What are the origins of this art?
North and South Kerala believe in two different myths regarding the origin of kalaripayattu. The people of South Kerala believe the rishi Agasthya founded the practice while people from North Kerala credit rishi Parasurama as being the founder. Either way, it was based on the movements and habits of birds and animals. The Kadampanad province in Kerala can be considered as the nurturing place for the art. When there were disputes between the kings of Kerala, one warrior from each side was chosen to fight on behalf of the king; and the warriors fought till one of them died. It was a matter of honour to fight. These warriors perfected the skill of kalaripayattu.
Why is this martial art not very well known outside Kerala?
One of the main reasons for this is the philosophy of the art itself. Most people turn to a martial art to learn to fight. But the teachers of kalaripayattu emphasise restraint and meditation. The knowledge is meant only for fitness and treatment. There are very few occasions — to defend the helpless — when one is allowed to use this art against someone. The art is a means to understand how weak your body is. It is also a way to keep fit and rejuvenate your body. The more dangerous techniques are often not taught to students. A martial art masquerading as a rejuvenation technique can only have so many takers. Kalaripayattu involves detachment from the world, which is very difficult to achieve.
Another reason is that many teachers are orthodox. They don’t like to mingle with practitioners of other martial arts. In my kalari in Kerala, every Sunday, I invite practitioners to discuss and share notes. This increases exposure and mutual knowledge but does not happen too often in other kalaris.
What are the dangerous skills associated with this art? Do you know them?
The Marma kala is the skill of recognising the body’s weak points. It can be used to cause serious injury or even to kill. There are 108 weak points in the body which include many bone joints or significant arteries. These points can also be used to rejuvenate the body or to treat illnesses. The skills involved in Marma kala are the same as the basic skills that are taught — albeit with a little twist. These twists are only taught after the students earn the trust of the guru. I know most, but not all of these skills.
Why are these skills not taught?
It is not that they are not taught at all. But many teachers are wary of sharing them with students who might misuse them. Besides, it takes a lot of dedication to acquire the competence required to master these skills. Not many students can reach that level. Some teachers think that this knowledge should be kept exclusive — like a gupt vidya. Besides, there are many fraud teachers who claim that they have knowledge but are not willing to share it as it is dangerous. One has to beware of fraud teachers as improper massaging or training can lead to impotency and other serious problems.
I am among the group that believes that all knowledge should be shared and I would like to spread the skills of kalaripayattu among as many deserving people as possible.
How long does it take to kill a person?
There is a spot in the middle of the chest where there is a slight dip. If this exact spot is hit, then death will occur in 2 and half hours.
Has this actually happened?
Yes, I have heard of an unfortunate incident where two senior warriors were demonstrating their skills with a wooden weapon called the otta when one of them was hit at this spot on his chest and died by the time he was taken to the hospital. There is actually a way to save the person. If the person is hit on the exact spot at the back, then the person can be saved. But there are not many people who know all this, and besides, the first instinct is naturally to take the person to the hospital. When the person is vomiting blood, etc. people are scared of doing further damage.
What is a good age to start training for martial arts?
Ten years is an ideal age to start kalaripayattu
Do you have many foreigners coming to learn?
Yes we do. But the problem is that they don’t have the time and the commitment to stay for long. We can teach only very little in a few days or months.
How long does it take for a person to be skilled in this art?
The basic training takes nine years. The rest of the skills can be taught in 3 years. After that comes weapon and meditation. Everything else is a variation of the basic skills. So that really needs to be practiced.
What is the diet that needs to be followed?
Practitioners need to follow a vegetarian diet. Fish is acceptable, but almost no other meat. Seasonal fruits and vegetables are prescribed and everything is cooked in pure ghee.
What are the kinds of people who join you? Do you have people who are looking to settle personal scores?
We have people from all walks of life joining us. We do have people who we feel are looking to use their skills to settle personal scores. In this case we get them to first focus on meditation and try to change their mental state before starting on the fighting skills.
Do women also go through the same regime of diet and training? Or is it different for them?
Men and women go through the same diet and training. Women tend to do rather better at this art than men because their bodies are more flexible, receptive and in harmony with themselves. Pregnant women get many benefits from practicing this art.
Have you had occasion to use this art in real life?
Yes, once, when I was very young. I faced a knife attack and was able to defend myself. The thing with kalari is that it becomes your reflex. You can use it even if you are suddenly attacked in your sleep. It is as if every part of your body becomes an eye.
Once you stop kalaripayattu does your body get harmed more because it is an intensive form of training?
It surely does. The body can undergo a severe reaction if one suddenly stops practicing. But if there is a gradual decline in practice, then there is less likely to be a problem.
What is the cost that is incurred by the person who wants to be trained in this art form?
I take Rs. 1001 when the person joins, and then Rs. 100 per month. The main costs are the oils for the massages that are an integral part of the training.
Can you break ice-slabs with a bare hand chop?
Breaking ice slabs is like breaking skulls. Why would I want to do that when I can kill with my fingers?
Kalari master versus Kung-fu master: who’s likely to win?
In terms of technique and theory, kalari: In terms of practice and perseverance, Kung-fu. This is my personal opinion.
Has the martial art form become obsolete?
There are more and more people coming to learn, but fewer and fewer staying to master the art. The soul is lost.
(As told to Divya Subramaniam)