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Stretching kalari

Sagar has modified the rigid and traditional kalaripayattu to suit cosmopolitan Bangalore

Sagar at work: complete control over body and mind — Photo:K. Bhagya Prakash

ALL THROUGH his childhood, Dilsagar's mornings followed the same routine. He would be up at 5.30 a.m. and head straight for his kalaripayattu class. Here, with other students, including his brothers, he learnt the rigorous discipline of this Keralan martial art that is believed to be 3,000 years old and to have influenced modern kung fu.

Training sessions

Beginning with the leg swings as exercise and acknowledging the presiding deities, often Shiva ("symbol of Shakti"), the training sessions lasted a few hours every single morning, every single day, for 14 years.

Out in the open yard, feet firm on the hard ground, Dilsagar and other students would practise for hours, just as their fathers and forefathers before them had done. As he grew up, Sagar (as he likes to be called) turned away from the government job most others his age opted for, and refused to join his father's finance business. "I was very naughty at school," he laughs, "and very influenced by all the Chinese movies." And so he turned his attention to kalaripayattu.

Modern teacher

Today, Sagar propagates this demanding form in a setting far removed from the hard, medicated earth of the kalaripayattu school in Guruvayur where he learnt it. His classes to Bangalore's cosmopolitan and fitness-conscious crowd are often on smooth, polished wood floors, the students reflected in wall-high mirrors as they jump and turn in unbelievably demanding moves.

The warm-up exercises of this martial art include a traditional oil massage (uzhichil), which itself requires years of intense training to be perfected, but since young corporates and college kids are unlikely to subject themselves to such an intense body rub at their Saturday evening classes, Sagar has improvised.

Culling techniques from tae kwon do (essentially Korean, but influenced by some traditions of Japanese martial arts) and capoeira (from Brazil), both of which he has learnt from professionals, Sagar has created his own warm up exercises. He is keen to stress, though, that the essence of what he teaches is purely kalaripayattu. "The warm-up may be from elsewhere but the focus is on kalari," says Sagar.

He agrees that his guru or even other purists from his village may object to his teaching kalaripayattu to trendy fitness freaks away from the traditional ramparts of the martial art, but he doesn't care. "I want to do my own thing," he says firmly. "I don't want to go backwards."

And his form of kalari isn't flexible. "I am very demanding," he admits, "and it's hard to do." So if young wannabes can't flex their muscles or bend their bodies as they should, Sagar will try to help them; but he never compromises the form to accommodate hapless students.

After training in native Guruvayur, Sagar performed with his guru for a year before joining the group Attakalari with whom he travelled extensively across the world, dancing and learning new martial art forms which he has successfully woven into his own classes.

Four-and-a-half years ago, he moved to Bangalore where he gives contemporary dance performances. "It's physical and acrobatic; I create new material and stylise movements," he explains. "I like to innovate and change the style."

Stylised dance

Often performing with his brother's kalari troupe Navaneetham, which provides him with ready accompanists, Sagar is now looking to establish himself as an individual performer. He may spend two to three days researching traditional forms while choreographing a performance, but ultimately looks to "the dancer's body and some improvisation" for the final movements. The ancient art of kalari now acts as an inspiration for contemporary and traditional dance forms.

Living in an alien city and eking out a living as a kalaripayattu teacher is sometimes daunting, Sagar admits, and he occasionally thinks about taking the well-worn path to the family business. But he has made a niche for himself in Bangalore and has found a good response from audiences and students — enough reason to stay on.

Sagar can be contacted on 9343790260.

Daily Bread is a weekly column that features people who've chosen offbeat professions. Our guest list has included the likes of scuba divers, perfume makers and suave farmers. HEMANGINI GUPTA

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