He's the man behind the muscle. SHONALI MUTHALALY meets Madhukar Talwalkar, director of Talwalkars gym
IT'S ONE of Chennai's favourite dream factories. Everyday people head here to jog, cycle, lift weights and generally huff and puff their way through an exhaustingly healthy fitness-session. And once they're sufficiently steamed, pounded and sautéed they emerge feeling taller, perkier, thinner, lighter... Chennai's thriving Talwalkars is evidently living off the fat of the land - in more ways than one.
At the Adyar branch, a yippee-do-dah chart lists its members' most significant achievements. Meena has lost 11 kilos, Minah is catching up with 10.5 and poor Mona is plodding along just 5 kilos lighter. (Names changed to protect identity. Obviously!). Outside, the man behind the muscles - seventy-one-year-old Madhukar Talwalkar, director of the Talwalkars group - is hopping on and off a chair trying to find the perfect place to put up a picture of the original Talwalkar, his father and founder of the first gym his family ever owned.
Once he finally positions the picture with some help from two muscle-bound assistants and the anxious gym manager ("Thoda up? Thoda down?"), he bounds into the dietician's room, looks thoughtfully at a large bowl overflowing with inspirational fake fruit, and begins the Talwalkar saga - a story that starts, appropriately enough, in a dusty little "sugar town" called Sangli in Maharashtra almost a century ago.
Like all good inspirational stories, this one is about grit, determination, tears and sweat. But, it's mostly about sweat.
"My father started learning wrestling from the gurus. They wrestled in earth pits. Those were the gyms of that time. They also had `malla khams' or wooden poles for wrestlers, on which they did their exercise. That was the gymnastics of that time," says Madhukar.
His father went on to get a job at the circus. "He knew muscle control," beams Madhukar, enthusiastically pulling back his sleeves and vigorously flexing various muscles to demonstrate the art. (It's a little unnerving to watch for the uninitiated by the way!) "He did the trapeze, rode the horses and elephants, became a gymnast..." and besides all that, he continued to wrestle. Then, after a few years of living and travelling with the circus, Vishnu `Pehelwan' (wrestler) Talwalkar moved to Mumbai, where he started work as an instructor, teaching "push ups, gymnastics, balancing, wrestling" at a small gym in Mumbai.
He eventually went on to start his own gym, the Ramkrishna Physical Culture Institute, in Khar and spent many years struggling to keep it afloat, moving from one location to another. "Landlords would ask us to leave. Then, my father would just put the dumbbells in a wheelbarrow and we'd move on and start again elsewhere."
Meanwhile, Madhukar was growing into an engineer - and keeping as far away from the gym as possible. "Gyms did not pay well at that time, so my mother told me to study. I became a supervisor at a sari mill. Then, one day I weighed myself on the machine used for weighing cotton and for the first time, I felt an inferiority complex. I was thin. I was short. I decided - I must exercise."
Many push-ups, squats and hours of weight training later, he was ready to open his own gym. "I was respected. I had more friends. I had a good body - and some brains," so I started a gym on Linking Road in Mumbai, and decided to call it Talwalkars.
Madhukar Talwalkar firmly believes that exercise can actually change your life - by changing the way you look, and hence feel about yourself. Unfortunately, he says, very few people choose to exercise. "I've seen beautiful women turn ugly, simply because they put on weight," he says, adding, "In Chennai, in spite of all the hype, a total of just about three per cent of the city takes care of itself - by going to the gym, being involved in sports, jogging or walking. In Mumbai, maybe it's .5 per cent more."
He stresses that everyone needs to work out, even if they choose to do so outside a gym. "It keeps you young. Look at me - my skin, my hair, they're all so healthy."
He is proud about having made his millions from the fees Talwalkars charges for its services. "Look at these people," he says, wrinkling up his nose at a bright paper cup with the logo of a big cola company. (The cup, by the way, was actually brimming with healthy pineapple juice, made by the gym's in-house cafe.) They make their money selling poison. Liquor barons make their money selling poison. Cigarette manufacturers... poison! I'm proud that I got rich by selling health."
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