Kalari expert Shaji K. John talks to Shonali Muthalaly about the hard physical training involved, tailoring the martial art for the urbanite and working with avant-garde artiste Chandralekha

“But why an interview?” “Why me?” “Why Kalari?” Expectant silence. “What is your story about?” Long pause. “Your angle?”

Convincing Shaji K. John, Kalaripayattu artiste and teacher, about this story is hard work. Although he's been performing and teaching the Kerala martial art for almost three decades now, inspiring a huge number of students and fans, Shaji is famously reticent and media shy. Yet, his reputation as an artiste and teacher is impressive. And, in this publicity-hungry age, artistes who don't bristle with press releases are a welcome change.

Hence we persevere. Attending a class at Shaji's school ‘Mandapa', a shadowy Kalari pit covered with traditional red tiles, makes him easier to understand. Set opposite Besant Nagar beach at the tranquil former residence, rehearsal and performance space of contemporary dance-choreographer Chandralekha, the class is tough and demanding.

Dedication and focus

With challenging poses and quicksilver movements, Kalaripayattu demands complete dedication. Focus, determination and discipline are essential for progress. As we catch our breath, we watch the senior students — two girls — practise fighting with sticks, swords and shields. They move with precision and grace.

Shaji doesn't bother with publicity because the skills he teaches aren't easy to acquire. In his necessarily-blinkered approach, only the pursuit of perfection matters. And in this pursuit, publicity is an unnecessary distraction.

For someone so resolute, it's ironic that he actually stumbled upon Kalaripayattu. “I was fascinated by Chitra Katha, stories of the North Malabar heroes — the warriors.” Living in Kaduthuruthy, a small Kerala village next to Kottayam, Shaji began classes with E.P. Vasudevan, who taught the North Malabar style of this martial art. “There is more emphasis on weapons, unlike the Southern style which is closer to Silambam and emphasises empty hand techniques.”

“I was 13 when I walked into my Guru's kalari. It was a special place, made of rock, with hard stone floors.” He adds seriously, “Gurus are pleasant — but still when you enter, it's intimidating. Scary because there are so many weapons all over the walls. And in the centre, people practising vigorously.”

Shaji's Chennai classes are tailored for the city urbanite, but he sounds faintly homesick for the sweaty rough and tumble of the Kerala pits where he learned to fight. “It's raw — a village art. Men with bare bodies in loin cloths,” he says, adding, “Classes are beautifully structured and systematic. If you're very good you can learn it in ten years.”

Kalaraipayattu is not just about physical training, it also involves healing. “When you hit someone, you may break their bones. We learn vital points. We study anatomy.” Artistes don't just heal themselves, and each other, they also tend to people from the village. “The medicine involves some Ayurveda but we also have our own preparations and mixes. Our own secrets.” Expertise comes with experience. “Every hand fracture is different… Doctors tell with an X-ray. We have to understand by touch.”

Not many parents today encourage their children to train in this martial art, since it requires so much sacrifice, with very few monetary returns. “My parents had no idea about degrees or status,” Shaji says, adding, however, that being the youngest of four sisters and three brothers probably took a lot of pressure off him. After two years of training, he competed in a district-level championship, which he won. Then, in 1986, his teacher sent him to Chennai, to work with Chandralekha for an avant-garde performance incorporating kalari movements within the fabric of Bharathanatyam.

“It was an Indian festival in Russia. Mikhail Gorbachev was president. I had come from a village, couldn't speak English and it was my first time abroad. But when you are so young you have no responsibility. I was given a specific sequence I had to perform — and that's all I was concerned about,” he shrugs. “I did my job.”

Once he was convinced that kalari was his life path, Shaji began to teach in Auroville. However, after four years of the “spiritual resort” life, he decided it was time to go home. “Then Chandralekha encouraged me to take classes.” In 1998 he began with one student.

How old is he now? “Very old,” he laughs. “Forty-one.” There's no fake modesty here. “I don't know what my personality is… I've been told I'm arrogant,” he states, adding blithely, “Well, I'm now a teacher, and gurus are a bit bossy only.” He adds, “I worked with Chandra and I learnt a lot from her. Her house is simple. No chairs — Just some oonjal (swings). She would sit on the floor...”

Today, his classes are still determinedly non-commercial, costing roughly one-third of what most gyms charge. “I'm not very money-minded. Simple living makes it simpler to deal with other people.” As for that trademark reticence? “I don't talk much unless I have something to communicate,” he states. “I do what I preach.”