Manohar Aich: Pocket Hercules

Print edition : July 08, 2016

Manohar Aich. Photo: PTI

In many ways, Manohar Aich (1912-2016) revolutionised bodybuilding in the country.

ON June 5, Kolkata lost a most dearly loved citizen with the death of former Mr Universe Manohar Aich. He was 104. Although just 4 feet 11 inches in height, Aich won international acclaim in 1950 when he won the Mr Hercules contest. In 1952, he became only the second Indian to win the Mr Universe contest organised by the National Amateur Body Builders Association. His remarkable achievements, in spite of his tiny stature, won him the sobriquet “Pocket Hercules”.

In many ways, Aich revolutionised bodybuilding in the country. He was among the first to introduce the concept of “power bodybuilding”, which laid stress on not just enhancing muscles but also building strength. Born on March 17, 1912, in Dhamti village in Comilla district (now in Bangladesh) in undivided Bengal, Aich was drawn to physical exercises from a young age. However, it was not until he started working in the Royal Air Force in 1942 that he took up bodybuilding in a serious way after a British officer introduced him to weight training. He served a stint in prison for protesting against British rule in India. It was during his time of incarceration that he gave himself up completely to bodybuilding. Years later, he recalled that he did free-hand workouts for as long as 12 hours a day in prison because it did not have exercising equipment. Seeing his dedication, the prison authorities were moved to preparing a special diet for him.

A quintessential Bengali in habits and ways, Aich became one of the enduring symbols of Kolkata, and would often be represented in collages and fleeting images on screen when general aspects of the city were highlighted.

The secret to his good health and longevity, he maintained, was his diet, regular exercise, and not allowing any tension to creep into his life. “I had to struggle to earn money ever since I was young, but whatever the situation, I remained happy,” he reportedly said. He shunned alcohol and tobacco and maintained a very simple diet of typical Bengali food comprising lentil, leafy vegetables and fish curry. Despite suffering a stroke in his late nineties, Aich recovered and continued to work out even when he was past the age of 100. He inspired several generations to keep fit, and right until the end of his life, he oversaw the training of his students in his gym. As per his wishes, his body and eyes were donated for medical research. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, in her condolence message, said: “The death of Mr Universe Manohar Aich is a huge loss for the world of sports in Bengal.”