MW speaks to the fitness mogul on where he came from and where he’s going
Madhukar Talwalkar, the grand old man of the Talwalkar Fitness Empire, is in many ways the patriarch of institutionalized Indian fitness. One of four sons of a middle-class Maharashtrian family, he now has 30,000 clients pumping iron in 21 branches. So is this the Joe Weider of India?
“People like comparisons. My father used to be known as Bob Hoffman of India,” shrugs Talwalkar. “Since Weider and I are in the same business and are both approximately the same age, the comparison seems inevitable. There are some people who even say we look alike: hairstyle, moustache. But I would prefer to be known as Madhukar Talwalkar. I have my own identity.”
Pumping iron is family business. His father started the first gym in 1932 around the time of his birth. It was a rough ride up to around 1951. “We had to shift venues several times; sometimes we could not afford the rent, sometimes we were asked to vacate. It was difficult, considering moving all the weights and equipment. By 1951, I started helping my father in the business though not very enthusiastically. I was a frail lad and self-conscious about my physique. I began weight training in 1956 and within two years, I had a competitive class physique and even placed second in the Mr. Bombay competition. It was a great boost for my self-confidence. In those days fitness wasn’t a lucrative industry. (Monthly gym fees were five rupees.) But engineering was considered respectable. So I learned textile engineering and joined Khatau Mills in 1958 and started helping my father. It wasn’t a formal job, but I got to exercise with him and was paid Rs. 60 a month. Slowly, I began to lose interest in the mill. I had fallen in love with the atmosphere of the gym.”
But the Talwalkar story is a Mumbai story and real estate always has a starring role in any Mumbai story. “I found a place at Bandra owned by a Maharashtrian gentleman who wanted Rs. 25,000. I had Rs. 2,000. But he was a gentleman in the true sense of the word. He told me that I could have the place for Rs. 6000. I explained that I had much less than that. He told me not to worry and that I could pay the balance within a year. I had the place set up, with all the equipment for Rs 700. And in July 15 1962, I set up my own gym. Soon, I had several film stars patronizing my gym. I was earning about Rs 3000 per month as opposed to Rs 312 which was my salary when I left the mill.”
Talwalkar suggested that he and his father should work together but the latter thought it would be a good idea for the two of them to work apart. “I think he wanted me to be independent. My father’s gym was called RK Physical Culture Institution. Around 1940, someone suggested a change of name so it became New Physical Culture Home. But people referred to it as Talwalkar’s and so I began to use that name. Then after about three years I started a ladies class three times a week, in the afternoons. The first year we had only four members. It seemed like the idea was not working, when one day, a lady told me, ‘That huge muscle man on your board is much too intimidating. Perhaps ladies are scared away by the thought that they would start looking like him!’
“It was a revelation. So I changed the logo to incorporate the fit slim figures of a man and woman. It worked like magic. Now we have Talwalkar’s Fitness Centre, Health Spa, Fitness Studio, etc. The next step is ladies-only health clubs.” But competition is now fierce. Can Talwalkar’s take on the newcomers?
“Of course. We have a strong brand that has been built over 70 years. We are a close-knit family with three generations of Talwalkars involved; we will stand by each other to take on the competition. We manufacture our own equipment so the cost of setting up is low. And we have purchased real estate in prime locations years ago. Our fitness academy means we have access to a pool of trained staff. Our hygiene standards are high. We have started taking on a few select partners such as the Sherlekars from Pune who are close friends. An old family business is slowly turning into a corporation.”
As for his own fitness regime, he lifts weights, does some yoga for flexibility. “I train more often in winter and work and travel does get in the way. But I feel that I am amongst the most regular exercisers in the world. I generally use a resistance of about 70-80 % of one repetition max and perform 8-10 reps per set.”
He believes that you are what you eat (“99 per cent of fitness is nutrition”) but remains a vegetarian. Or an eggetarian, if you prefer. “Because of my high protein requirements, I do eat eggs and eat anywhere from 4 to 6 small meals a day. I eat home food as far as possible. Even when I eat outside, I am particular as to what I eat. I avoid fried and oily foods. About 50-55% of my calorie intake comes from carbs, 20-25% from protein and the rest from fats. I eat a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables and drink a lot of water. I carry a bottle with me wherever I go. Once in a way I enjoy a good plate of batata vadas or bhajias since everyone should let go from time to time. I sleep about 7 to 8 hours a day. I do not smoke or drink tea or coffee. And I have a happy family life.”
Quite contrary to what you might expect, he does not play any other sports. “Some tennis in school but nothing after that.” Is that what he would advise? “No, sports gives you speed, endurance, agility and coordination, team spirit and sportsmanship.”
He dismisses the hierarchies of aerobic versus anaerobic exercise in an analogy: “Strength is not going to be of much use to you if you are going for a long walk. And endurance won’t be of much use if you’re hefting a suitcase. The right thing is to maintain a balance.” The future? He aims to have a hundred fitness centres nationwide, a fitness magazine, a corporate programme and international accreditation. He is manufacturing top of the line fitness supplements. He wants his academy to slowly take on the shape of a fitness university with branches nationwide.
Talwalkar thinks big and he isn’t only talking about muscle mass.
Images by Ashima Narain