Gobor Goho: The wrestler who put India on the wrestling map

Rupha Ramani
Indian wrestlers are known to be serious contenders at international sporting events. (Express Photo/Image used for representational purpose)

It was 1909. Wrestling, a popular pastime in the Indian subcontinent for centuries, especially under royal patronage, was disappearing along with India’s princely states. However, it took the suggestion of a barely 18-year-old Gobor Goho to not only change how the wrestling world looked at India, but also the way Indian wrestlers looked at themselves. Now, over a century and hundreds of international medals-including five at the Olympics-later, Indian wrestlers are known to be serious contenders at international sporting events. But who is this uniquely named Gobor Goho, and how did the teenager change the face of wrestling in India? Around 50 years after his death, we delve into history to look back at the man who had initially found himself in a profession of his father’s choosing, but went on to become one of the pioneers and visionaries of the sport of wrestling in India.

CAN’T FIGHT DESTINY

Jatindra Charan Guho was born on March 13, 1892, in Kolkata, West Bengal, to a wrestlers’ family. This included Ambu Babu, who set up akhada at Masjidbari Street, and Khetracharan Guho, who is known to have tutored Swami Vivekananda. Like the many odd terms of endearments used for children in Bengal, Guho’s father Ram Charan would call him ‘cowdung’, or ‘Gobor’. This was probably to chide him for being lazy and overweight. Added to that, the anglicised version of Guho that became ‘Goho’, Jatindra eventually became ‘Gobor Goho’.

Despite growing up around wrestling, Goho showed no interest in taking up the sport. In fact, he was receiving training in Hindustani classical music. However, after his father died in 1901, his family-unwilling to let the family’s association with wrestling end with Ram Charan-decided that the large-built Goho should pick up the sport. He was 9.

He was a natural, and by the age of 15, Goho-with guidance from his uncle Khetracharan-had become a proper pehelwan. Soon his uncle hired Rehman, a well-known guru from Amritsar to be Goho’s personal trainer. Just as he was garnering a name for himself as a wrestler in 1909, his uncle died; which was a huge personal and professional blow.

This was also when the revolutionary wave against the British was in full force in Bengal, and the rest of the country. Many of the akhadas, several of which his grandfather Ambu Babu had instituted, were becoming a front for the underground network of armed revolutionaries and training bases for hooligans. Goho, who loved wrestling as an art and sport, took on the initiative to re-establish wrestling as a serious sport.

THE TEEN VISIONARY

While 1909 brought sorrow to Goho, it was also the year that changed his life and, owing to his vision, possibly the trajectory of Indian wrestling. Concerned at the deteriorating state of wrestling and wrestlers in the country, Goho wanted to follow his family’s footsteps and make a difference. Serendipity struck in the form of a trip to Lahore with his brother-in-law Sarat Kumar Mitra, an affluent businessman with a penchant for wrestling. They were headed to witness a much-hyped match between the two contemporary wrestling greats: Ghulam Mohammad Baksh Butt (known as The Great Gama) and Rahim Sultaniwala.

These two pehalwans had met twice already and both battles had been gruesome without a clear winner. Lahore too proved to be a tight contest that lasted two gruelling hours. The intensity and quality of the fight inspired the young Goho to ponder: ‘What if wrestlers like Gama, Sultaniwala and their ilk were taken to the heart of the British Empire-London-to fight with international wrestlers? That would surely show the world just how good Indians were.’

Goho mentioned this to Mitra, who immediately agreed to finance this momentous trip. So, in 1910, a small troupe-Gama, his brother Imam Baksh, Ahmed Baksh and Gamu (all from the same akhada), a cook, some helpers, and Mitra and Goho, of course-landed in England. Goho, who was just a teenager at the time, had travelled without letting his family know; and once they did, they immediately sent him a message that his mother was unwell, resulting in his immediate return.

What followed were months of immense struggle that Gama and his team underwent before emerging victorious. While that is, of course, Gama’s tale, one cannot forget that it was Goho’s vision that made this historic venture possible. This trip put India on the world wrestling map.

ONE FIGHT AT A TIME

While teen Goho might have returned to India abruptly, the exceptional pehelwan did end up travelling to several countries soon, conquering the wrestling world one bout at a time. During a European tour in 1913, Goho fought and defeated several big names like Jimmy Campbell and Jimmy Essen. Though, the fight that has now become part of wrestling folklore is the big win over US’ Adolf Santel, the light heavyweight champion of the world, in 1921.

The ‘Hindu Giant’, as the San Francisco Chronicle described Goho, proved to be too strong for Santel, winning the bout in 1 hour and 3 minutes with a crotch hold. In 1996, India commemorated the platinum jubilee of the ‘world wrestling championship’ between Goho and Santel with a special stamp. Another famous bout was with American Ed ‘Strangler’ Lewis, the fiercest and popular wrestler of the time. Goho went on to lose that match but not before giving Lewis a tough fight.

Goho spent six years in the US, alongside the world’s best wrestlers of the time; Stanislaus Zbyszko, Adolf Santel and John Lemm, to name a few. By 1927, Goho’s American adventure came to an end. He returned home and took over the reins of the family akhada. On January 2, 1972, the 79-year-old ‘Indian prince from Calcutta’ passed away in the very akhada he had grown to love.

The article is part of Saha Sutra on http://www.sahapedia.org, an open online resource on the arts, cultures and heritage of India. A sports junkie for 12 years now, Rupha Ramani started her career as a sports journalist in CNN-IBN before moving to Star Sports. She is currently freelancing as a sports anchor, writer and producer.