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.