Friday, July 04, 2014

Why I Practice Kalaripayattu: In The Hindu BusinessLine's BLink This Week

I have always done some form of exercise all my life.

I remember evenings playing Seven Stones with my mother on the hillock that is now flooded with ugly concrete houses, right next to a cemetery. Then it was badminton, for many years, dad being the aggressive opponent often. We used to work our way through a single shuttlecock within days, a racket in a few weeks. Then basketball, briefly, in school. 

We walked everywhere, I devised myself a long, torturous route to the town library, through all the steep roads, by vine-covered red brick houses. We walked to town and back. I walked sometimes from school to my house, taking all the longer routes, stopping to pool in coins with friends and buy two buns to share - that's all we would have coins for - eating a small piece each while watching mountains stay still and lovers walk by at Raja's Seat.

Then I discovered yoga, and on and off, I have stuck to it ever since. It saved my life a couple of times. Much like this blog and these writings, home and him, I know yoga is always there, when I need saving and safety.

My parents and I trekked a lot to, for a few years, until they began to grow old and I moved away. I continued to walk everywhere.

Given my reasonable level of fitness, I had assumed Kalaripayattu, that lethal martial arts form from Kerala, would be tough, but not something I couldn't handle. It's been six months now, and I am nearing the end of level three. Not a week has gone by since without some major pain in some part of my body, from swollen knees to unbending legs to pain just about everywhere. Yet, I cannot stop. It's those endorphins. But there are also more poetic answers.

Read on as to why I practice Kalaripayattu. An edited version appears in The Hindu BusinessLink's BLink this week, here


Every Tuesday and Thursday mornings, at around 9.30 AM, I begin to ask myself existential questions. It is about the time I get back home after an hour and a half of Kalaripayattu class. After I have braved myself up the flight of stairs to my first floor flat and winced into a soft seat, I wonder, often aloud, why I continue to put myself through the swollen knees, the aching muscles and the sometimes excruciating pain. “And pay for that pain,” my mother reminds me, every time, over the phone.

Kalaripayattu is not a form of Yoga. It isn’t karate either, or contemporary dance, or anything else anyone is tempted to draw parallels with. It is the oldest martial art form in the world and can be traced in mythology to Parashurama. After reclaiming the land that makes the state of Kerala from the Arabian Sea, the sage is supposed to have established 108 ‘kalaris’ the traditional 21x42 feet dug out mud pit where Kalaripayattu is practiced. In the pages of established history, the origins are shrouded in mythology and mystery, much like Yoga. 

“It is difficult to explain what Kalaripayattu is, you have to experience it instead,” says Ranjan Mullaratt, my gurukkal at the Kalari Academy of Performing Arts in Bangalore. At a recently organized event to mark 15 years of the institution, Mullaratt’s students defy gravity and normal laws of the body to jump and twist and bend and crawl and fight with swords, odd shaped wooden weapons and the lethal urumi, the flexible whip-like sword that, unless wielded with fierce concentration, is said to be capable of decapitating the warrior’s own head!

The event showcases, among other sequences, the Ashtavadivu, eight movements that emulate the way the rooster, snake, horse, elephant, lion, cat, wild boar and peacock move. Graceful as the movements are, they remind me of the weeks of difficulty I had in moving muscles previously unused when I was learning to tread the length of the classroom, bent like the lion. They make it look so easy.

Kalaripayattu is said to have given birth to the rest of the martial arts, karate, kung fu included. If the latter are outright fighting techniques, Kalaripayattu looks more like a dance, lethal during practice, but like a gorgeous movement art when seen on stage, with contemporary shades. 

The British banned it when they got to Kerala, well aware of how dangerous it could be, even without weapons. Verumkai, bare hands, are weapons too. Mullaratt tells me his guru learned Kalaripayattu in secrecy, like many others during the ban, using coconut fronds in lieu of swords to practice. Post-Independence, it hasn’t yet regained the popularity it enjoyed during the Cholas and Malabar dynasties, when Kalari warriors, most from the Nair community, were employed by kings and chieftains to fight, often till death, to settle the disputes of their employers.

Yet, mostly through word of mouth, people continue to take interest and join classes, says Mullaratt. Popular culture gives the martial art form a boost, albeit a distorted one. If Oru Vadakkan Veeragatha in Malayalam tells of the legendary Chandu and Unniyarcha, a female warrior, Kamal Hassan’s Indian in Tamil glorifies killing a person with a well-placed pressure on a marma point. “People come asking if we can teach that in a week,” says Mullaratt. I can’t resist asking if it is actually possible to kill someone like that with Marma vidya, the study of the 108 sensitive points in the human body. “The knowledge of the marma points can be used to both heal a person and cause injury,” I am told. It is the last stage in Kalaripayattu training, after urumi.

Several people come to class to improve stamina, balance and get fighting fit. Even as it retains its traditional moves, the full body workout it enables ensures that Kalaripayattu remains relevant in modern settings. Dancers learn it for added grace. Movement artists have much to derive from it. Strands of it are incorporated in contemporary performance arts. Much like a language, Kalaripayattu derives from its changing environment to accommodate newer derivations, all the while retaining its ancient idiom. 

As for me, after some fifteen years of practicing Yoga, on and off, the possibility of pain is what draws me to push the limits, like the translucent wings of the dragonfly burning at the edges of a yellow flame. It is about the body burning in a battle where the mind wins. I prefer a more prosaic answer though, that of these new limits being manna for the soul. You take the pain because there is joy in looking down the mountain that you have just climbed. The view is fabulous, the air fresh and the soul, alive and smiling. And that is why I practice Kalaripayattu.

All photos courtesy: Kalari Gurukulam, Bangalore


Prashanth Kammar said...

I had read that article in BLink....that creates curiosity about kalaripayttu..a nice piece of writing it is...

Deepa Bhasthi said...

Thank you Prashanth.