More than a martial art Kalaripayattu is now being practised as an exercise regimen in Kochi

It is rush hour traffic in the evening with everybody in a mad rush to get somewhere. There is that ‘its-Friday' (not so much thank God!) kind of buzz in the air. And Rotary Bal Bhavan, Panampilly Nagar, is abuzz with another kind of activity. A group of women, some middle-aged, with tightly wound ‘kachchas' (waist bands) combat each other. They do it every Friday and Monday. We are not talking budding Lara Crofts, but women getting their bi-weekly dose of ‘kalari'.

Not judo, not karate, not taekwondo or any other ‘imported' martial art form, but the grandmamma of all martial arts, made in Kerala – Kalaripayattu. Sivan Gurukkal (he runs the Sree Agastya Kalari and works in the Canara Bank) puts his ‘students' through their paces, literally. That day there was pride in his measured movements because this batch of students (and some of their kids) had done well at 20th Jilla Kalaripayattu Championship. The Kalari won the championship for the Thekkan style, and the women won prizes in some categories. A mother and her daughter (Rosa Varghese and her daughter Anna) won gold in their respective events (senior women and sub-junior girls).

Kalaripayattu, for the student, requires years of practice which begins when one is very young; the body flexible and the muscles supple.

For the teacher, would handling younger students be easier? “No, these students are okay. They are eager and willing to work hard.” He points to each student (who are busy practising), ‘introduces' each one and rates her. If you are thinking, ‘ha, just another fad.' Wait. These women have been at it for the last three years. Of course, there have been dropouts, but most have stuck on. It is good exercise, Sivan Gurukkal points out. One look at the ‘vandana chuvadu' (part of the opening move) and yes, he is right.

Rosa is one of the oldest students. A Mohiniyattam dancer, she is a vehement votary for Kalaripayattu. She is one of the winners in the competition. She is all focus as she practises and makes her children train too. Her daughter won a prize in the junior category. “This is our traditional martial art form. And it is neglected. It has come to a stage when we will only accept something if it comes to us from outside. Look at what happened to Yoga, it became all fashionable here when the West took to it,” she points out. Her classmate Madhu Sree Maya Babu agrees.

Madhu has been practising kalari for the last one year, and she explains how kalari is perfect for self defence. “It teaches combat and defence. And self control. You can attack or get ready to attack but you should also know when to stop,” she says.

So have you had to use it in self defence? Priya George, who has been practising for the last two years, says, “No I haven't encountered a situation where I have had to use it. But I know, if I have to I can and I will. Kalari has given me that kind of confidence.”

Maneesha Panicker, however, had a chance to use her skills. A man on a motorbike tried to grab her purse and she was able to defend herself. She echoes Priya when she says that learning kalari has boosted her confidence, ‘even in day-to-day situations'. “You walk upright, make eye contact...” in short your body language changes.

Meanwhile, Rosa practices moves with the ‘kol', which is Panthirichal (reed staff like a police lathi). She dexterously moves the ‘kol' around most of the time only her wrist going ‘this way, that way.' “It is not half as easy as it looks,” she says.

Kalari, Sivan Gurukkal says, is even more relevant today when people pay no attention to exercise. Moves can be incorporated into daily activities, ‘fewer cases of backache and neck pain'. He makes a strong case of making it part of the syllabus, as it is in some city schools.

These kalari sessions last for an hour-and-a-half(6 p.m. onwards) and the group members (eight, active) wish they could spend more time but ‘time does not permit'. And it is excellent for the mind and the body. As Priya says, “When you do certain activities like swimming, for example, you just switch off. It becomes a mechanical activity after a point unlike kalari where you have to be there, mentally too.”

The group members want to get more women and children involved. As part of that effort they are planning to start vacation classes.

Keywords: Kalaripayattu

More In: Metroplus | Features | Kochi