In July 1929, in a much-anticipated encounter in El Paso, Texas, Matty Matsuda, the Japanese-born champion welterweight wrestler, faced off against Basanta Singh, the Indian challenger who moonlighted as a hop and fruit farm labourer.

It was a well-contested match, fought in the catch-as-catch-can style created in the 1870s by the British sports coach JG Chambers by combining several wrestling styles. Newspapers called the bout a “colourful exhibition of the grappling art”. Both men sustained “flying falls”, but in the end, Matsuda was “outweighed and outmatched”. The Indian’s “bear-hug” vanquished his jujitsu.

The contest left Matsuda with serious injuries that led to his hospitalisation in Michigan, more than a day’s journey from El Paso. He died there three weeks later. A popular wrestler known for his accomplishments – he won over 100 welterweight matches in a row and spoke several languages – Matsuda’s death was widely mourned. As for Singh, it was speculated that he was racked with guilt for the rest of his life.

Wrestling in those years was largely a gladiatorial sport in the US. Matches were advertised in lurid, exaggerated prose. Popular wrestlers appeared on cabinet cards and postcards, with promoters and the public placing big bets on them.

A clipping from the Oroville Daily Register, May 7, 1924.

In this mix of money and spectacle, Singh and other wrestlers from Asia were thrown in largely to showcase the strange ways of the Orient. For the media too, it was often their personas that mattered, not their skills on the mat. So, when Basanta Singh’s match with Matsuda ended in a tragedy, wrestling promoters couldn’t help but notice.

Part-time Fakir

Born in 1890, Basanta Ram Garcha, or Basanta Singh, was around 20 when he left his home in Parowal in present-day Gurdaspur district of Punjab, to journey to the West.

His first stop was Vancouver in Canada, where around this time, an Australian-born promoter named Con Jones was organising sporting events like football and wrestling in the “Oriental style”. For the most part, this exoticisation was an advertising hook to draw in curious crowds. But it did manifest in the composition of the teams, which were characterised by the players’ ethnicity and origins. One tug-of-war contest Jones organised, for instance, was between “Indians” (Canada’s indigenous people) and “East Indians” (South Asians).

Basanta Singh did not stay in Canada for long. In 1910, he moved to Astoria in Oregon, where he worked in the lumber industry to make a living. In his spare time, he and fellow wrestler, Dodan Singh, entertained the locals with their grappling skills. Astoria was a diverse place at the time. The area’s timber mills employed workers from India, Scandinavia, Poland and China, many of whom would turn up for Basanta Singh’s matches with the Dane Nels Jepson. Well-known figures such as Bhagat Singh Thind and Ram Chandra also lived for a while in Astoria, and it was here, in the Finnish Socialist Hall, that the first meeting of the Ghadar took place in May 1913, writes historian Julia Ogden.

A clipping from the Los Angeles Times, March 1, 1923.

Basanta Singh moved out of Astoria once the Indian presence in the city dwindled (several left for India to answer the Ghadar call for a revolt in early 1915) and more work opportunities emerged for him in the South. Putting down roots in California, he travelled to places like Sacramento and Marysville as a wrestler but somehow also found time to play a “Hindu fakir” in popular “Oriental carnivals”.

In the 1920s, his career picked up and he never returned to India. Perhaps he feared that if he went, he would not be allowed back into the US. The previous decade had seen several American states enacting discriminatory laws against Asians, such as those barring ownership of land and miscegenation. The federal Immigration Act of 1924 forbade immigration from Asia altogether.

Enter Gobar Goho

It was because of these tightened entry norms that when wrestler Jatindra Chandra Guho came to the US from India, he had to describe himself as an entertainer and professional actor to the immigration authorities. Once there, Guho, who was called Gobar Goho by the media, found uneven success. He won a few matches, including against Ad Santel, but lost in a controversial way to Ed ‘Strangler’ Lewis, a match that was touted to make “the Hindus of Southern Asia champions of the wrestling world”.

What Goho couldn’t achieve with his wrestling, he did with his lifestyle. The papers just couldn’t get enough of him. He was described variously as a Hindu prince; son of a well-known “importer and exporter” in Calcutta; an Oxford or Cambridge graduate who could lecture on Gandhi; a man with the “soul force”, fighting the “brute force” of the British; and someone who lived on a diet of gold and silver leaf dipped in honey, prepared for him by his valet, chef and manager.

A clipping from The Pratt Republican, December 15, 1921.

Goho lived in the US for five years. By the time he left in 1926, he claimed, according to some newspapers, that he had reconciled with his parents after years of estrangement. Another reason for going back, he said, was to meet for the first time his wife, whom he had married at the age of eight.

Goho’s departure made Basanta Singh the only Indian wrestler of repute in the US. From California, he travelled up north to Montana, Washington and Vancouver, and by the late 1920s, he was a fixture of matches in the East, in places like Wisconsin, Ohio, New York and New Jersey. Such was his fame that his name appeared often on betting cards along with well-known wrestlers such as Bobby Roscoe and Pete Herman.

‘Hindu Mystery Man’

Through his career, Basanta Singh was often advertised as the “Hindu mystery man” – a nomenclature that reflected the individual nature of wrestling and the identification of grapplers with their places of origin. He was described as unpredictable, as fast as “greased lightning”. Admirers hailed his unmatched toehold grip and ability to slip out of an opponent’s grip easily. There were times he played to the gallery and dressed for the part, in a robe and a turban.

In those years, despite the competitiveness, wrestling wasn’t too rigidly defined – some matches allowed boxing along with traditional wrestling moves – and things could get messy. Viewers were forewarned in advertisements that matches would be fought to the finish.

Basanta Singh lost more matches than he won, albeit not of the mortal combat variety. In the early 1930s, he became the manager of two visiting Indian wrestlers, Daula (or Duala) Mohammad and Fazal. By this time, he was in his 40s and had had a comparatively longer sporting life than his peers. In the 1950s, living in Los Angeles, Singh drifted into bit roles in Hollywood films like Kim (1950), Kismet (1955), Around the World in Eighty Days (1956), The Ten Commandments (1956), and The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965). His presence in these films was fleeting, lasting no more than a few seconds. In Around the World in Eighty Days, his burly figure can be spotted in a crowd, and in Kim and Kismet, he appeared among a retinue of servants and soldiers.

During those years, he was often part of the entourage of an eccentric wrestler named Leo Wippern or Tug Carlson. Wippern was a prodigy. He won a scholarship as an artist to the California Institute of Fine Arts at age 10 and he turned to wrestling to overcome childhood frailties. Success evaded him initially but came around when he made himself over as an English aristocrat, Lord Leslie Carlton. In his new avatar, Wippern turned up for matches dressed to the royal hilt, accompanied by a valet or a turbaned swami (Basanta Singh).

Basanta Singh never did return to India, though he spoke of settling down in Delhi, where his siblings were. He lived till the end of his life in a genteel residential hotel called the Touraine in Los Angeles’ Bunker Hill – a place that boasted of having “seven rooms fitted into two” and too many tenants. Basanta Singh died in 1965, a year before the Touraine’s demolition. Like his compatriots, the Punjabi immigrants who worked as “turban wrappers” in Hollywood, his presence as the “Hindu mystery man” added exoticism to the wrestling world but it also spoke of the casual racism that arguably defined the sport then.

This is the eighth part in a triweekly series on early Indians who blazed a trail in other parts of the world. Read the rest of the series here.