 1956 Dara was already champion of India. Opponents in Britain included Norman Walsh, Mike Marino, Bill Verna and Ray Apollon, but he is most famously remembered for his draw at the Royal Albert Hall in 1957 against the American Lou Thesz. That may be the one he's remembered for yet he also wrestled elsewhere in Britain through the late fifties and early sixties.
In the 1970s Tony Scarlo and Gordon Corbett brought Lou Thesz and Dara Singh to Britain for three matches, with Tony refereeing on each occasion. Tony told us, “Although I had been wrestling for twenty years I was in the ring as referee and was completely mesmerised at the way these two legends applied holds and counter holds. A couple of times I was trying to work out how they applied a hold and escape and forgot to count. I don’t think anyone noticed.” Not surprisingly all three matches, at the Lyceum Ballroom in the Strand, Bradford and Southall, were complete sell outs. There was a near riot at Southall when Lou defeated Dara in front of thousands of his fans.
“Not the ears” was a phrase we attribute to a certain London tearaway, but Dara Singh was equally averse to any opponent touching his ears. Singh used the aeroplane spin as a speciality manoeuvre.
Dara's UK tours also worked, in typical professional wrestling style, as talent-hunting missions and many a British heavyweight would subsequently fly out to the Sub-Continent to face Singh in front of crowds of tens of thousands, often later nominating their 60-minute draw as the pinnacle of their own wrestling career.
Following retirement from wrestling in 1983 Dara took an increasing interest in politics in 2003 was nominated to the Rajya Sabha — the upper house of the Parliament of India. He served in Parliament until 2009.
Wrestler, film actor, tv star, politician, film producer. It was indeed a splendoured life, and a nation mourned when it ended on July 12th 2012, aged 84.