It is 6.30 am on a Tuesday, and 20 of us, between the ages of eight and 48, watch and attempt to copy Lavanyaa Gladston’s moves ( chuvadu ) and stances ( vadidu ). She does a series of warm-up jumps, push-ups, and a split without losing her breath, and though we’re not different in age, my 43-year-old body just can’t keep up with her Bharatanatyam-dancer-Kalaripayattu-practitioner’s form.
“There’s a whole bottom row of people who have switched off their videos,” she says, referring to her Zoom screen, of the 40-year-olds who are too self-conscious to be seen by the younger people in the class. “But they’re also the most diligent, never missing sessions, and always turning up on time. Many of them wish they’d come to Kalaripayattu earlier.”
I’ve thought about learning Kalaripayattu before, the martial arts form calling me in my search for better body confidence, and better reaction time to men who casually bump into me on the road. The fact that the closest studio was 20 km away, that I wasn’t thrilled about touching the large-bellied teacher’s feet, and that the other students managed to gracefully touch their toes to their hands held high, kept me away. Then the pandemic struck and with the lockdown, everything went online.
Gladston, an architect, has students from outside of Chennai, where she is based — even from the US and Canada — who would not have had access to her if it hadn’t been for online classes. About 70% are women (for many of whom mobility in a city is a problem). And an online class is much less expensive (she charges ₹500 a month for two classes a week).
- Kalarippayattu’s appeal as a visual art — much like yoga was 10 years ago until it became a daily practice for many — is what got Jeff Schaeffer to begin photographing artists two years ago. In February 2020, the US-based photographer and Madathipparambil decided to put together a book. Through the lockdown, their work was stalled and so they used the time to connect with practitioners across the globe —Thailand, Poland, Dubai, Chile, Australia — stringing together a short sequence of phone-shot videos to keep spirits up and try and establish the unity of the form.
“The idea is to create awareness,” she says, talking of the impact the pandemic had on mental health and family finances. A martial art scores over a regular gym session because “you’re learning an art form, with flexibility, balance, and core strengthening built into the movements,” says Gladston, whose husband’s friend posted about the class on the Facebook group Gurgaon Moms, after which she received calls from the North.
There are limitations, of course: there’s no 42 x 21 foot mud pit, and bedrooms and living rooms seldom have enough space to take the large steps that the form demands, while terrace floors can cause chafing, since it is performed barefoot. The aim is to learn the sequence (what Gladston says should not be compromised), and take what you can from it, whether it is the breathing, the grounding, or the basic squats and leg lifts, which were a part of India’s culture just a couple of generations ago.
Find your reason
Today, most people come to enhance their dance or fitness practice, since the form is based on animal movements; and students learn to use their minds and whole bodies to react to a threat. “Those who come for self defence may not be able to fend off a group of men, but they will gain the self-confidence, body awareness, stability, and the ability to think quickly,” says Ranjan Mullaratt, who runs the residential Kalari Gurukulam in Bengaluru and now does online classes.
During the lockdown, he found students enrolling for a clutch of reasons: to utilise the time on their hands, as a physical activity, and an immunity booster. With communication coming at us about adopting all things desi and turning to immunity-led practices, people were perhaps unwittingly drawn to something that gave them both. “Yoga is slow and just half an hour of Kalaripayattu can leave you sweating,” says Mullaratt, of the cardio-intensive format that also builds strength through its preparatory exercises.
Moving towards mass
Like many movements that gather momentum, several unrelated strands have come together to give the form a push. With Kalaripayattu and three other traditional Indian martial arts forms now a part of the Khelo India Youth Games, the competition and fitness aspects will come to the fore.
There’s also novelty. Eight years ago, when Varun Yadav was studying for his engineering degree, he admits that was what brought him to Kalaripayattu. “When you’re 19 or 20, you tend to show off a little,” he says, though he later imbibed the discipline of playing it down. He went on to study it seriously in a residential gurukul in Kerala. Today, when he teaches students, he knows most come because they’ve seen a Vidyut Jammwal YouTube video, or because a celebrity has put out a post about learning it.
- You know things are headed towards becoming public consumption when someone makes an app (Kalari). Puducherry-based Maneesh VM, who sketched the steps, and his student Jules Morel from France, who added the tech about three years ago, are now out with a book based on it. Kalarippayattu: Guide Book (₹449 on amazon.in) is for beginners, to help understand concepts, phrases, and moves. Kshetra Kalari and Yoga Research Centre in Auroville has also just begun to study the body’s bio-mechanics around the practice.
There are also figures like Sadhguru who have brought it into public consciousness, especially dispelling the notion that Kalaripayattu is native to Kerala alone. Murugan Pillai, who runs the Nithya Chaithanya Kalari Ayurveda Kendram in Delhi-NCR and Hyderabad, says a variant began in the 4th century BC. This version is now called Southern Kalari, a closely-guarded Shaivite practice in Tamil Nadu, with the sage Agasthya acknowledged as its first guru. “If you look at different martial arts forms across the world, they are closest to Southern Kalari,” he says, pushing forward the thought that it was the root of even Shaolin and other forms.
What is now called Northern Kalari was propagated in the 4th century AD by Parshuram and is a Vaishnavite practice in Kerala, more accessible for today, with schools spread across the country, even the world.
The next connect
Nithin Madathipparambil, a Kochi-based practitioner who also teaches yoga worldwide on Zoom, has seen in-person enrolments increasing. “Before the lockdown, there would be one or two people a week; now there are about five walk-ins.” He believes eventually Kalaripayattu will be bigger than yoga, because “yoga and meditation talk about still energy. Kalari is about balanced energy; we still need to go out on the street and interact with people”.
Kajal Srivastava, who lives in Delhi, agrees. She took it up three years ago, and hopes to see a kalari (training space) at every street corner some day. A former UPSC aspirant, she says it has transformed her as a person, boosting her body strength, her self-confidence, her immunity, and dispelling the depression that came on as she didn’t make it through the tough exam. “I lost weight, my thyroid problem was resolved, and now I have muscles. This is where I belong,” she concludes.