Kalaripayattu for the urban Indian

From fitness and spirituality, to relieving stress, Kerala's iconic martial art form, Kalaripayattu has many benefits for urban folk as Suprita Mitter finds out

Q. Why did you choose to take up Kalaripayattu?
A. I started at the age of ten under the instruction of Guru CS Menon, Vallabhatta Kalari Sangam Chavakkad, Thrissur, in Kerala. My father had taken my brother and I to learn self-defence techniques as well as gain self-respect.

Kalaripayattu is a traditional martial art form from Kerala. Weapons are used in this martial art only at an advanced stage
Kalaripayattu is a traditional martial art form from Kerala. Weapons are used in this martial art only at an advanced stage

By the end of the last century, it was a custom in our villages to master such martial arts at a young age for self-motivation. However, I found Kalari to be much more than a method of self-defence, and decided to perfect it without failing its traditional values. It’s what has kept me motivated till today.

Q. Kalaripayattu is usually considered a traditional, rural form. How can it fit into modern day lives and benefit an urban person?
A. Kalaripayattu has lived through centuries and is still, and will be, practised in its traditional form. It is now approached, as more than a self defence martial art. Once used as a combat mode in wars, today, it is a source of attention, speed, accuracy, strength, co-ordination, flexibility, memory power, concentration, peer respect, health and immunity.

A person can develop mental discipline, good physical culture, mind concentration, perfect memory, and co-ordination through Kalari practice. Kalaripayattu is today emerging in a new avatar, a source of inspiration for self-expression in dance forms, both traditional and contemporary, in theatre and in fitness. It includes strikes, kicks, grappling, preset forms, weaponry and healing methods.

Regular practice of  Kalaripayattu helps lose 2 to 3 kg weight, in a week
Regular practice of  Kalaripayattu helps lose 2 to 3 kg weight, in a week

As far as Mumbaikars are concerned, they lead fast and independent lives where they interact with different kinds of people. They work day and night, and need to be equipped to tackle unfavourable situations. Practicing Kalari will give them the confidence to face any difficult situation, physically or mentally.

It takes years of dedicated practice to master this martial art form
It takes years of dedicated practice to master this martial art form

When I started practicing Kalari in Mumbai in 2007 barely two students were actively involved. Now, due to overwhelming response to workshops, I am forced to limit the seats on a first-come-first-serve basis. More than 30 students attend every batch. In these five years, I have held many workshops and regular classes in Mumbai alone, and have trained over 600 students in all, including dancers and theatre artistes.

Q. How many levels does it involve? How long does one take to excel in the art?
A. There are three styles of Kalaripayattu–Vadakkan or Northern style, Madhya Kerala or Central style, and Thekkan or Southern style. In the Northern style, in which I am trained, importance is given to the flexibility of the body.

Training methods of Kalaripayattu, which includes the way of lifting legs, body postures, and different kinds of body movements that need greater flexibility, help to systemise the flow of energy in the body. The training is not only a means of self-defence but also a way to become determined and self-disciplined.

Meithari (the body control exercises designed in a special sequence with peculiar combinations), if regularly practiced, gives controlled, flexible and graceful movements of the body along with strength and stamina. Kaalkal (which literally means legs) refers to kicks as well as leg raising exercises (kaal eduppu), which increase flexibility of legs and abdomen.

Kaikuththippayattu is a compound of kai (hand), kuththi (hit) and payattu (exercise). It consists of punches, leg moves, stretches, twists, and jumps performed in a particular sequence. These moves are mainly for the arms and shoulders. It is said that the hand becomes as quick as a sword with the practice of these moves.

Chumattadi teaches how to attack and defend against multiple opponents from all sides. It naturally helps to develop Pranayama or breath control, and enables the practitioner to achieve its highest degree so that one can easily evade the attack of enemies. The essence of the kalari dictum is Meiyyu Kannavuka (the body becomes all eyes). It takes years of learning and practice for one to master Kalaripayattu.

The Kalari schedule

The first seven days
The first seven days include basic leg exercises, which are designed to make the footsteps firm and balanced. These will be followed by different body postures and movements intended to increase the strength of the lower part of the body, including the abdomen.

Doing these exercises will increase the flexibility and flow of body movements, which ultimately helps in systemising the flow of energy in the body. No particular care is required, if practiced under a qualified guru. In a week of proper practice, one can lose 2 to 3 kg of weight.

How it helps

>> Sharpens: Kalaripayattu sharpens one’s mental and physical faculties in a balanced manner, together with a defensive mechanism at short call. z Diagnoses and heals: The fact that all the limbs, faculties and systems in one’s body are brought into action with the practice of Kalaripayattu, endows it with a unique power to diagnose and heal many physical ailments of a non-congenital nature. Suppleness of the muscle and ligaments are maintained by these regular practices. Wear and tear are noticed and attended to by timely application of specific liniments and remedial exercises on a continuous basis.

>> Breath control: This is an integral part of the practice due to which, lung-related problems wane in a short time.

>> Other health benefits: Many of the exercises prescribed help to avoid coronary and circulatory disorders. Blocks, in medical terms, are, in many cases, got rid of by regular Kalari practice. Obesity, more prevalent among womenfolk, can be controlled as well.

>> Built-in monitor: Kalari has also a health monitoring system built into it. Gurus test this aspect as a regular feature and prescribe remedial exercises, and meditations on the spot, in needed cases.

>> Oil application: In Kalaripayattu, there is a system of doing exercise by applying oil all over the body. This helps to heal skin diseases, blood-related diseases, control skin ageing and improve skin quality. This is also very good for muscles and has a major role in developing flexibility. When urban desk-bound people do this, their Vada doshas (issues related to muscle movements) and problems related to neck and back will be cured.

Is Kalari meant for you?
Kalaripayattu is a science to be learned under a good teacher, who understands the capacity of the student, and up to what level he/she should practice physical exercise. It strictly demands a veteran’s guidance. Pre-skills are not required, but there has to be a willingness to practice. Like any other heavy exercise, Kalaripayattu is not recommended for those with hypertension, heart diseases, kidney diseases, etc. The typical age bracket to learn Kalari would be from a minimum of six to a maximum of 50 years.

Timings: 6 am to 8 am
On: Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays 
At: Sundarrajan TS, KJ Somaiya Institute of Management Studies and Research Vidyanagar, Vidyavihar (E) 
Call: 67283064/ 9920997639 
Cost: Rs 3,000 (per month)

Watch out for fakes
It is disheartening to learn of mediocre practices where people learn Kalaripayattu for a few months; they advertise and offer to teach it, in pursuit of business. Kalari needs years of dedication and practice and it is disappointing to see it lose its tradition and conscience.

Recently, I read a news article where a Bollywood actor claimed that he has been practicing Kalari from the age of three, and yet had not named any guru in spite of learning in a Gurukul system for 10 years!

An ardent student is always proud of his school, which moulded him, so I was curious to know which ashram in Kerala was this person affiliated to. We should be able to distinguish between the genuine and the corrupt. - Belraj Soni

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