The enigmatic kalari trajectory

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Over the centuries, all physical or performative traditions in India have undergone massive shifts in form, context and symbolism. Of them all, the martial arts have been the forms experiencing this metamorphosis of purpose most acutely.

Many of them, like Kalaripayattu or Chhau, evolved out of training routines developed for royal armies. Kerala’s Kalaripayattu, in particular, is ascribed to a long period of war between the Chera and Chola dynasties in the 11th century. The kalari signifies the space of practice, while payattu stands for various exercises that define the form.
Kalaripayattu has come a long way from its militaristic origins, when it was the basis of duels fought between kingdoms. Today, the traditional kalari, a partly subterranean space with mud floors and a high ceiling, is the place where people from the neighbourhood come to participate in a supervised exercise routine. A seven-tiered platform in one corner of the kalari houses its guardian deity, to whom all salutations are directed. Yet, Kalaripayattu has always been a secular practice.
A student of Kalaripa-yattu learns a combination of strengthening exercises and movements, besides being trained in various forms of combat and the intricacies of anatomy and vulnerable points in the body. The combat, though, is strictly exhibitive with a focus on personal development. All the exercises at the kalari are executed to vocal commands recited by the asan (teacher). Devoid of soldierly overtones, Kalaripayattu training in Kerala is still grounded in a familiar culture, making connections to nature through its reference to various animal movements and traits.
It is interesting to see how Kalaripayattu is posited and taught when it leaves the confines of the mud-floored Kerala kalari. At an ongoing workshop at NCPA in Mumbai, instructor Belraj Soni is teaching kalaripayattu to a mix of fitness enthusiasts and dancers. The peculiar challenges of teaching in the urban sphere foreground how body knowledge is inextricably linked to cultural environments. Thus, while some people execute perfect push-ups, any exercise that requires them to sit or squat on the floor may be a difficult task.
Another issue is that Kalaripayattu has still not colonised the cities like yoga has. Attending short workshops or classes, students find it hard to continue practising after the training period. There are nuances that cannot be learnt; they are absorbed by the body over time with muscle memory. These movements have also taken Kalaripayattu to yet another arena — that of performance. Many contemporary dance choreographers in India have used Kalaripayattu as a body conditioning practice for their dancers and as movement elements in their work. What is attractive about Kalaripayattu as spectacle is its three-dimensional and expansive understanding of space.
Kalaripayattu, when embodied in performance, is set apart by its distinct body language. Classical dances place great emphasis on the erectness of the spine. Kalaripayattu also focuses on spinal articulation, but through crouching movements that are executed close to the floor. As a mode of self-protection, the limbs are held close together in front of the body. This kind of stance, where the body closes in upon itself, is a defining element of Kalaripayattu.
The dancer Chandralekha used Kalaripayattu extensively, even making her dancers perform it on stage in its original form. There are other dancers who find it more rewarding to draw on Kalaripayattu as a resource.
Contemporary dancer and choreographer Daksha Sheth explains that every artist requires different strengths and sensibilities in her work. “I never use Kalaripayattu in performance, but it is one of many resources, like yoga or gymnastics, that we practise to develop strength and flexibility. Nowadays, many performers seem to be using it, and this looks like a fad, just like yoga once was. In Kerala, I find that malkhamb, which I introduced in performance to much criticism in 1996, is being included in dance competitions alongside Mohiniattam and Bharatanatyam as ‘rope dance’. Frankly, it makes me very happy to see it gaining popularity. I don’t discriminate between forms — anything which makes you physically fit to suit your role on stage is worth learning,” she says.

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