Traditionally, a hero is understood as someone who is kind, generous, and strong. Someone who defeats evil and triumphs, in the end. But real-life heroes rarely emerge in such stark black-and-white terms. It’s their inherent humanity that makes them complex and interesting as characters.
Kodi Ramamurthy Naidu is one such hero.
A wrestler and weightlifter, he was also a circus manager and lauded all over the world for his strength and physical prowess. The strongman was lauded with titles like ‘Kaliyuga Bheema’ and ‘Indian Hercules’. But there’s more to his story than what first meets the eye.
Gaining much recognition for his work, he’s said to have donated large sums of his earnings to the Indian freedom movement.
The highs and lows of his life detail his perseverance and outlook on the world around him. Here’s a story that’s inspiring and baffling in equal measure, that challenges one to humanise this hero and find a fair balance between the man and the legend.
Discovering his first love
Kodi was born in Andhra Pradesh’s Veeraghattam in 1882 but lost his mother at an early age. As a child, he spent most of his time outdoors and exhibited an interest in physical training and gymnastics. He had little interest in studies and frequently got into tussles with his father about his studies and his future.
Legend has it that after disagreeing with his father about what career he would eventually pursue, he ran away to a forest, living there for a week. When he did return, he was accompanied by a tiger cub.
Soon after he was sent to his uncle in Vizianagaram. His uncle, who was a police officer, noticed his strength and decided to motivate him. He sent Kodi to several physical training schools in the city. Here he learnt different gymnastics and physical fitness techniques, including kushti (wrestling), and soon he became an established pehelwan (wrestler) in the region.
After this, his uncle sent him for further training in Madras. When he returned as a professional wrestler, he started teaching at a local college and continued training in his free time. His knowledge about Vayu Stambhana (air resistance) and Jala Stambhana (water resistance) deepened and made him a popular wrestler across the state.
In 1911, at his debut public show, Kodi exhibited his strength to an audience that included government officials. He allegedly performed feats like letting motor cars drive over his chest, breaking iron chains tied around his chest simply by flexing his muscles and allowing elephants to step on his body. This show was a hit and he quickly became a sensation.
Kodi started performing regularly all over the country. Among the people whose attention he’d attracted was viceroy Lord Minto who is said to have challenged him. To prove his strength, he held the Viceroy’s car with iron chains while the officer tried to drive it forward but couldn’t succeed. After this, his name spread far and wide.
At an Indian National Congress meeting performance, he impressed nationalist leader Madan Mohan Malaviya, who seemingly helped him get to London to showcase his talents. Rumour has it that his portrait hung on the walls of Buckingham Palace after he impressed the royal family with his performance.
Throughout his life, he was challenging the colonial presumption that Indian men weren’t as strong as British men.
A circus master
Not long after, he started a circus company with a friend named Potti Panthulu. The circus started travelling all through the subcontinent and later through Europe. Reports suggest that with the crores he earned through the circus, this master of strength is said to have donated large sums of money to the Indian Independence struggle.
There is, however, some deal of questionable mystery surrounding Kodi.
As circus manager, he’s said to have left his performers stranded in Europe. Government records around 1911-12 include angry letters between officials about finding ways to help the performers back, also accusing Kodi of his abandonment of them.
One letter, written on 23 October 1911, by an official in Marseilles states: “Sir, I have the honour to report that the following, who state that they are British Indians, viz: Panduth Biddu, of Lahore, Nanik of Lahore, Harkisha, of Lahore, Ralna of Madras, Dakari Lingh of Patna, are at present in distress at Marseille, and I request permission to send them to Bombay at the lowest possible cost. Their papers are in the possession of Ramamurthy, of Madras, who brought them to Europe as a performing troupe. They travelled in England and on the continent and were left at Marseille by Ramamurthy, on September 23rd last. He paid their board and lodging in Marseille for a month, and left for Colombo, promising to send them money, which he has not done. They are now destitute, and on my hands”.
The performers were first sent to England and then back home with the help of the India Office.
Records don’t reveal Kodi’s reason for abandoning his performers, but it seemingly had no effect on his career. Records at the British Library reveal that while he was fined, there was no restriction on him, and he continued as a circus manager.
While most of his life is shrouded in mystery and one depends largely on rumours and oral history to piece together this life story, there’s a darker side to Kodi that challenges the perception of him as a mighty Indian hero. It’s one that must be spoken about and investigated in more depth, to get a rounded picture of this strongman, considered in league with legends like Bheem and Hercules.
A Fine Specimen by Anirban Ghosh, Indian Express, 26 February 2017
Indian Hercules by BMG, The Hindu, 12 August 2002
Edited by Yoshita Rao