This year, India included Kalaripayattu, as one of the four indigenous martial art forms in the Khelo India Youth Games 2021 (that is now postponed to 2022). Previously, this martial art form was not well known among people except those in the field of performing arts such as dance and theatre. Today, Kalari is gaining popularity across the globe, and the Indian diaspora is doing a good job in promoting it worldwide.
CSP was in conversation with Shyne Tharappel Thankappan and his friend Manoj Kuttan, two Kalaripayattu experts from Kerala. They both trained under Vasudevan Gurukkal from Kaduthuruthy, and Today, the two are working hard to popularise Kalaripayattu in Europe.
For Shyne, sports was calming, so at the age of 17, he began learning Kalaripayattu under Vasudevan Gurukkal. He says that Kalaripayattu has helped him move forward in his life. The training centre was only four kilometres from his home and he always was eager to learn. Shyne now heads Kalaripayattu classes and workshops at Indian Swaas in Paris.
For his friend Manoj Kuttan, his entire family was involved in Kalaripayattu. At the mere age of eight, he started training under Vasudevan Gurukkal. He said, “At first, I was never really interested in learning Kalaripayattu. But not wanting to disappoint my father, I attended the classes.” His father worked with his master, and was involved in preparing medicines. Currently, Manoj performs traditional Kalari massages in Belgium and Amsterdam.
The duo arrived in France decades ago and began conducting workshops. “In a world full of martial arts, we had to plant the seed of Kalari. It was quite challenging. Also, students who come forward to learn, want to know the syllabus beforehand. When we learned under our master, we would do as he said. No questions asked. We never asked for a curriculum, but it is different here,” said Shyne.
There are four stages of Kalaripayattu, and one goes to the next stage depending on the masters’ assessment. Manoj thought he would begin early for the last stage, but his master made him wait a long time. “I was like the class clown. Always fooling around. I even quit at one point, unable to wait any longer. My master recalled me after learning from my father as to why I quit,” Manoj reminisced. The master observed the students’ maturity, and only if he found the student was fit to advance to the next stage, he would.
“Kalari involves very powerful and dangerous techniques that are mostly used for self-defence. For instance, Angathari involves fighting with iron weapons. This is why it is important to stay focussed while training,” Shyne commented.
Funny enough, Manoj realised he wasn’t interested in free hand combat (the final stage) and preferred to focus on Mei Payattu (body movements) and Angathari.
Each level also focuses on marma points or the vital points in the body. These points are not revealed by the master until you reach the final stage - freehand combat. However, movements that involve the marma points are taught from stage one, without them being explicitly revealed. Throughout the first three stages, the master looks at how calm and composed the student is, and how they handle daily-life situations. Only then will he teach them the marma points. Marma points are to be attacked only for self defence, only to harm and not to kill. “We are still learning the marma points even though it has been 20-30 years since we started learning Kalari,” Manoj said.
It has taken the duo 20 years to establish themselves in Europe, despite the fact that many still call it Dynamic Yoga. Most people in Europe learn Kalaripayattu for the sake of physical fitness and for the pure beauty of the martial art. “We also started off with that when we began. But as you advance to higher levels, you slowly realise the mental concentration and stability that you develop. Especially when we learn Kolthari, where we fight with wooden weapons, it takes a great deal of concentration to master the technique and also to make sure you are defending yourself properly,” Shyne responded.
“Most of them who learn, within and outside India, learn only to a certain extent and leave. If one stays for longer, they’ll realise that it is more than just physical fitness,” Manoj told us.
CSP also spoke to Adam Phillips, founder of KalariLAB in Thailand. Adam was twenty years old when he was working as an actor in London. At the time he read a book that had a letter addressed to Eugenio Barba from Jerzy Grotowski. Barba, who was in India at that time, was researching different ways to train the body. He came across Kalaripayattu, and contacted Grotowski. Barba brought elements of that training back that were used in theatre training in Poland.
“I read that letter when he spoke about Kalaripayattu, and Grotowski thought it was important for an actor to use Kalaripayattu to connect with himself and his co-actors on stage. I was interested in theatre and dance, and the idea of them coming together in the form of an ancient physical training was exciting for me,” Adam explained.
After a short time in London learning theatre under John Cassey, a disciple of Sherif Gurukkal, Adam went to India to train under Sherif Gurukkal. He studied with him for two months and was at his school for five years in Kannur.
Manoj focused on Kalari Chikitsa during his training days. Kalari Chikitsa or treatment is taught to all those who learn Kalaripayattu. Kalari Chikitsa has its own massage treatment, and is slightly different from Ayurvedic massages. “For Kizhi massages, there are specific medicinal ingredients that I prepare and bring from India. When you deal with injuries that arise during practice sessions, it is important to be aware of what treatment will facilitate the healing of the marma points that were hurt,” said Manoj. European guidelines don't allow them to perform Chikitsa. Only Ayurveda and Kalari massages are allowed, such as Shirodhara or Kizhi massages.
Adam is also a physiotherapist and uses Kalari practices in his assessment. He would use Kalari training with his clients; some are 60-70 years old, some have hip and back problems, and some have balance issues. Adam picks specific exercises from the training he has received to improve mobility, coordination, and overall performance of the individual.
“What science is telling us is whether it is Kalaripayattu martial art or Kalari Chikitsa, the practice is actually working on the fascial web - a web of tissue that spreads across the body, that most likely permeates and surrounds every cell of the body. This fascial web not only helps in the movement of the body, but also transmits pain from one area to another, thus signalling to the body that there is damage. It is also slightly conducting light and electricity. So, we are looking at a system of integration in the body that allows for the body to act as one unit. Any obstruction, any damage, is going to be experienced by the whole system. There is a very precise system of transforming the whole organism,” explained Adam.
Adam began learning Kalari Chikitsa in 2006, and as suggested by his Guru, he went to the UK to study physiotherapy. On completing his education, he returned in 2013, and continued to learn some of the provisional stages of Marma science. “I can do some Marma techniques on some parts of the body, not all. And I haven't gotten to study neurological work, because in Kalari treatment, you can treat the whole neurological system through the head. This is something I will go on to learn if it is appropriate for me to,” said Adam.
As a practitioner, during assessment, he uses Kalari exercises to see people's ability. He can pick out areas of dysfunction, areas that need to be strengthened, lengthened or corrected. In Kalari chikitsa, there is a great deal of hands-on manual therapy that is not seen in physiotherapy. There is Dhara and Kizhi treatment, treatments that work on the neurological system, on the fascial web, massage, and acupuncture work in the marma points, that work very specifically to relieve overactive muscles, and correct imbalances in the muscle system and in the neurological system.
There is a wealth of knowledge in Kalaripayattu.
Kalaripayattu Popularity in Europe
Most people are aware of Kalari thanks to social media and many news outlets. “I am currently in Amsterdam, and I was in the park the other day practising Kalari with a friend. A stranger looked at our practice, came up to us and asked us if we were practising Kalari. He has been learning a form of Indonesian martial art form, and he was well aware of Kalari. So popularity wise, it is growing and people are aware,” said Manoj.
“It is a long process to establish Kalari in Europe. We need the next generation to come in and learn the artform. In my 15 years experience, I know that to teach in a traditional way, like we learned, is not possible in Europe. And we are looking at ways we can adapt it in a way that will appeal to more people,” said Shyne.
When they first arrived in Paris, Manoj and Shyne conducted workshops just to introduce Kalari to the local people. “Now I have students from the age of seven, with a mix of both Indians and non-Indians. We find that some students find it difficult to commit to some forms of Kalari, as some movements require them to be more close to the floor. This is something they are not used to. We also take part in the martial art festival in France,” Manoj told us.
Adam also mentioned to us about the popularity in the South-east and parts of Europe. Since arriving in Thailand, he has run a few workshops, classes and retreats. He has had a diverse group of students coming through and it is interesting to see how people are becoming more aware of the practice. “Certainly when I started out twenty years ago, no one knew about it; ten years ago, few people knew about it. Today, it is recognised by many and references of it can be found all over the social media,” commented Adam.
Whilst working as an actor in Poland, Adam travelled to many places in Europe, where he performed and conducted a few theatre workshops. Along with that, he used to pull people to conduct Kalari workshops and it was well received. “People were very interested in it, but I was of course working with people from a theatre background and they were quite interested in the movements,” Adam told us.
Adam is planning on returning to Europe in a couple of months, and hopes to hold at least one, if not two, workshops a year. There is interest that is certainly growing, and he hopes that it grows as much as it is in India.
Kalaripayattu, a Spiritual Practice
Adam spoke to us about how Kalaripayattu is a spiritual practice. It is a philosophy that practises non-violence, and also drives the individual to remain focussed. In other words, Ekagrata (single-pointed focus), which is the primary objective of Kalari, is achieved. Ekagrata is part of one of the yogic eightfold paths, Pratyahara - withdrawal of the senses.
When one works to maintain Ekagrata, the focus becomes strong and helps to keep the ego down or keep it less significant, and in the due course becomes a spiritual practice.
“When you keep repeating exercises over and over again, it will make you more flexible, strong, mobile, explosive, fluid, and coordinated in your movements. Once you begin, you will feel the body from inside you, and the space outside you. As a result, you become more calm, centered, confident, grounded, and focussed. So, whether you are trying to fight a tiger in a jungle, or whether you are faced with modern challenges, the thing that is going to get you through it is focus or Ekagrata. It is going to bring out your best attributes and qualities. You’ll be in a place of power where you can achieve what you want. It is not easy to acquire this focus, but you’ll reach there by practicing daily,” elucidated Adam.