The ‘kalari’ burner

Beauty and strength Aayudha Payattu (weapon combat) demonstration  

It’s 6 in the morning, the birds have begun to chirp and seven of us are standing one-legged, like flamingos on the terrace of a 12-storey building in Chennai. This is my first kalaripayattu session, and as we are being trained to move from one animal posture into another, the realisation that there are so many unused muscles in my body slowly dawns on me.

Kalaripayattu, an ancient martial art that originated in peninsular India as a part of military training for warriors, is today used for everything from self-defence and becoming self-aware and alert, to a way of losing weight and flexibility training.

Fighting a different war

India has been home to multiple martial arts such as thang ta from what is now Manipur, and gatka from current Punjab, most of which have been lost to history. Kalari itself was forced to go underground in 1793, after British rulers banned it, fearing local uprisings in which kalari would be used as a tool of warfare against them.

Its gentler style has gone through a resurgence over the past few decades, finding participation from theatre artistes, actors and dancers. Lakshman Gurukkal, who founded Kalarigram in Auroville, recalls how he used his training in Kozhikode to collaborate with the art world. “In 1999, I started working with Veenapani Chawla, founder of Adishakti, to teach kalaripayattu to her students,” he says. “We worked mostly on making the body flexible and the mind alert.”

The ‘kalari’ burner

Modern kalaripayattu was then no longer just a form of martial art; kalari groups began performing on stage, fusing kalari and dance together. Gurukkal regularly tours the globe, performing in theatres from Denmark to Spain and beyond. Every February, Kalarigram plays host to dancers who practise various forms: Bharatanatyam, theiyam, kathakali and chau.

The big-screen fight

Once popular again in Southern India, kalari began to break new ground by finding acceptance in the North as well. Shinto Mathew, who founded the Kalari Kendram in Noida in 2008, says, “I learnt kalari in Trivandrum. Back then, I never thought I’d be teaching it myself, much less to people from Delhi.”

The rise of kalari in this part of the country could be because movies such as Baaghi and Commando: A One Man Army show the male leads as kalari practitioners. International audiences got a taste, with Jackie Chan learning the form in the Hong Kong movie The Myth.

While most of Mathew’s students are actors, dancers or simply fitness enthusiasts, he gets the occasional star-struck kid who wants to emulate his favourite actor. “After Baaghi was released, this young boy came up to me and said he wanted to learn kalari to be like Tiger Shroff,” he says. Now, everyone from Vidyut Jamwal to Deepika Padukone has talked about learning the form.

The ethos

Kalari has two styles: the southern that focuses on the hits and blows of martial arts, and the northern that concentrates on improving strength and flexibility.

“In the northern style, you are trained in the eight postures and you move in a straight line. Whereas in the southern style, you are trained in the adithada (hit and blow) from the beginning. It’s more suited to training for a war, where you don’t move in a single direction, because you have to be aware of attacks that can come in from all four directions,” explains Mathew.

Kalari is not about building muscles,” explains my trainer Subhashree Parthasarathy. “It’s about becoming stronger and finding your body’s balance, its centre of mass. In that way, it’s like a dynamic form of yoga.” While yoga has the option of holding the asana, here you keep shifting from one posture to another, while taking deep breaths, like you would in pranayama. They do share a common thread though, in their long-term motive of destressing the mind and making it more alert. “The final stage of kalari — the verumkai — is fighting with bare hands. By that level, your presence of mind should increase so much that you don’t need weapons to fight,” explains Vishnu KP of Hindustan Kalari Sangham in Kozhikode.

“At a personal level, kalari is about being confident in the way you move,” says Parthasarathy. As I stood there in the marjara vadivu, ready to pounce and feeling fresh out of a Catwoman poster, I couldn’t have agreed more.

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Printable version | Jan 15, 2022 10:55:39 AM |

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