FOUR-YEAR-OLDS hate being woken up at 4.30 am and taken through morning ablutions by force, especially when they see most grown-ups in the joint family snoring away. But then a short walk that follows to a kalari session in the rain could lift your spirits. Petrichor is a feeling you experience long before you discover the word, and you can’t have enough of it. Soon, it is time to climb down the steps into a large pit that resembles a threshing floor, lit by a few oil lamps and a handful of unrecognisable photographs, framed and revered.
I remember doing whatever others did: my older cousins would immediately strip, apply coconut oil all over their bodies and change into langotti, a diaper-like loin cloth—a laughable sight for sure— and start off with the prayer to mother earth before saluting the kalari devi, who is Durga herself. We often had to fight back mirth at seeing cousins underdressed because the aasan (master) of the kalari was a strict man who brooked no nonsense. We were all there because we had to learn Kalaripayattu, step by step, and had to shape our mind and body to suit the practice of this ancient martial art form, which, we were told, was the father of all martial art forms, including Karate, Kung Fu, Judo and others. It wasn’t just a morning ritual, it was a way of life, like yoga. The elders at home who had the luxury of enjoying their morning sleep never hesitated to offer gratuitous pieces of advice—that if you become a fine practitioner of Kalaripayattu, you become fearless and far more mature for your age. All of us cousins, with hardly two or three years age difference between us, wanted to be grown-ups pretty soon. We also wanted not to fear the bullies in school or kindergarten or the football ground, and for that matter, anyone. It was around this time we came across Vadakkanpaattu (Northern Ballads), a collection of fables worn around exceptionally skilled warriors and Kalaripayattu wizards such as Aaromal and Unniyarcha and others—we were also told we trace our lineage to them. It was the early 1980s and purist masters had begun to rue how youngsters were going astray, joining Karate and Kung Fu classes run by failed stuntmen from Kodambakkam, the nerve centre of the southern Indian film industry, who were inspired by movies such as Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon, and the global trend that the short-lived Chinese icon spawned. Karate senseis spread the word that regular practice would help them attain physical and mental maturity. You also overcome fear just as in Kalaripayattu, a besotted cousin, who soon shifted his loyalty to Kung Fu, told me.
Overcoming fear had been an obsession in my childhood spent among Marxist revolutionaries of Kannur, in northern Kerala, which had in previous decades seen massive repression of Leftists by Congressmen, police and the state. It is true that Kalaripayattu exponents did throw their weight behind the fledgling band of communists; in many parts of the region, small groups of party cadres would batter landlords, Congress rowdies and their police lackeys into submission. “The communists had to resist attacks on them, especially on hapless women in their households who were singled out for attack because the men were mostly away, underground. It was thanks to those Kalaripayattu wizards who organised squads of volunteers and trained them to resist that the opponents backed off,” says P Jayarajan, district secretary of the Communist party of India (Marxist) whose right-hand was chopped off by suspected RSS killers in an attack on Onam day in 1999 at his home in Kizhakke Kathiroor, a place that was once home to the great warrior Kathiroor Gurukkal.
Babu, a Kalaripayattu aasan from Eramam, Payyannur, in North Kannur, tells me that his father, martial arts expert Narayanan Nambiar, like various other practitioners before him, had helped the undivided Communist Party in the face of relentless attacks from goons hired by the Congress to crush the party at a time it had launched several peasant movements in the district. “Back then, force was used for positive purposes by Kalaripayattu gurus and there was overwhelming popular support on one hand for the party, which, on the other hand, earned the wrath of all anti-socials and lawbreakers in society,” he notes.
We came across Vadakkanpaattu (Northern Ballads), fables around exceptionally skilled warriors and Kalaripayattu wizards such as Aaromal and Unniyarcha—we were told we trace our lineage to them
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He also brings in a controversial anthropological argument as a cause of the violence that continues to grip the region as cadres of opposing political groups fight each other over either retaining or winning political turf in one of the most blood-stained killing fields of modern Kerala’s history. While law-and-order cases are higher in other Kerala districts, Kannur is often in the news thanks to frequent eruptions of mindless violence among Marxists and cadres of the RSS, Muslim League and radical Islamic outfits such as Popular Front of India (PFI). Babu says that as a Kalaripayattu aasan, like his father before him, he had noticed that the numerically preponderant Thiyya community in North Kerala exhibits what he calls higher levels of rajogunam, or ferocity, compared with other castes, including his own of Nambiars, who have also traditionally practised and taught Kalaripayattu. “I am saying this from my experience of interacting with my students and by generally observing society from the point of view of someone who knows a bit about physical and mental aggression and the role of martial arts in it.” While anthropological studies on caste-group peculiarities are rare in the country, several others, including politicians and scholars, tell me on the condition of anonymity that this perception could be true. However, historian Rajan Gurukal disapproves of using references from the Northern Ballads to explain away what he considers a law-and- order issue.
Whatever he may say, the ankam (duel) culture of yore is zealously invoked by writers and political analysts to put a finger on Kannur’s unending saga of political skirmishes. Such ankams are fixed if two chieftains or kings have a dispute. It could be over an issue as trivial as who must wait for the other to cross a narrow bridge over a stream that allows only solo passage. Chekavars, or mercenaries, mostly from the Thiyya community, often fight in an ankam to defend the honour of the princeling or local ruler they work for. This had been the practice for centuries, and the chekavars had just one function: to train in martial arts and fight to the death if need be. According to SRD Prasad, a Kalaripayattu teacher and the author of an encyclopaedia on the martial art form, it was the judicial system of the day. He argues that chekavars played a significant role in societies those days. “Thanks to them, the rest of the subjects of two kings who had fallen out over an issue did not have to fight each other. Nor was there a scope for a war in which many people would get involved. Chekavars alone fought in a duel and decided the outcome, who wins and who loses (like the samurais of Japan, chekavars believed in honour and would choose death over the humiliation of losing). There is an absurdity in that when we look at it from the current human-rights point of view, but the system of the time minimised deaths.”
VARIOUS SPIRITUAL GURUS and astrologers contend that the violence in the region is an outcome of long years of that tradition—which allowed young, able-bodied men to martyr themselves for frivolous reasons. A section of them also peddle a strange theory that has takers among some believers: that the disquiet in the district is due to the ‘wandering souls of the dead’ who have found no redemption. A senior Congress leader in the district tells me that he has requested the help of a few mystics to perform rituals to address the problem.
Of course, such claims and pronouncements are the stuff of superstition, yet at least two temples in Koothuparamba, the epicentre of violence lately, have begun to do ‘rites’ to “contain the negative effect of the long- observed tradition”, says M Radhakrishnan, an office-bearer of a Shiva temple in the area.
Various Marxist leaders such as Jayarajan and scholars such as Gurukal have dismissed such talk as rubbish. Meanwhile, Kalaripayattu practitioners blame it on the ‘dilution’ of the martial art—the way it is taught by gurus interested only in making a quick buck. “Everyone knows that human nature is unpredictable, but Kalaripayattu has to be taught to a student who is discerning and who appreciates that it is not to be used to settle petty personal scores,” Babu avers.
For most masters, being choosy about students makes for poor economics. Besides, the martial art form has degenerated since British colonialists clamped down on the teaching of various forms of Kalaripayattu, especially the chuvadukal (steps) and adavukal (tactics) that are said to give superhuman strength for the well-trained. After the setback in the 1797 battle in Wayanad in northern Kerala when British forces faced initial defeat against Pazhassi Raja of Kottayam kingdom in North Malabar, intelligence officers inquired into the causes of the setback at Periya Pass. They found that men of exceptional strength and skills who could perform ‘miracles’ were behind Raja’s success. They were all Kalaripayattu warriors and had trained in Tulunadu, now in Karnataka. Kalaripayattu historians say a lot of ‘treasured knowledge’ of the martial art was lost over the next century following the partial ban on it. Over time, lack of discipline that is integral to ‘pure’ Kalaripayattu and the rise in indoctrination of trained youth by various political parties became a cocktail for disaster, contends Babu.
Prabhakaran (name changed), who has trained in Kalaripayattu and later became a CPM henchman, confides that he did everything the party asked him to do. “I used to attend party classes regularly,” he says, “I still don’t regret finishing off political rivals because they were a hindrance to the growth of the party and a menace to society. They needed to be stopped.” Like the RSS, the CPM, too, has bomb-making squads and assassins trained at select camps. Since the 1990s, says a former RSS worker who has now quit active politics, both the CPM and the RSS depend on gangsters for getting their “work done”. Which is why it so happens that there has been a spurt in “quotation teams” (or hired killers) in the region as elsewhere in Kerala. “These are young people with no political orientation. They see an economic opportunity as political parties kill each other. There is no ideology in these killings.” Both the CPM and RSS have blamed each other for fomenting violence to “crush each other ideologically and physically”. While the CPM claims that the RSS, which started off in the region as a private army for the beedi barons of Mangalore, is frustrated at not being able to beat the CPM electorally, RSS leaders state that the CPM is unleashing violence because it is worried about the prospects of losing its traditional voters—Kerala’s Hindus— to the Sangh.
Prasad warns against linking the ongoing blood battle with Kalaripayattu. He feels that promoting the discipline as a sport could, on the contrary, be an antidote to combating political crime. “Unlike earlier when Kalaripayattu was a way of life in these parts, these days there are very few practitioners. Young people have no avenues to channelise their excess energy.” Northern Kerala, especially Kannur, is home to abrasive sport forms such as adiyutsavam, an annual event held at the Mavilayi Kavu, a place of worship, in which people engage in seemingly mock fights that can inflict terrible injury. Incidentally, Mavilayi is the birthplace of the great Marxist leader AK Gopalan.
In its purest form, Kalaripayattu is considered a meditative and reflective practice that is supposed to develop the ultimate spiritual powers of a human being. Which is why a day at a kalari begins with a salute to planet earth, a mark of shedding the ego and bad motives. Those rain-drenched mornings of my childhood are a far cry from the ruthless games of vendetta that politicians play today in the name of ideology. They give the ancient martial art a bad name.