The road to Kalarigram is an unhurried one. Walking down the carpet of soil to the gate, you ease into a slower pace of life. Once the thicket gives way to where Kalarigram is, you hear children chattering in Malayalam, a young man ploughing the ground to plant a tree and chicken clucking around him: it is like you have been transported to a village in Kerala.
Set up in 2010, Kalarigram is primarily a school for Kalaripayattu;it also has an ayurveda and massage centre. Its founder Lakshman Gurukkal claims its genesis was to blend kalari and theatre. “The place where I learnt, Hindustan Kalari Sangam, concentrated on martial arts. But when I started this place, we focussed on training theatre artistes: sculpting the body to be more flexible,” says Gurukkal, who is currently performing at the Odin Teatret in Denmark.
Gurukkal’s alma mater in Kozhikode was founded by his father Veerasree Sami Gurukkal in 1950. He started learning there when he was six. However, in 1999, he started working with acclaimed theatre artiste, the late Veenapani Chawla, founder of Adishakti theatre group, to train her students in kalari.
“Today, we offer workshops on archery, martial arts training and kalari-based dance forms,” says Gurukkal. Every year, the place hosts two festivals, on Shivaratri and Navaratri days. During these days, artistes from all over the world are invited to perform at the open air auditorium here. “Kalari is the mother of all art forms like Kathakali, Theyyam and Bharatanatyam,” says Vishnu KP, a trainer from Kerala.
“Under the British rule, Kalaripayattu had been banned. So now artistes from various fields sit together and research their connection to Kalari in order to bring it back to the fore,” he adds. In previous years, Kalarigram has seen performances of Chhau, the semi-classical dance from Odisha, and a particular variety of martial art form practised at Shaolin by Acharya T Raghu Babu.
The practice arena, called Ayodhana Kalari, where the students are trained twice a day is built like an underground tank. Every session starts and ends with a prayer to Kaluriga, the goddess of Kalari situated at one corner. All the weapons the students will learn to use: the short and long staff, the otta , shaped like an elephant's trunk, the swords, and the maces lean against the front wall.
The group of eight students twists and turns their way to the different animal poses of kalari. “From the current batch of students, none is trained in metal yet,” says Vishnu. But then kalari is not just about weapons, he reminds us, “It's about alacrity, being in the present. The highest level of kalari, Verum kai, involves using just bare hands. It’s about losing all fear and being able to fight without any weapon.”
Like Vishnu, the other teachers here, Nikhil Varagiri and Akshay TH, also stay at the six guest rooms in the property. Much like a gurukul, students who wish to train here full time are provided with accommodation, and become a part of Gurukkal’s family. Twenty-year-old B Nikhil has been living here for the past two months before his semester at the Pondicherry University begins. “Two years ago, I had no idea what kalari was. But after my first class in 2016, I felt a rush, an exhilaration that I wanted to chase,” he says. Kalari is about finding peace and single mindedness, and the lifestyle at Kalarigram is conducive for it. “I feel a spiritual connection with Auroville. It’sa cultural hub; this had to be the place I set up Kalarigram,” says Gurukkal. The quiet is broken only by the insistent quacking of the ducks and geese. Not just ducks, chicken, a rooster, cats, dogs, goats and birds are all denizens of this place. Nearly a hundred trees grow here, from chikoo, mango and banyan to neem and cashew.
All this has been happening under the watchful eye of Shimi, wife of Gurukkal. “I like living among Nature, it reminds me of my childhood home. Because of the gardening, animals, and the constant visitors, I never get bored here,” she says. Just weeks ago, there has been an addition to the animal list: three new-born kittens. Already, they are scratching and meowing their way around the campus unaffected by the students with their staffs who hit, block and twirl, and hit, block and twirl.