Days before the Olympic Games get under way in London on July 27, the town of Amravati is dusting off picture albums and turning out old trunks that hold the relics of an earlier Olympiad. A moment frozen in time when the athletes of a local vyayamshala (gymnasium) impressed Adolf Hitler with their skill.”
The year was 1936. The Summer Olympics that year were being held in Herr Hitler’s Germany. An official contingent from India was participating as a colony of British India. As it turned out, this was when hockey legend Dhyanchand and his men scored a decisive 8-1 win against the host nation to win an Olympic gold. It was also the year Jesse Owens created history.
But what impressed the Fuhrer was an independent team from the modest Hanuman Vyayam Prasarak Mandal in Amravati . Carrying a saffron flag, the lithe athletes showed off a selection of the finest ethnic martial arts from malkhamb to wrestling. Chancellor Hitler granted the pehelwans a personal audience and conferred upon them a special medal and a certificate bearing his signature that their descendants have to this day.
The saga began when Dr Siddhanath Kane, a doctor from Amravati on the executive committee of the fledgling Indian Olympic Association (IOA), decided to lead a 35-member troupe from the local gymnasium to showcase Indian martial arts at the Berlin Olympics. Copious correspondence followed with chief organizer Carl Diem, and the pehelwans received clearance to participate.
At every step, the nationalists were faced with symbols of India’s subjugation , and at every step they asserted their independence, like participating under a saffron flag. Vande Mataram played in Oly Village
During the inaugural march, the official Indian team was carrying the Union Jack, given that it was participating as a British colony. Our troupe, walking a few metres behind, proudly held aloft a traditional saffron flag,” says Padmakar Kane, son of Siddhanath Kane. The 80-year-old educationist has pictures of his father’s team participating in the parade wearing ethnic costumes , including the traditional pheta (turban).
Early in the tournament, the hosts organized a grand banquet in honour of the visiting teams, where the national song of every country was played. “Individual teams rose to their feet and remained standing for the duration of their song. Yet again our selfrespect was challenged, as the Indian contingent stood up to the British anthem God Save the King,” says Kane.
The Hanuman Vyayam Prasarak Mandal team members remained in their seats, prompting curious glances from German officials. “German education minister Bernhard Rust asked my father why their group did not rise. He replied that they considered the nationalistic Vande Mataram their anthem and played it at their base camp every morning and evening when the saffron flag was hoisted and lowered. Rust asked if they were carrying a recording with them, which they were. “That evening, Vande Mataram was played at the Olympic banquet ceremony ,” says Kane.
A few days later, called into action, the Hanuman brigade displayed its finest acrobatic moves at malkhamb exercises done with poles and ropes, push-ups , martial arts that employ weapons, even the traditional lezim dance. Newspapers across Germany and Europe splashed articles about the performance.
Word soon reached Adolf Hitler, who invited the team over for an interview. “He spoke to the members for around 20 minutes and curiously asked if most Indian men were well-built like the athletes from Amravati. They wickedly nodded in agreement ,” laughs Kane. “Hitler presented them with a special medal and certificate bearing his signature. They also received an Olympic medal for their performance.”