Why you should care
Because lovers of this fighting style call it the mother of all martial arts.
A line of scrawny children high-kicks their way across the clay floor, and it feels oddly threatening. Perhaps it’s the ease with which they can touch the top of their feet with their outstretched hands, or the sinewy muscles some of these tweens have already developed. More likely, it’s the looming presence of the weapons positioned around the room — the end goal in a sport for which kicks and punches are merely the warm-up. Things get interesting a few years down the line, when these eager novices start fighting with bamboo sticks … and swords.
Called kalaripayattu, or just kalari (meaning “battlefield”), it features dance-like fight sequences that begin as pure body movements and culminate in weaponry. This Indian martial art, which got its start and still remains strongest here in the southern state of Kerala, is quietly growing in popularity, and advocates are even buzzing about a push to the Olympics, now that there are registered kalaripayattu federations in 32 countries. Once there are 40, the sport can vie for a slot in the games, according to Indian newspaper The Hindu.
There may be those who trace kung fu’s origins to an Indian monk who imported it to the East, but most wouldn’t call India a hotbed of martial arts. And yet this ancient art is finding enthusiasts both at home and abroad, from Bangalore to Boston, East London to Melbourne. It’s even appearing in blockbuster movies, like the Bollywood megahit Bajirao Mastani — and any Bruce Lee fan can tell you what media exposure does for a martial art’s allure. Sunil Kumar, one of three brothers who run CVN Kalari Nadakkavu in Kozhikode, says he’s seen worldwide interest in kalari boom in recent years. He often travels with fighters around Europe, performing in demonstrations and competitions, and he personally teaches around 100 students.
Today’s group is composed of young boys, with a few older men learning the basics. Eleven-year-old twins Gayatri and Gautham Lakshmi, students for four years, stand out. “In eight years, we get to the swords,” Gayatri says gleefully. The siblings practice one to two hours a day, six days a week.
The twins discovered the art when they tagged along with their father to CVN for his ayurvedic — traditional Indian medicine — treatments. Which points to a fundamental element of kalari — its association with Indian spirituality, and the holistic view it promotes of body and mind — that helps explain its appeal to Indians who are keen to sustain traditions of mind-body oneness in the modern era.
Sunil’s brother Anil is at work in the next room; when I arrive, a motley bunch waits for him: women in hijabs, portly older gentlemen, teenagers urgently glancing at his closed door. They call him “doctor,” and when he finally opens the door, I glimpse the apothecary-esque insides of his office, the wooden cabinets lined with bottles of mysterious elixirs.
Kalari’s spiritual underpinning and the West’s near-fanatical embrace of yoga make the art ripe for global consumption. The choreography-like steps — often inspired by animal movements — even bear a resemblance to sun salutations. And yet some of the traditional elements could be off-putting for Westerners, like the reverence to the guru, or teacher. Todd Hester, publisher of the martial arts magazine Gladiator, points to judo as an example of a martial art that might have taken off in the West but suffered from traditional attributes, like showing deference to the sensei.
Certainly, some elements of kalari are highly vernacular: When Sunil enters the room, the nearly 20 practicing students and apprentice teachers form a line to touch his feet, taking his blessing in the classic Hindu manner. They perform this same act each time they begin a fight sequence, even offering the clay surface a respectful touch as they enter and exit the space. In the far corner sits an altar to the Hindu god Shiva, and on the wall is a portrait of the Kumar brothers’ grandfather, who Sunil says practiced the art during British times, even when it was banned.
So what makes a foreign art take hold abroad? A media event, Hester says. Karate Kid made karate; Lethal Weapon helped launch Brazilian jiujitsu. Hester admits that in his decades of covering martial arts, he’s never heard of kalari, noting that weapon fighting faces a particular obstacle for those hoping to popularize a new martial art: Parents are reluctant to take their kids to classes incorporating swords or even sticks, and practicing the art at home can be challenging, if not dangerous.
But, damn, is it cool to see in action. Nidhin Pallikkara, 33, has been training at CVN for more than 15 years and is now teaching and working on an ayurveda certificate. With a bad-boy ponytail and a tiny scar on his face, he moves his taut body like the most advanced yogi and, moments later, wields a sword to demonstrate the tiger sequence. He’s far enough in his training that he can even handle a knife, spear or shawl. “You can kill a person with a shawl,” Sunil offers in a casual aside.