Interview with master Sathyanarayanan G. Nair from CVN Kalari in Trivandrum

kalari master cvn east fort trivandrum
Sathyanarayanan G. Nair in the CVN Kalari Sangham, East Fort, Trivandrum

I invite you to read an interview with master Sathyanarayanan G. Nair from CVN Kalari in East Fort, Trivandrum, which I took in February 2023, during our stay in Kerala.

I had a pleasure and honour not only to interview the master, but also to follow trainings led by him, as well as by Rajasekharan Nair, a teacher of this kalari.

In the interview, we covered many topics such as: family tradition, history of CVN lineage, how masters learn, changes in teaching kalari, as well as differences between awareness and popularity. If necessary, I clarify some terms in brackets, writing my initials: JR-N.

Justyna Rodzińska-Nair: Please tell us something about your family tradition and the lineage of kalarippayattu you continue.

Sathyanarayanan G. Nair Gurukkal: Actually I am the third generation of teachers from this particular lineage. It was an old matrilineal family based in the northern part of Kerala, in a small town called Thalassery (Formerly: Tellicherry – JR-N).  The matrilineal household name was Chambadan Veedu. My grandfather’s name was C.V. Narayanan Nair where CV stands for Chambadan Veedu, that’s why the name is CVN. He was the first one to start kalarippayattu in the family with one well known teacher. That is how the art of kalarippayattu  came to our family. So my father, the oldest son of C.V. Narayan Nair, continued the lineage and I, being his eldest son, continue the lineage as a student and teacher.

Families of that time were of special character and it has also to be understood. These families were like big establishments, it was like 50 families living in one household. You can imagine that, it was not just a small family – it was a big household. Even now this big household estate is still there, in Thalassery: 4 acres of land, with big houses, a pond, a few small guest houses. That’s how it was also then. The head of the family would be there, the one who looked after the entire household families, and often he would be connected to some art, literature, things like that. So for example when they would come to know that a famous master arrived to this land, they would invite him over to come and stay in the guest house and start teaching children of the family.

There is a story about my grandfather. He had a small physical deformity, he had small cleft palate. Even though he had it operated when he was 12 years, he still had it. So he was very silent, but physically he was very agile. One of those days a master happened to see him. It was near a very famous Sri Rama temple in Thalassery. There was a ground where my grandfather was playing – that is what they are saying, I don’t know it is true or not – and this master said that this boy had some talent and asked who he was. When the matrilineal head of the family had come to know about this, he invited the master over to stay. Then the master stayed for almost 5 years, he built a kalari and started teaching youngsters of that time. My grandfather became his favourite student, as well as his younger brother whose name was C.V. Balan Nair. So they were the ones who got it to the family. There is another aspect of it – you can imagine, this is the time of late 1800s and early 1900s. That time India was under the British rule and there were so many restrictions, so many political changes happening. Also the art of kalarippayattu was undergoing a lot of changes because it was forbidden due to political reasons and social changes. There were some rebels against the government happening etc. At the same time some people tried to propagate and preserve whatever was available from different lineages.

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A portrait of Kottackal Kanaran and C.V. Narayanan Nair is located in the kalari

So, the guru’s name was Kottackal Kanaran Gurukkal. He came from an old household somewhere close to Tellicherry, in the Northern Malabar, and he went to different masters and learned from them. As he had studied with different masters, he was a kind of collector of remaining information at that time because the tradition had been mostly dying. Most of kalaris were not able to function, life of people was difficult, there were political restrictions if someone practised traditions and other such things happening. Some of the local kings were rebelling against the British and they were using kalari people as soldiers for their war, so because of that the British stopped all kalaris from functioning.

At the same time Thalassery in the northern Malabar was a capital of the British government in Kerala and their headquarter, not Trivandrum like now. Because the local government of the British was there, they were also supporting my grandfather’s work at that time. He became very famous after he had started giving demonstrations and in this way he started to popularize kalari. Together with Kottackal Kanaran they took the initiative to popularize it in different ways, because traditionally the art was confined to the kalaris, which were very private places, where very few people would come, maybe for a small function once in a while, and beyond that it was not known to people. So he started doing some public demonstrations. He formed a small sangham (a community – JRN) and he travelled all over India performing kalarippayattu and that’s how he kind of popularized it. He was one of the main persons who revived the tradition. Times were changing, the British rule was about to end (India reclaimed independence in 1947 – JR-N).

My father came down to Trivandrum in 1950s. Around 1950–52 he started coming to Trivandrum for some public demonstrations. My grandfather passed away early, in 1944, and my father, who was very young at that time, was the one to take over this work after him. He was actually coming to Trivandrum once or twice every year to do demonstrations because he was running the sangam under the guidance of Sri C.V. Balan Nair. As he was coming to Trivandrum, some people, especially Goda Varma Raja popularly known as G.V. Raja, a famous prince from the royal family, who was a patron of sports among other things, said: you should establish a kalari in Trivandrum. And so my father came down to Trivandrum in 1952.

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The model kalari building of CVN Kalari which comprises the training pit, therapy rooms and an apartment.

That’s why this particular tradition actually came to the Southern part of Kerala, because before that not many people knew about it. Even when my grandfather came to perform in Trivandrum few years before his death, around 1939–40, there were many old people in this town who had never seen his performance before, so this was a kind of activity popularizing the tradition that was happening that time. He established a small kalari and started activities there in some other part, and later in 1967 he bought a land, built a kalari here and established the school. In 1975 he built this model kalarippayattu training centre. This was also a time of resurgence for the tradition: new performances, new ideas, new movies propagating interest from many theatres – they were also interested in this. So my father, I would say, took it into slightly different direction. Because the direction and the vision of the teacher is very important. If it changes all the time, the whole way of teaching also changes.

J: And how were you introduced to the kalari training?

S: I was as a child of ten years old when I started coming to a kalari for regular practice. I came with my teacher and then we would join a kalari training. I was also doing my school and college, and all that. I did my graduation and till that time I was every day coming to kalari and being a member of the team, everyday practising, performing, doing some little performances. In 1976 Phillip Zarrilli (1947–2020, an American-born theatre researcher, director, writer, professor and actor-trainer, author of a famous book on kalari When the Body Becomes All Eyes which was based on his filed research in Kerala carried out in the years 1976–1998 – JR-N) started to come to do his research project and because my father was not very fluent in English, he asked me to assist him in the whole thing. So I was a kind of interpreter, I was also picking up my English, it was very helpful for me. I had my morning practice and then we would go to sit together, spending 2–3 hours every day, taking notes and things like that.

kalari book kalaripayattu kalarippayattu zarilli

Zarrilli also practised kalari all that time. So this was also an introduction to me, it got me motivated and got me even more interested in the tradition. And that is how I came to that. In 1976–78, my father was really focusing on building a team, as well as a performing team because kalari was already there. In 1980, when I was 19 years old (I was born in 1961), I was also a member of the team and we went abroad. It was the first time kalarippayattu was taken outside of India. We travelled all over Asia, under the auspicious of ICCR Government of India (Indian Council for Cultural Relations is an organisation that promotes cultural relations between India and other countries – JR-N). That is how I got connected. I became a full time member of the kalari team, then I started doing my everyday practice, creating performances, some film works, mainly theatre and body work. All those things coming as part of the work.

J: What was your father’s teaching style then? What was particular about his teaching?

S: First of all, you have to understand the broad meaning of kalari as a tradition. That has to be there. That was what he was trying to promote. It was a big challenge for him also. When he came down to South, to Trivandrum – an epicentre of practitioners of the southern style of kalarippayattu – even people here didn’t know about this tradition. What was that – all these exercises, sword fights and so on. Actually, even if it was present there, it was not in that form. It was a completely different tradition. So it was a big challenge for him to keep his root practices, and to maintain that, and to work in this environment. He was more like a purist, I would say. He was not someone who would experiment or change, because he thought that this tradition had something to keep live. That was his job. And he had a more artistic approach to the whole thing. He was not really someone interested in fighting and all that.

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Sathyanarayanan G. Nair standing in front of his father’s portrait (with red background).

My father wouldn’t compromise on basic things. That was his speciality. And at the same time, the crowd that he mingled with was particular, so he was concerned with kalari not as a fighting form but as a root practising tradition. He would always discuss it like that. Of course he also appreciated the knowledge of southern systems too, but at the same time he did not mix anything. He didn’t want to mix the styles. That was his way. And then he started mingling with different crowd, like artistic circle, people from the performance, and most people who came attracted to the kalari was because of the body training system, the other aspect of it, not the fighting aspect. So it could be brought out of it, but the root practice – that was his point of view and vision. And for the good or the bad, he took it in that direction. The direction of – I wouldn’t really say of performance – but a complex system rather than a set of techniques. He tried to maintain the system and continued it in the direction where it is a body art or something like that.

J: How was he preparing you to teach?

S: Traditionally kalari has that method. The method of teaching is integrated in kalarippayattu. That is one thing I don’t see in many of the traditions. It is just like seeing, imitating – that’s the way how transition of knowledge mostly go nowadays. I’m not saying it’s for all systems, but it’s in most of them. Even in some of the techniques you look at a master and try to imitate what he does but kalari was not really like that. Kalari had a proper system to teach, so there is a natural progression from student to teacher is also there. You have that particular ceremony in kalari called Mun Kol Kodukkuka. Mun Kol means first stick or leading stick (literally) and technically it means progressing on to the teacher side. So for example you start kalari practice, you learn several years, and then you are introduced to one weapon, then another weapon, then you’ve gone maybe to the third weapon, and all the time you are on the eastern side (in the northern style of kalarippayattu, the location of a kalari building depends on the cardinal directions, and the movement takes place mostly along a straight line, where a teacher always stands with the western side of the kalari behind him, and a student has the eastern side behind – JR-N). At some point, your teacher decides that OK, now it’s time for you to progress to the western side and you are given a particular ceremony which is the Mun Kol. Then you start to be the one on the other side.

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Students follow the teacher in the puttara thozhal (salutation sequence in respect to the kalari altar).

And what happens is again not one set of techniques, but same thing which you did on one side, you have to do on the other side with the nature to learn to lead and control. Along with that you have to teach many students, not just one. Because ideally a teacher teaches many students every day, whereas a student learns only one sequence and then the teacher stops him. But here in the old times it meant you had to go with 15 students. The first day you come and take a stick, and you do chernu ketti (an exercise with a long bamboo stick, kettukari – JR-N). As a new teacher, you would do this exercise with one person, then you’d take another one, and so on, and in this way you would be doing it with different people. Then you start to have different experience. That is how it happens.

So that is a particular system which is very much there in kalarippayattu, and every aspect of it is there. Going to the other side, then learning from that side. It is present also in the treatment system, for example in the massages. Now in ayurveda you don’t see that. There are so many ayurveda practitioners or therapists but they have no system to teach the system. They just stay with another person who is doing the massage, and then they start learning it. But in kalari it’s not like that. After you are introduced to the Mun Kol, the guru sees if you are qualified or if you have enough calibre to continue as a teacher, then finally one day he will tell you: OK, next week we are going to start uzhiccil training (massage training – JR-N) for you. Then there is a ceremony for that. All these ritualistic things are melted with the whole thing there.

The uzhiccil process takes about 6 months to one year, because first the teacher would sit with you and you start learning the massage. The teacher would select one of the young boys about 5 feet high from the kalari, and then ask permission from father, then ask him to pray, pay dakshina (an traditional offering given to a teacher on special occasions, it can be a small amount of money, betel leaf, flowers etc – JR-N) – that is a big ritual. That boy is given a massage, and the teacher sits with you and guides your hand, and explains measurements and all. Sometimes he would give you a nice beating and ask you to stop, saying that you’re not qualified for this, so you should stop and go. Along the learning process, sometimes the attitude changes and students decide that they want to do something else. That kind of things go for some time. Those who stay, go to the higher level, and after learning for a period from 6 months to one year, they would do the uzhiccil every year to several students. After that, when a student is ready, he would go for the foot massage. That is a different training. That kind of training system is built into the whole practice. So to learn to teach is a natural progression in kalarippayattu, there’s not a particular time but it’s natural. The only thing is that a teacher keeps watching your attitude and how you approach the whole process, and according to this, if you have interest, he will teach you. That’s the way it is. All the classical traditions have that system integrated into that.

J: So there is a situation when somebody is still a student but he already teaches too.

S: Yes, because it depends on what he teaches. He will be continuously teaching only the long staff for three years. He will not be given to another weapon. That grading and progression methods will be strictly based on the individual calibre. So, it can’t be like you’ve done six months and you go directly to another weapon. It could be one month for one person and three years for another person, depending on the individual progress. For example, the weapon taught rarely to students is the ottakol (a curved wooden stick used in the northern style of kalarippayattu – JR-N). 

ottakol cvn kalari trivandrum
Weapons displayed at a kalari wall. Ottakols are the short, curved wooden sticks.

Ottakol is sometimes even not taught to some people; it’s not a type of weapon for you. And also it’s not very interesting for students because it’s like a stick form but teachers know the true value of it. So they will sometimes teach you and sometimes won’t, and then they go to some metallic weapons and all, and then they would come back to teach you the other side. So they only progress to a certain level, come back and go to the teaching level. Because teaching changes the practice. So you continue to be a student all the time. You are all the time a student of the present master, that’s all.

J: Do masters go to other masters to learn something new?

S: There are basically no restrictions as such. You can go. Even my grandfather and his master, and many others went to different other masters. But the thing is that sometimes one master may have some special techniques, but he may not teach them to another person. A master can say to a student: „you’re doing really well but I’ve no knowledge about this particular tradition so why don’t you go to another master”. He may even write a recommendation letter for this student and send him to another master. Then the other master will do some test on this person to check if he’s qualified enough to do this, what the person has learned so far.

There is an old a story about Kottackal Kanaran Gurukkal, C.V. Narayanan Nair’s Guru. He was actually a person from a low caste, called Tiyyar, which is lower then the Nairs. And he went to a school to learn ottakol. He already practised with otta but he wanted to learn some other, higher sequences. He went to a brahmin family who were also a royal family, and wouldn’t even mingle with lower caste people who had to stay far away from them. When Kottackal Kanaran came to that family, they would ask him questions: „Who send you? OK, stay there. What did you learn? How much did you do the otta?” He answered: „I learned up to this”. However he was not taken to a kalari, but he had to practise outdoors. The brahmin called his daughter and told her: „come and see what he had learned”. She came, but Kottackal Kanaran said: „I will not do payatt (combat training – JR-N) with a woman”. I don’t know why he said that, somehow though the brahmin felt that he was qualified enough, took him to the kalari and started to teach him. This kind of stories happen.

There is one master, Mohammad, a Muslim master from northern Kerala who had one special technique of valvali (sword wielding – JR-N). That is actually a part of another tradition, not this particular lineage. So Kottackal Kanaran went north to that master, but he was not using this tradition too much. It was mostly used for the performance while he was rather concentrating on some other weapon practices. His specialty was the ottakol. Usually some masters specialize in something. They have particular interest in something and they continue to practice it.

Some of these practices are very close to ritual practices, so because of these ritual shield they don’t want other things to mix with it.

J: In the old days the practice was taking place very slowly. Traditionally a student first would do kicks for a long time and it would take many months or years to progress, while nowadays it is quite different. Can you say something about the changes in reference to local, Indian students (as the case of Westerners is another issue). How has the process of teaching to Indian students been changing?

S: The main thing which changes are social changes. Society is changing a lot, and when a society changes, even interest in physical culture changes. Because the purpose for which in old time, say 50 years ago, children started training was different. When a boy was coming to kalari, he was physically agile. Most probably he was much too active, and the parents wanted to discipline him. He would climb all trees, jump to water; he was physically very active. So to put him in some discipline and teach some values, they would send him to a kalari.

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Children during a morning kalari class. Most of boys wear a traditional loincloth, called langoti.

Now it is opposite – children do not have enough activity, they are obese and physically not fit, most of them have flat foot, pot belly, and so on, and then parents want to bring them to a kalari for practice. So there are two different contexts. However out of these who come now, the key is to select some good students in this system. Because one problem is that this system is very demanding on the body. You need to follow true physical culture forms, and not just a set of exercises. Even now I see that happening. For example in Kozhikode or some other rural area, I had many students or people who worked with me and ran kalari, even CVN kalaris (there are 25 CVN kalaris in different parts of Kozhikode), and most of them are my father’s students’ students. What I see there is that the calibre of physical fitness of students is very different there. They come from the rural background and they are physically fit, they’ve got a lot of endurance, so you can train them hard. Here you cannot train them hard. If you start training them hard, the parents would start crying. They are looking closely whether their son is drinking enough water, and so on. Even if such student just does some training, he cannot go beyond a certain level, but they want him to learn more things. The thing is that parents are not really committed to the whole system. It’s just like a mid-gap. They are academic and the situation here is very metropolitan.

Another aspect in this particular training concerns the fact that students’ body types change, and out of a bigger group you can maybe get 2–3 students who are fully committed, who can go to the whole process and who have the type of body which is suitable for this; it’s a big challenge.

J: So, is there a big rotation of students?

S: Ideally, we say that there should be about 3 years of training. That is to introduce to the concepts, and then for those who continue further, it is different. Many students stay for these three years, but by that time they go to a new college, or move out for some reasons, different things happen. That is a big challenge. In the past, if 25 students joined on Navaratri Vidyarambam (a traditional day when new students are admitted to a kalari, it takes place during the Navaratri festival in October/November – JR-N), you would get 5–10 seriously practising students and you could train them further. And even if they were busy with other things too, they would keep coming to kalari for training, fully commited. But you don’t get them here, in the city.


J: In your opinion, is kalari getting more popular or is it on the same level all the time?

S: Popularity – I would not use this word as such. I would use awareness in terms of this particular tradition. Popularity is based on many other factors, but the awareness among people has been going down. In the 1980s, when my father started performing outside Kerala and India, and participating in some national programs, there was awareness among people about what was happening, what kalarippayattu was. There were articles coming, television shows, films; we were doing documentaries, television was coming and we were doing tv shows. These were the ways you could popularize a tradition.

It was the first time when Trivandrum people would see leg exercises, kicks, a particular style of stick fighting; before that they didn’t know them. Maybe they had understanding of kalari as a self-defence system, like ati murai (Tamil martial art based on striking vital points of the body – JR-N) and things like that, and kalari asans, or masters, were people who would rise fear among others because they had secret knowledge. Sometimes they were supposed to be very dangerous because they had a small stick hidden, although they were silent. That was imagination of people in Trivandrum.

Being in a southern Kerala society, the thing was to popularize a concept of northern Kerala kalari. My father built a traditional kalari here, so people started to see this space, the puttara (altar in a corner of a kalari – JR-N), and other concepts. Earlier, these things were not so present here. This was a part of popularization activities, but awareness of the roots of tradition was not very much there. That started happening when I started to work on films, like for example Oru Vadakkan Veeragatha (a very famous Malayalam movie from 1989 on Medieval history of Kerala and warriors of that time; it includes scenes in which kalarippayattu is used, for example at 41:55 – JR-N). 

We trained Mamoothi and other film stars for such movies and that time people started to understand what kind of tradition it was. That kind of popularization happened and there was an up and a decline, and I feel that now again there is a slight raise, but at the same time the focus is changing as the whole lifestyle is. That’s what I feel and that’s my approach to it.

Yesterday there were two guys from Mumbai doing some Indic research. They are creating a platform for people to learn traditional art forms of India, like martial arts, ayurveda, lifestyle, yoga, and other things like that. They want to put it into an international platform and then present it to foreigners, to kind of raise their awareness. So I asked them: „Why are you here for kalari? What do you know about kalari?” And they said: „We have learnt that kalari is a good physical concept system similar to yoga. That’s why we came”. So in this way there is a slight awareness but how can the art be done properly and systematically? Now there is an explosion of information. Everyone is on internet, doing one thing or another. So many people are doing yoga, kalari, different types of kalari mixed with yoga. I don’t know where it is going now. So according to me, popularizing kalari and raising awareness of it are two different things. Maybe you have to bring more awareness about the root practices and then use them in a person’s normal life.

J: As a kalari student and teacher, I have many questions and doubts about the process of teaching and introducing kalari to the Western students. Which elements of this tradition should we be strict about, and in which we can be more flexible, taking into account different lifestyle and culture? As you have much experience both in travelling and teaching kalari abroad, as well as teaching foreigners who come to CVN Kalari in Trivandrum, what are your observations and what should we be careful about while teaching kalari to foreigners?

S: This is really a big challenge now because in any traditional art there is a traditional way of teaching that is only there, but most of the time it is not like college learning where a teacher just introduces you to something. Here the teacher watches you changing, correcting a little bit every day – that is a traditional way of training. It has advantages and disadvantages that we have to understand first of all because you cannot say that all traditional things are good. Now I don’t think it’s possible these days. Secondly, you have to take into account some most important things hidden in the traditional way, and introduce them in a package to a new practitioner which I don’t think is a bad thing. They will come from a different background, so you have to package them in a different way. But there you need a deeper understanding of what is hidden in these systems. Unless you touch the core and then connect to that and go to the practice, it’s going to be difficult.

In one of the traditions in the northern style, called arappukai sampradayam which is a lineage of teaching followed by Kottakal Karnakaran and his students, an important element is meyirakkam – body training part, it’s the whole process. I want to emphasize this because most of the time even this meyirakkam is being introduced to Western countries in so many ways now. There is a big explosion of information now. People are saying: this movement is for the punch, and this punch is for navel, and they’re modyfing it in such a way that if a hundred people learn, there will be a hundred versions of that, and the root will be slightly different. So that is one challenge.

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Sathyanarayanan Gurukkal explaining details of a movement.

The second is how to package it – what I mean is that we are re-modelling the whole training process so that some theory and principles have to be there to provide some understanding. But there are some keys for one how to progress and it also has to be there, and also what should not be done. It means that if you introduce one form before a student reaches certain level, you will destroy him because you cannot go back to the roots and re-train him. There have to be certain keys for a student to progress and a teacher has to bring him to this practice. So instead of 20 years of training you can do it in 3 years if the body is good, the person is dedicated and has enough time to work on it, and the body is healthy. It means such person will be able to do it in three years, and she will connect to the form in a true sense. That is very important. This aspect has to be understood if we modify the practice.

Another thing is how to position it socially. It is also very important. In kalarippayattu it is a big challenge. It traditional kalaris, it is never positioned as a system to learn fighting. If you go to a kalari to learn fighting, it is not the right purpose of learning. Kalaris used to be temples of learning, where you go and do body exercises, you’re not talking about fighting or anything else. You go to kalari, apply oil and do body exercise which give you some benefits. Eventually you can become a professional fighter or a warrior – that is also possible but the root system is not originally intended to do that. That’s why I talk about this particular aspect, the meyirakkam, because it does not teach you any fighting as such, it is not taught as fighting. There are many elements in it which can be used in fighting like body centering, flexibility, force, use of energy – all these things are happening but you’re not teaching students to fight. If a student shows any intention of doing some kind of fighting, or any element of aggression, then the teacher will stop him; he will not only say that but he would give him heavy beating. An old master would break such a student down at the moment when he wanted to start to fight. That’s they way they used to train, because that’s how it has been socially positioned. It’s like a foundation for many things, it could even be daily living. That’s why in the West it’s very interesting, there is big interest among yoga students because they are looking for a new way of expression, new way of using their body, they try to connect with their inner self, inner dynamics. In kalari, it’s all there. In yoga it is there but in another way.

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First the outer forms, then the inner secrets – a short yet meaningful title of one of the chapters from Zarrilli’s book.

I often say that there are three kinds of body. One is vyayama sarira – a body that is used for daily living and exercises, a physical body. When I went one day to Pondicherry to give a guest lecture at Kalarigram (a centre dedicated to teaching kalarippayattu and traditional Indian arts run by masters from the Hindustan Kalari Sangham in Calicut – NR-N), there was one person from the US who came for two years to study kalari there. I went to a class and wanted to know what the interest of people training there was. I asked that person and he started to talk about different types of body, use of muscles and things. I agreed that definitely the vyayama sarira was there, but you cannot train just one part of the body separately, it has to be holistic. There are so many elements involved in kalari: the body, mind – all is there.

The second body is nadi sarira, how the body works on the nadi level (a nadi is an energy channel according to ayurveda and kalari chikitsa, systems of natural South Indian medicine – JR-N), and finally it’s prana sarira, or the yogic body. It is actually connected to the physical body but they do all these exercise not to become very proficient in doing exercises. Their aim is to relieve body from all the limitations of the body, and connect to the core, like the roots and all functions.

Kalari basically uses the nadi sarira, this is my understanding and approach. When we talk about the nadi sarira, it is not only about the nervous system but about the energy that is flowing inside. How you connect the flow, how you use it – that’s fundamental for me. So you can reach that level if you have a system for training properly, but it takes time and is not easy. There has to be a certain level achieved, and certain bodily and psychological inhibitions have to be broken down. Only then you can go inside and touch it. Once you do that, it has certain benefits. It can even help you to live in a normal society without being like a yogi. That’s the difference.

In the past I was very much interested in yoga. I was going to ashrams, taking these classes and so on. I went to my master and he asked me: „What is the purpose of life? Basically you are engaged in daily living, you are going to live as a family man. If you go deeper in yoga, everything will be changing. This kind of science is not meant for someone who is going to follow, let’s say, very materialistic way of living. I know many people who did this and they went crazy because there is a big conflict: the practice you do is for a higher level and then you have just a daily life, so many things can conflict in you, and sometimes you go crazy because of that. This practice is dangerous”. „But kalari, he said, is ideal for you because it has some elements of psychophysical integration, some training, some peacefulness, some spirituality, all that is built into that. But at the same time you’re using your body as a tool to survive in society in a healthy way. That way it’s OK”. If you go to a gym, you’re just pumping, weight-lifting, focus on muscularity. My father was telling me this already 40 years ago, when I was 20. He was giving a direction to where kalari would be socially positioned. That positioning is important, as well as the type of people who come to you.

Nowadays most of people who come to kalari have interest in such elements so that is a thing we must remember. It is really important how you position kalari socially. If you focus more on performance aspect, then the whole thing – the practice, the training system – collapses or gets clouded…

J: What I’m observing nowadays is that – when we talk about the physical level only – yoga practitioners realize they have to take up also some other physical activity in order to balance the yoga exercises which are based mainly on stretching, while typical fitness and weight-lifting persons or sport people who are used to certain patterns of movement take up mobility training or yoga, or stretching because they realize they have no coordination or flexibility. However, in kalari practice you have all these elements.

S: Yes. You have to understand that in kalarippayattu there is a system for training; it’s not just a kind of thing which you can see from a master and learn, look at him, observe and do that – it’s not like that.

cvn kalari training trivandrum
Students learn the postures and sequences of movements.

There is the whole system which can be taught to you individually. This system can be adapted to your body, starting from the very first leg exercises which you do. Things can be slightly and slowly modified so they suit your body. However what can happen is that some things can be lost. If there is too much focus on performance, foundations are forgotten and later the point is missing. The form has to be kept a little bit interesting, but still it is good to keep the kind of original training. It is not enough to watch YouTube.

A training system has to be put in the place, to connect to the body but keep foundations which require connecting to the center, before giving a student the next level. This kind of progression system has to be there. It can be now condensed, you don’t have to do it in 5 or 10 year programme. It used to be like that because teachers were like that.

Yesterday I listened to a story from The Mahabharata: four students went to a master and wanted to learn from him like in a gurukula (a traditional Indian system of learning where students would live with a master in his home and study for months or years – JR-N). He said: „I am a common man, a farmer, I don’t know anything”. Then these guys just were going around there. And it says the master took about three years to admit one person to his ashram. He said he had been just testing them to check if they were ready for such training. This kind of thing is not possible now.

Spiritual people have good intention, good direction. Once they have that direction, they can wait more, but they need a programme that can help them to come to that track. You are also a teacher, so this is a big challenge which you also face. We have some successes and failure also because some people have no patience to do so. Some people have not the type of body suitable for this. The mind will be good, but the body may not be good. This combination has to really work. It requires certain type of body also. A very hard, muscular body cannot do this, so you need to have a good balance. Kalari training does not need to be very demanding for everyone though. Some exceptionally good people can train it until a very high level, while others can do without that hard training. Both levels are possible. 

J: Thank you very much for the interview.

cvn kalari trivandrum sivasankaran nair justyna sathyanarayanan g.
From the right: Sankar, Sathyanarayanan G. Nair and myself. Although with Sankar we practice mainly the Southern style of kalarippayattu, we learn also some elements from the Northern style following the CVN Kalari tradition. We express our sincere thanks to Sathyan Gurukkal and his school for the trust, energy and time dedicated to us during our one-month visit in February 2023. We’re looking forward to our next meeting!


Sathyanarayanan Govindankutty Nair has been the leader, gurukkal (master) and secretary of the performing team of the CVN Kalari Sangham since January 2006. He is a full time gurukkal and physician at the Kalari Chikilsa Clinic at CVN Kalari, Trivandrum, Kerala, India. He started training in kalarippayattu at the age of 10 under his father Sri C.V. Govindan Kutty Nair Gurukkal, the son of Sri. C.V. Narayanan Nair, a great exponent of the martial art, credited for reviving the dying tradition of kalarippayattu in the 1950s. In 1981 and 1982 he won the State Kalarippayattu Championship competition. Since 1980 he has given kalarippayattu demonstrations at many national and international events (in Hong Kong, China, UK, France, Germany, Japan, USA, Canada). As a teacher, he has given kalarippayattu workshops at universities in India and abroad, and collaborated on numerous projects with researchers, actors, dancers as well as film and theatre artists (including Peter Brook and Phillip Zarrilli). In 2016, he was a guest lecturer and teacher during the BodyConstitution practical seminar on actor’s training organised by the Grotowski Institute in Wrocław, Poland.

For more information on CVN Kalari Sangham please visit the website.

You can also see the masters and practitioners of the CVN Kalari Sangham in some of the films featured in the  next article on kalari documentaries

I also recommend two recently published (April 2023) academic articles on kalarippayattu in the “Journal of Yoga Studies” :

  1. Lucy May Constantini “Firm Feet and Inner Wind: Introducing posture in the South Indian martial art, kaḷarippayaṟṟ ̆” (the author refers in her research to the CVN kalari lineage).
  2. Laura Silvestri “Managing Wind and Fire: Some remarks from a case study on kalarippayarr ̆”.