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Meet the Malabar warrior, S.R.D. Prasad Gurukkal

Apart from his legacy, what makes the Kalarippayattu exponent septuagenarian, S.R.D Prasad Gurukkal, different from the practitioners of other martial arts? It is his reputation as an acclaimed author on the subject and an orator in both Malayalam and English. Speaking at an international conference on martial arts held a few years ago in New Delhi, he observed: “Traditional Indian warfare, as is evident from the epics and the history of Kalarippayattu, upheld ethics, such as breaks for refreshments, no war after sunset, no fight if the opponent lost his weapon or retreating, etc. Of course a few refrained from following these and became infamous for generations.”

Prasad’s father and guru is the legendary Chirakkal T Sreedharan Nair (1909-1984). Rajkumar Kalari, one of the oldest Kalaris (traditional gymnasiums to teach Kalarippayattu) was established by Sreedharan Nair in 1935. Originally located in front of the ancient Kalarivatukkal temple at Valapattnam in Kannur, a few years ago the Kalari was shifted to an adjacent plot.

Meet the Malabar warrior, S.R.D. Prasad Gurukkal

Kalarippayattu came into existence when the local warriors found their weapons ineffective against the fire-spitting ones of the Portuguese. And then there was the ban promulgated by the British in 1804 on the practice of this art to suppress the guerilla model revolt of Pazhassi Kerala Varma. Popularly known as Pazhassi Raja, he died on November 30, 1805. The ban resulted in the closure of several reputed Kalaris. Some gurus practised this art in the interior villages of Malabar and those who learned from them such as Kottakkal Kanaran Gurukkal preserved it for posterity.

The credit for preserving and transmitting the tradition during the twentieth century mainly goes to Sreedharan Nair and Chambadan Veetil Narayanan Nair (1905-1944), who was popularly known as CVN and in whose memory the CVN Kalaris sprang up across Kerala. The involvement of these two in Kalarippayattu was in congruence with the swadeshi movement for Indian Independence, which also worked in favour of folk art forms of the country. Unlike others it was not difficult for them to pursue their passion because Sreedharan Nair was the son of the then King of Chirakkal (Kolathiri dynasty) and Narayanan Nair was the son of the local administrator of Talassery. Both were the apostles of the noted arappkkai style of North Malabar.

Meet the Malabar warrior, S.R.D. Prasad Gurukkal

“Though there has been a pan-Indian tradition of Dhanur Veda, each region of the country is known for a form of martial art. It is wrong to claim that one specific form is better or superior as the development of each was determined by miscellaneous factors governed by ethnicity and geography. Thus, for instance, one cannot compare the martial art of Manipur with that of Kerala or Odisha and conclude which one is excellent. I noticed it while training my students along with Thang Tha and Chhau practitioners for combined performances. These may be isolated traditions, but are an integral part of the country’s cultural heritage and should not be ignored. Instead they should be treated at par with yoga,” says Prasad Gurukkal.

Meet the Malabar warrior, S.R.D. Prasad Gurukkal

According to him, for healthy living children should be initiated into the martial arts and encouraged to continue the same through their athletic age. Says the Asan: “Kalarippayattu is the ideal vehicle for physical fitness, self-defence and mental agility. It includes body conditioning exercises, both bare-handed techniques and weapon-wielding, which inculcate quick reflexes and self-discipline. These come in handy when one is caught in a dangerous situation.” .

And he recalls: “I was invited, along with my senior disciples, to a series of lectures and demonstrations, when the first International Yoga Day was celebrated in New Delhi (2015) under the aegis of the Central Sangeet Natak Akademi. Those who attended my talks on that occasion and at several other lectures in various places agreed with the relevance of imparting martial arts training for all children irrespective of their background.”

In Kalarippayattu, essentially one is trained to look into the eyes of the other person, whether a friend or foe, and more so in a combat. This facilitates confidence and concentration. This exactly is what many of the younger generation are losing today — self-confidence and concentration. “Pioneers in this field always thought that with this training, the entire body became the person’s eye,” says Prasad Asan.

For the Nalanda Dance Research Centre, Mumbai, as desired by Dr. Kanak Rele, Prasad prepared the syllabus for Kalarippayattu, the course being ‘Dance and Fitness.’ From August 31, Kannur University has started a diploma course in Kalarippayattu, the first attempt in Kerala for which he has prepared the syllabus and course materials. Says Prasad: “To achieve physical flexibility, balance and grace of gait and stamina, the callisthenics of this martial art are the best. It enhances the theatre reflexes of dancers and choreographers. Proper foundation in martial arts would help them get rid of muscular weakness and joint pains.”

Practitioners of Kalarippayattu consider Prasad as an authority on Otta, the most significant and complex weapon carved out of tamarind wood. The notion goes that Otta denotes the chopped trunk of Lord Ganesh and the armed encounter with this baton represents the ferocious fight between a wild tusker and lion. The belief among the practitioners that ‘with an expertise in Otta, one can fight even during sleep,’ underscores its importance. His book Otta, published in 2004, is the only authentic text on this advanced weaponry. In Nayars of Malabar, published in 1901, F. Fawcett describes a dexterous practice he had witnessed at Vatakara in 1895 with a two-feet long weapon, hitting, thrusting and skilfully overthrowing the opponent.

Other than Otta and the Encyclopaedia on Kalarippayattu, preparation of which was aided by a senior fellowship from the Union Ministry of Culture, Prasad has authored three books. One is on the basic body conditioning exercises (meippayattu) of Kalarippayattu. The other is the biography of his father, detailing also the slow revival of this art in the pre- and post-Independence period. The third is Bharatha Kandam — Bharata’s soliloquy in the Ramayana.

Prasad Asan, who imparts free training to about 100 students, is the recepient of the Gurupooja award of the Kerala State Folklore Academy (2012) and so far the sole award of the Central Sangeet Natak Akademi for Kalarippayattu (2015).

Prasad has now completed a manuscript on the most advanced weapon in Kalarippayattu, namely Marapitichu Kuntha Payattu. In this the pairing disciple (pinkol-defence) is allowed to use the prime weapon, which is the spear, against the guiding guru (munkol-offence), handling the secondary sword and shield. According to Prasad, this brings about the ultimate shift in the teacher-student relationship, which embodies the ethos of this great martial tradition.

Summing up Prasad Gurukkal says: “The influence of Kalarippayattu is perceivable in more than thirty art forms of Kerala, including Kathakali — from Dappmuttikali and Kolkkali performed by the Muslims to the vibrant Chavittunatakam of the Christian community and the highly ritualistic Theyyam of the Hindus. While some of these art forms have imbibed only the medley of body moves, some like Theyyam have deified the exponents of Kalarippayattu. This shows the dominance of this martial art in the bygone days and the status it enjoyed as a secular art. Also each area’s martial arts legacy is related to the organics of the performing arts concerned.”

PHOTOS: S. K. MOHAN

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Printable version | Feb 28, 2021 7:31:08 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/dance/meet-the-malabar-warrior-kalarippayattu-exponent-srd-prasad-gurukkal/article25122777.ece

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