What does a kalari training look like?

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Kalarippayattu and Performing Arts

While in one of the previous articles I provided the blog readers with a subjective selection of documentaries on kalarippayattu, this time I would like to talk a little about the relationship between this Keralan martial art and theatre, dance, film and actor’s training.

The articles features among others some examples of theatre performances, films, lectures and interviews in which kalarippayattu is mentioned or used as one of the tools of artistic or personal expression.

I also touch this topic in my ebook on kalari, but the obvious advantage of the blog is that the videos that illustrate the text can be watched just along reading it. 

Still, the article does not exhaust the subject, nor does it have the ambition to do so – it touches on a very broad and complex issue. In the course of working on the text and illustrative material, every now and then some interesting, important and engaging threads emerged around which further articles could be written.

I hope though that it will highlight and, to a certain extent, show the various interdisciplinary possibilities of the coexistence of martial art and performing arts, both in the context of training and psycho-physical preparation of performers, as well as strictly performance activity. There are many options: traditional and modern, popular and independent, as well as local and global.

Asian traditions

It is worth mentioning that the performative aspect of martial arts can be found not only in the case of kalarippayattu, but also in other, especially Asian, forms of theatre and dance. For example, Chinese wushu techniques are linked to the training of Peking opera actors, ancient Japanese martial arts have left their mark in kabuki theatre, while the Balinese baris dance has its origins in a local military training. In some of them, elements of martial arts training are implemented into actor-dance training to improve the performers’ condition and agility, and also spectacular fight scenes can be important part of a performance itself .

Take, for example, the popular fight scene in the dark from a Peking Opera performance:

In addition, the local traditions of various regions or countries also include some war dances and movement plays using various martial arts elements such as movement, props or costumes. This is also the case in Kerala, where it is still common today to find these types of plays (e.g. kolkali, porkali or visakali – more on these dances here) during festivals or celebrations.

Kerala tradition

astad deboo thang-ta studio kalari
Dancer Astad Deboo in rehearsal with thang-ta artists, Imphal 2007.

In India, connections to the martial arts can be seen for example in thang-ta and dances from the north-eastern state of Manipur (one of India’s most famous contemporary dancers, the late Astad Deboo, used to collaborate with thang-ta master Ranjeet Chingthan and his students) or parikhanda (martial art that uses a sabre) and chhau dance from the borderlands of Bengal, Orissa and Jharkhand. However, the most famous connection is between kalarippayattu and the various performing arts practised in Kerala.

Arts directly related to kalarippayattu include kathakali, one of the classical forms of Indian theatre-dance, which originated in Kerala in the 16th century and was first performed by Nayars, soldiers trained in kalarippayattu, who were able to dance in performances for hours, often all (and many) night, wearing heavy costumes.

In the following two videos, we can see an example of kathakali actor-dancer’s training, which includes some exercises taken from the kalarippayattu training and, in the second part, also the body-strengthening and flexibility massages to which adepts of both arts are seasonally subjected.

Indian contemporary dance

For decades now, kalarippayattu has been often combined with both various types of Indian classical dance as well as with other, modern forms of artistic expression. Again, this relation usually takes two forms: it is an element of actor-dance training, which, among other things, improves the artist’s body and sharpens their concentration and attentiveness to the environment, and/or gestures, movements or fragments of sequences taken from kalarippayattu training are used in choreography or stage movement.

A very important figure in this movement, and one of its pioneers, was Chandralekha (1928–2006), an Indian artist, dancer, choreographer and activist. In an innovative way, she combined classical bharatanatyam dance with elements of kalarippayattu, yoga and other arts, which shocked many of her compatriots years ago and at the same time earned her recognition abroad. Her performances, repeatedly presented all over the world, have been recognised as an example of Indian modern dance.

For twenty years, her collaborator was an experienced practitioner and kalarippayattu teacher, Shaji K. John Gurukkal, son of master E.P. Vasudeva Gurukkal, who has been teaching kalarippayattu in Chennai since 1998 and also runs numerous workshops in India and abroad. He described his experience of working with Chandralekha in his book Chandralekha: In the Voice of the Other (Notion Press, 2022).

The following film is a short documentary, combining the artist’s statements about her work with excerpts from her performances and rehearsals.

Another artist who has combined her over 40 years of bharatanatyam dance practice with kalarippayattu is performer, researcher and writer Gitanjali Kolanad, co-founder of IMPACT (Indian Martial and Performance Arts Collective of Toronto). She shares her personal and professional experiences of these fields in articles (for example here) and interviews, as well as in author meetings, lectures and artist residencies. In the lecture below, she talks about the relationship between dance and fight (if you are interested in a scientific research of martial arts, I recommend the activities of the Martial Arts Studies Research Network).

A Kerala example of a contemporary fusion of dance and kalarippayattu is the work of Samudra Performing Arts, founded in 1998 and based in the Kerala capital, Thiruvananthapuram. The core of the company is made up of two dancers and choreographers, Madhu Gopinath and Vakkom Sajeev, who invite a wider range of artists to collaborate on various projects. Both learnt kalarippayattu at CVN Kalari Sangam from master Govindankutty Gurukkal. They have received many awards for their artistic and educational work in the field of contemporary dance.

As an example of their style, I propose an excerpt from the performance The Cosmic Dance of Shiva:


Of course, kalarippayattu could not be missing from films – be it a Malayalee, Indian or foreign production. Although not yet on a large scale, some are hoping that it is film that will bring Kerala art to greater prominence.

Thus, we have some old films in Malayalam (that is Mollywood) such as the best-known classic from 1989: Oru Vadakkan Veeragatha (A Nothern Ballad of Valour), evoking the history of the 16th-century Kerala and the tense situation between both entire principalities and individual warriors. The film shows numerous scenes of kalarippayattu practice performed by children (27:38) and adults (37:30), as well as duels (e.g. 42:24, 43:17 – here a woman fights), the last of which ends the film. The lead role was played by one of Kerala’s most popular actors, Mammoothy.

Another historical film, this time depicting the history of the 17th century Kerala, is 2019’s Mamangam, also starring Mammoothy (trailer).

In 2020, on the initiative of a kalarippayattu master Ranjan Mullaratt, who runs the Kalari Gurukulam School in Bengaluru, the film Dhehi was made, particularly with the aim of making kalarippayattu more recognizable. The film tells the story of a kalari master and his disciple. As the makers of the film point out, apart from the main objective of presenting kalarippayattu as an art and a way of life to a wider audience, it is also meant to inspire girls and women to follow their path and realise their own goals, which the practice of kalarippayattu can support. Check out the trailer here:

High hopes of spreading kalarippayattu through the silver screen are pinned on Vidyut Jammwal, a popular Bollywood actor who appears in thriller films in which, in addition to his impressive musculature and attractive appeal, he uses his skills acquired through years of practising kalarippayattu and other martial arts.

Jammwal has made a name for himself with a series of action films, Commando, in which he himself appears in fight scenes without the help of stunts. Another film featuring him is 2019’s Junglee, directed by Chuck Russell (Mask). In addition, he uploads some videos on his YouTube channel in which he demonstrates various exercises taken from, among other things, kalarippayattu. Here we can read an interview with the actor, in which he talks about his experience with kalarippayattu, and below we can see him in action. Will he become India’s Bruce Lee? We shall see.

The most well-known non-Indian example of a popular film featuring kalarippayattu is 2005’s The Myth with Jack Chan. One scene features the current CVN Kalari Sangham master from East Fort in Thiruvananthapuram, Sathyanarayanan G Nair.

Through theatre to kalari

The relationship between kalarippayattu and the performing arts is particularly important from a foreigner’s point of view because it is often through the relationship with theatre and dance that kalari is made known outside Kerala or India. Particularly in the 1960s and 1970s, Western directors and theatre scholars travelled to India to watch theatre and dance performances first-hand, participate in rituals, experience religious and spiritual practices, and study the training of performers both in Kerala and in other parts of India.

These artists included Eugenio Barba (1936–), Jerzy Grotowski (1939–1999), Richard Schechner (1934–), Peter Brook (1925–2022) and Phillip B. Zarrilli (1947–20200), who despite his initial focus on kathakali studies was the first foreigner to undertake kalarippayattu practice and academic research on this art on such a large scale: he conducted field research between 1976 and 1993 and is the author of the best-known book on kalarippayattu: When the Body Becomes All Eyes. Paradigms, Discourses and Practices of Power in Kalarippayattu, a South Indian Martial Art.

Zarrilli was a director, actor, teacher and university researcher, theorist and practitioner who explored tai chi and yoga in his work on actor training alongside kalarippayattu. We can see an excerpt from his classes in a short video by one of the participants, Lindsay Gear:

Since then, on the one hand, there has been an increase in people from the artistic community (but not only) travelling to India to experience the practice of kalarippayattu at its source, and on the other hand, adepts or masters have been invited to other regions of India or countries with demonstrations, parades or workshops, often as part of festivals, sport events or artistic collaborations.

Many individual artists from outside India – especially dancers, actors, and other performers – participate in kalarippayattu trainings and workshops in order to later apply the knowledge and skills drawn from the Kerala system of work with body, spirit and mind in their own creative and teaching activities, as well as process of their personal growth.

Kalari and horses

A unique example of creative collaboration between international kalarippayattu performers and theatre makers is the 2000 performance Triptych by the sub-Parisian horse theatre Zingaro, directed by Bartabas. In musical terms, the performance was based on Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and Symphony of Psalms and Pierre Boulez’s Dialogue de l’ombre double. The ensemble of performers included horses, riders, dancers and 7 Indian kalarippayattu practitioners invited to participate in this project.

Several of them hailed from the school of the aforementioned master, Vasudeva Gurukkal. Some of the Keralans who took part in Triptych (such as Sreenivasan Eddapurath and Shyne Tharappel) decided to stay after the project in France or in Europe in general to teach kalarippayattu and to take part in other artistic projects (for example, Eddapurath led a workshop during the Gdansk Dance Festival in 2011), and thus also contributed to the recognition of kalarippayattu in Europe.

As for Triptych itself, I highly recommend watching this spectacular, beautiful performance of exceptional dynamics, in which all the elements – the theme of pagan rituals, the movements of animals, the costumes and make-up of the performers, as well as the choreography that makes direct use of the elements of kalarippayattu (among others, the positions of animals, including – of course – the horse, ashwa vadivu) – harmonise perfectly with each other. It is worth mentioning that the only performance of the Zingaro Theatre in Poland so far took place in 2008 at the Malta Festival in Poznań (the performance “Battuta” was presented).

Performing arts education in India …

Because of the versatility of kalarippayattu training and the possibility of using it in acting and dance training, attempts are being made to integrate this martial art more systemically into arts education. This is especially true of the part of this system called meipayattu, which covers the preparation of the body through various exercises and movement sequences.

For example, the National School of Drama – India’s largest national theatre college with headquarters in New Delhi and branches in several cities – organises kalarippayattu workshops for its students, although this can best be seen in the activities of independent centres that combine education, research and artistic projects in various ways.

One such organisation is the Attakkalari Centre for Movement Arts in Bengaluru – a centre that trains dancers and actors, which also has its own art troupe, creates performances and organises many educational and artistic events related mainly to dance, but also other arts, and kalarippayattu training is a regular part of the centre’s programme. The founder of Attakkalari is a Keralan, Jaychandran Pallazhy – I highly recommend this interview with him, in which he talks in detail about Attakkalari, his roots, his plans and the history of Indian contemporary dance. The Polish accent in his biography is his visit to the International Contemporary Dance Conference/Festival ‘Ecotopes of Culture’ in 2014, held in Katowice and Bytom, during which, incidentally, he also met Sankar.

One of the Attakkalari’s endeavours has been the release of a DVD, which contains a set of texts, as well as numerous videos showcasing various elements of the system as performed by representatives from several schools of kalarippayattu, including those from CVN Kalari Sangham, EPV Kalari and Hindustan Kalari Sangham.

The latter school, based in Kozhikode, Kerala, has also established its centre under the name Kalarigram in Auroville, Tamilnadu. Kalarigram hosts regular kalarippayattu trainings, but also organises courses and residencies for organised groups, as well as festivals and other cultural and artistic projects, where participants take part in kalarippayattu trainings, lessons in various genres of performing arts, and watch shows and performances. In addition, the centre has several research projects dedicated to kalarippayattu and its relationship to dance, culture and history.

kalarippajattu sztuki performatywne studio kalari
A kalarippayattu session at Theatre House in Bollopur, 2005/2006.

On the other hand, the village of Bollopur near Santiniketan, Bengal, is the base of the Milon Mela group: Theatre House, run by Abani Biswas, who worked with Jerzy Grotowski in the late 1970s and early 1980s during the Theatre of Sources period. For many years, the group visited Europe (especially Italy) with workshops and performances, and every winter at their Bengali headquarters they organised several weeks of creative work sessions, combining the practice of traditional art forms (e.g. kalarippayattu, chhau dance, baul songs) with contemporary acting techniques and theatrical-cultural explorations. Workshops of this kind are still held there, and Indian and foreign artists are invited to collaborate in addition to representatives of traditional arts.

Incidentally, I also got to know kalarippayattu for the very first time thanks to Milon Mela’s workshops, when they were held in 2004 at the forest base of the Grotowski Institute in Brzezinka (see this article for more on this).

… and in Wrocław

In the context of artistic education, it is worth mentioning the BodyConstitution project carried out in 2013–2016 by the Grotowski Institute in Wrocław in collaboration with theatre schools from Oslo and Wrocław, which was mainly aimed at students of these universities, but also partly open to a bigger audience. As part of the project, in addition to work sessions of a strictly theatrical nature, there were also regular trainings and occasional workshops in martial arts – kalarippajattu, aikido and capoeira.

kalarippajattu sztuki performatywne
Raam Kumar runs a kalarippayattu session during the BodyConstitution seminar. The Grotowski Institute, Wrocław, 2016.

The project’s final seminar, in April 2016, included a kalarippayattu workshop led by representatives of CVN Kalari Sangham in Thiruvananthapuram: master Sathyanarayanan G Gurukkal, Rajasekharan Nair and Raam Kumar, who combines dance, acting and kalarippayattu in his professional artistic work.


Finally, I would like to mention four short films that combine elements of documentary with the artistic vision of the director to create beautiful impressions on the practice of kalarippayattu. They were made at the Kalarigram centre and are directed by Indian filmmaker Naveed Mulki.

In all the films, the narrative layer is important, combining the words of the films’ protagonists and the director. The personal testimonies of masters, students and practitioners are moving, giving insight into the unspoken on a daily basis and making us think about our personal approach to practice.

The protagonist of the first film, Silence, is Anjana, a bharatanatyam dancer and kalarippayattu adept who combines the practice of both arts.

A Conversation with Fear features a kalarippayattu master Radhika Gurukkal, who talks about her process of dealing with fear.

In The Inner Voice of a Guru, we witness a scene in which a master gives a correction to his disciple and explains the correct form.

In The Demons We Fight, we accompany one of Kalarigram’s adepts as he shares a reflection on his inner struggle – an experience many of us are familiar with.

The last image of I, Human. We, Divine / Yo, Humana. Nosotros, Divinos is dedicated to Carolina Prague, a chhau dancer, who talks about her spiritual approach to dance.

As I mentioned at the beginning of the article, this is a general overview of the areas in which kalarippayattu can exist in a performing arts context. As many artists, probably as many ways to research this combination. If you’re curious about this topic and want to share your insights, email me – I’d love to read and learn something from you.

8 best documentaries on kalarippayattu

If one picture is worth a thousand words, what about eight pictures? What’s more, 8 pictures in motion? We can write and say a lot about kalarippayattu, but when the subject is still little known and its essence – the movement – is difficult to describe, sometimes it is just better to just see a video.

It is also good to do this if one has attended some kalari trainings but has never been to Kerala and has not experienced the practice in the cradle of this art, as well as even when we have experience from India but need to refresh our energy and approach. Seeing and listening to a master is always valuable (even on YouTube).

Of course, there are plenty of longer and shorter videos on the web: documentaries, tutorials, presentations, online lessons and so on. My personal selection includes documentaries I consider the most interesting; through which one can get to know more about the system itself and the culture from which it originates. They are not tutorials or feature films that use, for example, staged fights (i.e. old Kerala/Mollywood films or action films with Jack Khan, Vidyut Jamwal, etc. – it’s a topic for another article).  

The older documentaries, recorded between ca. 1958–1990, mentioned here show exercises and sequences, contain interviews with masters and students, as well as additional information given by a voiceover. Their value is in showing the past of Kerala and the old style of practice, as well as the statements of the masters – this aspect is particularly valuable.

The documentaries made in the 1990s and the 21st century are made in a different style: we accompany their main characters (foreigners), who often are the authors and producers of the films, on their journey to Kerala and their first steps in kalari. We follow them in their practice, observing often hard experiences and at the same time we learn various details about both the system’s past and present.

Each film touches on similar topics (history of kalari, elements of the system, links with performing arts and natural South Indian medical systems), yet is unique in its own way and presents kalari from a slightly different perspective. 

Next to each film, I provide basic information about the film and its duration, so that you can plan your screening or immediately switch on one after the other…

1. Martial Dances of Malabar

Year of production: 1985 (includes footage from 1957)
Language: English
Duration: 13’57

The linked video is an excerpt from a 1985 documentary, which in turn features extracts from the 1957 film “Martial Dances of Malabar”, directed by Paul Zils. One can see there what the practice looked like in the mid-20th century. The footage captures movement and combat sequences performed by children and older students, men and women, as well as foot massage in a school stemming from the CVN Kalari lineage.

The last few minutes of the recording take us back to 1985 to CVN Kalari Sangham in Trivandrum, where a fragment of training and an interview with master Govindankutty Nair was also recorded (for more on this school, see the interview with Govindankutty Nair’s son, Master Sathyanarayanan G. Nair).

2. The Way of the Malabar Warrior

Year of production: 1982
Language: English
Duration: 35’15
Direction: Pervez Merwanji

The film tells the story of kalarippajattu based on one of the most famous masters: Shri Chirakkal T. Shreedharan Nair and his school. We learn about the next elements of training, massage, history and art of Kerala, among others.

3. The Way of the Warrior: Kalari, the Indian Way

Year of production: 1983
Language: English
Duration: 39’42
Series authors: Michael Croucher and Howard Reid

The film is one episode in a series of films produced by the BBC on Asian martial arts. 

The documentary introduces the different styles and schools of kalarippayattu, includes interviews with masters (including Vasudevan Gurukkal and Madhavan Asan, with whom Sankar studied), shows the reality of kalari practice in the 1980s, both in the countryside and in the city, and a large part is also devoted to the medical aspect.

4. Die Kämpfer der Kriegsgöttin

Title translation: Warriors of the God of War
Year of production: 1996
Language: German
Duration: 48’29
Direction: Thomas Wartmann

In the documentary produced by German TV Kabel 1/Pro 7, we accompany kickboxer Joppe Lemmens on his trip to Kerala and his study of kalari with master Sherif Gurukkal in Kannur.

Apart from training and the various customs associated with kalari, we also watch, among other things, a spectacular theyyam ritual and take part in a competition. Apart from the value of information provided, the film is well made from an aesthetic point of view.

5. Kalarippayattu. The Art of Payattu (Fight)

Year of production: 2002
Language: English
Duration: 17’31
Direction: Sajeev Pillai

The film was produced by the CCRT (Centre for Cultural Resources and Training), an Indian government organisation that promotes indigenous culture and traditions.

We visit several kalarippayattu schools where we watch both some training and fight demonstrations, listen to interviewed masters (including Govindankutty Nair of CVN Kalari Sangham, Balanchandran Gurukkal of the Indian School of Martial Arts), watch a Kerala theyyam ritual and a kathakali performance, as well as fragments of kathakali training (kalarippayattu students will immediately recognize some exercises) and full body massage.

6. Les arts martiaux

Title translation: The Martial Arts
Year of production: 2015
Language: French
Duration: 22’31
Direction: Mélanie Dion

A documentary made for French TV5 Monde as part of the programme series ‘Des ecoles pas comme les autres’ (‘Schools like no other’). Together with the host of the programme, Julie Laferrière, we visit the Kalari Gurukulam school in Bengaluru, where Ranjan Mullarat is the master.

Apart from presenting the various elements of training and massage and explaining their details, the film includes many statements from the master and his students, showing the functioning of the school and its importance to the community around it.

7. 30 Days Training Kalaripayattu In India [kicks]

Year of production: 2018
Language: English
Duration: 11’03
Authors: Dragons Warriors

Another video where we have guides on a journey to Kerala and exploring kalarippayattu. They are Basia and Dani, a Polish-Colombian couple who travel, train and b/vlog.

They have created a series of videos dedicated to kalarippayattu (see links below) and Basia is also the author of blog articles based on them. In each episode, they focus on a different aspect of the practice, but mostly they test, show and explain the different elements of the training: exercises, positions and movement sequences, as well as some rituals and customs that accompany the practice. The authors trained kalari at a school belonging to the CVN Kalari lineage and among the videos there is also an interview with one of the descendants of the famous master C.V. Narayan Nair.

Other films by Basia and Dani dedicated to their kalari experience in Kerala:

Kalari animal exercises LINK
Puttara salutation (thozhal) LINK
Interview with master Raam Kumar LINK
General experience LINK

8. Kalaripayattu Documentary | A visit to Ayodhana Kalari Bangalore

Year of production: 2022
Language: English
Duration: 55’24
Author: The Flowing Dutchman

The latest of the films in this set is also made as participant observation, i.e. we come to a kalari with the filmmaker, talk to the master and start the practice. This time we accompany Harbert Ekberts, known as The Flowing Dutchman, popular for his commitment in reviving old training practices that use various types of mace (new incarnations of the old Indian and Persian traditions are coming back to gyms).

The Dutchman visits the Ayodhana Kalari school in Bengaluru, where he conducts an interesting interview with the school’s master, Manoj Kumar, and also takes his first steps in training.

This list certainly doesn’t exhaust the cinematic resources of the internet or the TV and private archives, but I think it provides a deeper look into kalari as a profound, holistic system of body work, of which the martial aspect is just one of many that it includes.

If you want to share your opinion on any of these documentaries, or know of another worthwhile film on kalarippayattu, please leave a comment below.

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.

cvn kalari
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). 

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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 ̆”.

Launch of the book: Kalarippayattu. A Holistic Martial Art from India

A book launch dedicated to Kalarippayattu. A Holistic Martial Art from India written by myself took place on 21.10.2022 at the Spanish Bookshop in Wrocław.

książka kalarippajattu rodzińska-nair
From the printing house to home. The first edition is ready.

For me, this meeting was the culmination of almost 2 years of work on the book. The whole process started in February 2021, and the first print run of 200 copies arrived at our home in September 2022. However, even though I was already handing out or sending out copies to the first readers (usually those who participated in the crowd-funding campaign set up for the printing of the book and the preparation of the Polish and English e-book – it is still on if you wish to participate), I felt that only the book launch – that is, the live contact with readers and people interested in the topic – was the real inauguration of the book and the closure of a certain phase.

książka o kalari book
From left: Justyna and Nina. Phot. Gianluca Olcese

The launch was led by PhD Nina Budziszewska, a yoga researcher, head of the postgraduate course in classical yoga and assistant professor in the Department of Indian Philology at the University of Wrocław, indologist, philosopher and romanist, blogger (www.atelierjogi.com), author of the book Himalaya. In Search of Yogis (Sensus, 2019), in which she combines yoga theory with her personal experience of practice, as well as a travel diary. She is passionate about conscious movement in many forms.

Many people came to the meeting, including of course family, friends and students of Studio Kalari, but also unknown people interested in the topic.

książka o kalari book
Kalari presentation. Phot. Gianluca Olcese

In addition to basic information about the history of the martial art and the training system, I talked about the relationship of kalarippayattu (kalari for short) with ayurveda, theatre and yoga, among other things. After the talk, there was time for questions from the audience, and the whole event ended with a short kalari demonstration performed by myself and our eldest daughter, Maja.

Kalarippajattu. Holistyczna sztuka walki z Indii
Polish version: Kalarippayattu. Holistic Martial Art from India

Kalarippayattu. A Holistic Martial Art from India is the first book on kalari in Poland (published by Studio Kalari in 2022). It presents one of the oldest martial arts in the world in an accessible way, combining theory and practice: chapters on history and the contemporary situation, theory of the system, culture and related topics (medical system, dance, yoga) are complemented by graphics and charts, as well as more than 250 photos, of which about 150 present typical postures, exercises, movement and combat sequences. The book is written from a research and practical perspective, also showing the non-obvious aspects of kalari in personal threads.

Below you can find some pictures from the launch, mostly taken by Gianluca Olcese.

There is also a video recording as the meeting was streamed online and registered, so if anyone is curious about the details, they can watch the video below. However, it is in Polish only.

kalari ebook rodzinska-nairThe Polish printed version and e-book are already available in our online shop.

The English e-book will be available in December 2022.

Polish books can be also purchased in:

All Summer Schools of Studio Kalari

summer school studio kalari 2022
Summer School, Struzyny 2022

The summer school is, next to the winter practice in India, our most important training trip of the year (especially during the pandemic that interrupted the annual trips to Kerala). We approach it differently from other, usually shorter workshops, trying to create the best possible conditions for kalari practice, which is the main goal of the school.

In this article, I want to share with you a brief history of our summer schools but also to mention which specific aspects we have kept  until today.


studio kalari workshop grotowski institute
Kalari workshop in summer 2010 at the Studio Na Grobli, Wrocław

We founded Studio Kalari in May 2010 under the auspices of the Grotowski Institute in Wrocław and already the same year we organised two 5-day summer workshops. They were held in Wrocław at one of the Grotowski Institute’s premises, Studio na Grobli. The participants came there only for the classes, which took place in the mornings and afternoons, but they did not live together and actually met only during the trainings. Some of them then came only for one workshop, but some participated in both events. Some of them have practised kalari since then and/or have been in contact with us.

Summer schools in Brzezinka (2011–2018)

Brzezinka kalari workshop grotowski institute
Brzezinka, the forest base of the Grotowski Institute

The following year, 2011, however, we decided to organise the first retreat-like workshop, taking advantage of the fact that the Institute had a forest seat in Brzezinka near Oleśnica. This site, as well as the nearby Ostrowina, hosted, among others, paratheatre activities and the Theatre of Sources project led by Jerzy Grotowski between 1971 and 1981. After some following years of disuse, the building in Brzezinka was renovated and since 2002 various workshops and artistic residencies have been held there.

summer school kalari
Summer School in Brzezinka, 2015

The building houses bedrooms, bathrooms, a kitchen and a large workshop room on the ground floor and a smaller one upstairs. Although it stands close to the road (which can be heard in the distance but not seen), it is practically surrounded by forest. A stream runs right past the house, and a little further on there is a pond, which is more to the taste of anglers, but if you really want, it’s possible to swim there too. Due to the distance from civilisation (the shop is a dozen or so kilometres away, and you have to walk a bit through the woods and fields to reach the nearest neighbours), as well as the poor range and internet (on the phone), the atmosphere in Brzezinka is conducive to focus on speciphic activities held there, but also relaxation, tranquillity, as well as forgetting about everyday world affairs and the surrounding information noise. A few days in such circumstances, together with kalari practice, simple food and a friendly atmosphere, allowed for an energy reset and a strong focus on training. Of course, there were surprises such as mice in the kitchen, clogged toilets and cold water in the showers, but everyone would accept that just as part of the whole adventure.

Kalari and bharatanatyam

summer school of studio kalari
Bharatanatyam presentation by Agnieszka Kapelko and her students, Brzezinka 2012

For our first school in 2011, we invited a bharatanatyam dancer and teacher Agnieszka Kapelko, founder of the Mayura dance group.

The whole day was filled with classes: twice daily kalari and twice dance. Participants could choose to take part in all the classes (almost 8 hours a day in total) or just dance or just martial arts. The school lasted five full days, which proved to be far too little. That’s why the following year we decided to extend the school to full 7 training days with arrival and departure planned on extra days.

Kalari and kuchipudi

summer school of studio kalari
Chitrangee Uppamah in kuchipudi presentation with her students, Brzezinka 2015

We continued this model of school – martial art and dance – until 2018. At the end of each school, on the last evening, the dance group presented the extraordinary results of their intense week-long work. Agnieszka was still teaching in 2012 and 2013, and then in 2014 and 2015 we were accompanied by a Mauritian kuchipudi dancer of Indian origin living in Italy, Chitrangee Uppamah.

summer school studio kalari workshops
Jumping practice, Brzezinka 2016

For the participants of the school in 2015 even 7 days were not enough, so in 2016 we were persuaded to extend the school again – this time to 10 days. However, it turned out that we had overdone it and very few people could come for such a long period and in order for the school to take place, we exceptionally agreed to join the workshop after it had started or leave before it had finished. However, it turned out to be quite an uncomfortable experience for everyone.

summer school of studio kalari
Summer School in Brzezinka, 2016

During a workshop, the group works and lives together, a specific atmosphere is created and a learning and integration process takes place according to its own dynamics. The commuting and departure of participants disrupts this rhythm and human constellation. Among other things, we have always been keen to ensure that those who come are fully focused on participating in the school and do not treat it as just one point on their tourist map. However it has happened to us several times since then that the requirement to be present on all days has been insurmountable for some participants-to-be. However, while for shorter events, such as weekend workshops, we do not place as much importance on 100% attendance, the summer school is an exception.

Going back to 2016, we eventually got a group of people willing to attend the kalarippayattu training, but to our great regret Chitra’s arrival and her dance class had to be cancelled.

Kalari and kathakali

studio kalari summer school kathakali workshop
Mario Barzaghi in a kathakali presentation, Brzezinka 2018

As a result of that experience, in 2017 we decided to return to the formula of 7 days of practice + 2 days for getting there and back, which worked best. The guest artist invited to teach during the last two schools held in Brzezinka, in 2017 and 2018, was the Italian director and actor, as well as kathakali dancer, Mario Barzaghi. He was accompanied by Rosalba Genovese and Maria Rita Simone, who together with him form the company Teatro dell’Albero.

summer school studio kalari workshop
Evening fire-show, Brzezinka 2015

As in previous years, dance classes were interspersed with kalarippayattu training. We often spent our evenings by the fire: by bonfires, by the fireplace in the dining room or learning the fire dance, during which, among other things, the two ends of the sticks we had learned to spin during the training sessions were set on fire.

summer school studio kalari workshop
Afternoon chill for participants unless they were mothers ;-), Brzezinka 2014

As Sankar and I were young parents (our children were born in 2009, 2012 and 2014), we were accompanied by a babysitter at the schools for several years, and there were also other young mothers with their children or whole families among the participants. Children and dogs (our own and those of participants) have always been completing the summer school groups.

Summer schools in Strużyny (from 2019 onwards)

As our collaboration with the Grotowski Institute came to an end in 2018, there was a need to find a venue for the next summer school, which was to take place in 2019.

We found support from a friend of mine and president of the Society for Active Culture, Jola Sakowska. We established cooperation with her both in terms of holding regular classes in Wrocław and summer schools, which we started to organise at the Society’s rural base, in Strużyny near Gorzów Wielkopolski. In this way, history has come full circle, as I myself used to come to Strużyny for various art and theatre workshops when I was still a high school student in 2000–2002.

Kalari and nature

summer school struzyny studio kalari
Summer School in Strużyny 2020

Sankar and I decided that during the following summer schools we would focus only on kalarippayattu and not combine this practice with other activities. This gave both participants and teachers time to recuperate and relax, but also to enjoy the beauty of nature, which in a way became a co-creator of the school.

While for all its charm Brzezinka was a house tucked away in a rather dark and damp forest, Strużyny is a place full of light and open space. They have a slightly different character to Brzezinka as apart from ‘our’ house, there are several others here: a seasonal agritourism farm, a seasonal children’s holiday centre, 2 abandoned houses and one farm where Mrs Stenia reigns supreme. There is plenty of free, quiet space, forests and fields nearby, and there are also many very clean lakes within a few kilometres. Here, too, there is a break from the hustle and bustle and concrete, and the many closer and farther corners of the house and surroundings offer opportunities for both spending time in company of other participants, or on your own.

studio kalari summer school
Cooking together, Strużyny 2020

One element of staying at the school is preparing meals together (and cleaning up afterwards), which is an additional, though not the easiest, element to integrate participants. Since we use simple houses with no permanent staff (unlike many yoga retreats or sports camps), we become their hosts and participating guests, so to speak. On the one hand, such a choice makes us feel at ease and non-hotel-like; on the other hand, it comes with a certain responsibility. Usually, however, one part of the group feels like a fish in the water in the kitchen, while the other part, that faces the cooking task with less enthusiasm, follows the new chefs with relief, and thus they complement each other.

Daily schedule

Studio Kalari exercises training kicks
Morning training, Strużyny 2020

What does our day look like at the summer school? Usually we get up around 7 a.m., have water/tea/coffee, the first training session lasts from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. After that we have breakfast and free time (apart from those with the kitchen duty) until lunch (around 2.30 p.m.). After lunch, free time again, ending with an energetic afternoon snack (tea/coffee and something sweet), followed by the second training session, which lasts about 2-2.5 hours. The class finishes around 8 p.m. Then dinner, chatting, walking, reading and time for bed.

studio kalari summer schol
Afternoon is filled with sequences of movement, Strużyny 2020

It may not seem like much: only four hours of training a day, but kalari training is intense and dynamic, and proper recovery is necessary, as well as nutrition. The level and intensity of the classes is adjusted to the participants: beginners practice at a slower pace, learn new positions and exercises, and are exposed to many new elements of the practice, which uses up a lot of energy on a physical as well as mental level. Advanced practitioners do the same, only faster and more: they refine complex sequences and learn new ones, as well as repeat and learn new empty-hand and weapon combats and levers. In addition, Sankar often weaves mini-lectures on anatomy and physiology into the workouts, referring to the natural systems of Indian medicine: ayurveda and kalari chikitsa.


szkoła letnia studia kalari
Summer School in Strużyny, 2021

Every year, the group of participants in the summer school is a mixture of complete beginners with no experience in kalarippayattu, people practising fairly regularly in Wrocław, as well as people with more or less experience in practice who do not have the opportunity to practise with us regularly and the school is a unique opportunity for them to practice. The make-up of the group is almost always international, and the list of participants starts to fill up even before we officially announce the intake (although of course there is always some rotation on it). This year (2023), participants will come to us from Slovakia, Switzerland, Spain, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and the United States and, of course, Poland – we can’t wait to see them and start the school! 


Photos by: Rut Figueras, Irena Lipińska, Magdalena Mądra, Dominik Płatek, Justyna Rodzińska-Nair, Arnau Vidal, Maciej Zakrzewski.

Information and registration to the 13th Summer School in July 2023

Regularity of kalari practice

During the recent Summer School of Studio Kalari, the following question came up: how often should I train if I practise kalari online? The reflex answer would be: every day (the same concerns in-person trainings). But is it really so? In this article, I would like to address this question and perhaps dispel the myth of the glory of daily workouts, whether online or in-person.

What influences regularity

Regularity of practice is actually a very complex issue that is influenced by, among others, the time of year, the time of day, the individual predisposition and health of the person (overall and on any given day), age and lifestyle (family, work), as well as the purpose of the exercise.

A young, lively boy will have a different practice rhythm than a young girl (who is affected among others by menstruation cycle); a working young parent (especially a sleep-deprived mother) will have a different rhythm than a person who is free to use her time, but suffers from a knee injury or leads an irregular lifestyle filled with stress, bad food and disturbed sleep. Professional athletes follow different rhythm than amateurs.

There is no one perfect pattern for everyone, but there are certainly a lot of beliefs about how and how much one should exercise, with enormous social pressure striving for the ideal pattern. Quick and long-lasting results are expected, without reflection and analysis of one’s situation, as well as the processes within and around oneself.

On the other hand, it is also not a matter of exercising occasionally or letting go of physical activity under the pretext of busyness, fatigue, illness or lack of need to move. Physical exercise is essential for the body to function properly, both for physiological and mental processes, and has – in a broader perspective – an impact on our state of mind. Perhaps these issues are obvious to the readers of this blog, but maybe someone is just at a point in their life where they need to take a moment to reflect on their current situation and make some changes to the way they function. Perhaps we also know this in theory, but for various reasons (e.g. habit, haste, lack of ideas, low body awareness) we fail to implement more beneficial habits. It may be that it is only a crisis or injury that makes us reflect and introduce changes in our lives. These don’t have to be drastic steps; sometimes it’s enough to change one small element, which in the long run will entail others. 

Remedy for burnout – Ayurveda

To be honest, I myself am currently at the point where I have been reviewing my current life situation and associated workout frequency for the past few weeks. I am doing this with the help of Ayurveda. Eureka? After all, my husband is an Ayurvedic therapist and he had been giving me all sorts of advice for many months (years?), but I was convinced of my indestructibility and that I was living quite healthily, so I didn’t see a problem.

But as I am now 39 years old, with 3 children and a load of different experiences, it was time for a periodic review of how I was living; what was up to me and what was out of my control. As my fatigue has recently reached a critical level (including last year’s knee injury), for the past three weeks (with 5 more to go) I have been resting, which means spending my time the way I want to.

In my case, it’s a mix of family holidays (to the sea and the lake; the choice is purposeful – an overwhelming need to immerse myself in water) and weeks spent at home. At home I work a bit, clean the cellar a bit, make jams, meet friends, read a lot (I have bought 8 books on Ayurveda and read them one by one), keep a diary and draw conclusions. I understand better the reasons for my fatigue, not to say burnout, I notice the mechanisms of my body and mind, I learn new things, remind myself of what I already knew, make changes and think about how to live better in the future.

I am grateful that I have the opportunity to have this stop for almost two months in order to think about how to proceed. During this time, my desire to return to regular kalarippayattu classes from September is also slowly growing. It used to be that the thought of taking a break from practice for a few weeks or a month would create stress that I would lose fitness, progress, that I would regress, become lazy, etc. etc. Now I have enough confidence in myself that I know what I need and that rest time is essential to regenerate body and spirit. And that there is no single recipe for how much such time should last.

There are many connections between Ayurvedic therapies and Kalarippayattu (I wrote about them in this article), so inevitably, as I now study books on Ayurveda, I wonder how to combine this knowledge with regular martial arts practice.

Regularity in India

Traditionally in Kerala, kalarippajattu is practised early in the morning every day, usually between 6 a.m. and 9 a.m. This is due to several factors. Firstly, it is still cool then. Around 9:00-10:00 the temperature rises and an intense workout would be harmful to the body. Secondly, according to Ayurveda, the best time to exercise is precisely between 6:00 and 10:00 in the morning, when the kapha dosha is in season. It is characterised by sluggishness and stillness, so it is worth breaking it with movement, activity, cleansing and transformation of energy, which we will then use for most of the day. Physical activity regulates the internal organs, unclogs the channels of the physical and subtle body so that both body fluids and energy can circulate freely in the body.

However, it is noteworthy who in Kerala practises kalari in the morning and does so every day or several times a week – it is mostly children, school children and students and rather young men (though of course not only), i.e. people who do not have many household duties in the morning and do not take care of others. After training, they take a quick shower and go to school or work. On top of that, they are around the age of 12-25, when the body is able to undertake frequent, intense physical activity and recover quite quickly. Even in Kerala, however, there are times when, due to the hot climate and school holidays, practice does not take place, and there are also many other occasions during the year, such as religious, family or national holidays, when regular practice is suspended.

The situation is different in other kalari schools in India, which are mainly located in large cities, where classes are mostly attended by adults. Classes are conducted several times a week, but not necessarily every morning. The lifestyle of the participants resembles that of the West; students often arrive for training after spending many hours at the office or university. To this can be added commuting, shopping, cooking, cleaning, taking the children to school and many other activities…. 

No challenges anymore

According to ayurveda, moderate physical activity that does not lead to exhaustion is most beneficial. How does this relate to martial arts training, which per se connotes working out hard, toughening the spirit, discipline, pushing the limits and “going beyond the comfort zone”? Personally, I cannot stand any more the latter phrase; as well as the word „challenge” – a challenge is ordinary life, I don’t yet have to squeeze myself into self-imposed pressure on an issue (a challenge is, for example, driving three young children to three different schools in winter and making it to work almost on time). Rather, I ask myself: why do I need to do this? What do I want to prove to myself? Or maybe just to others? What motivates me to take action?

In the practice of kalarippayattu, the intensity of the workout is set individually, even if the group practices together. This is especially true for beginners who find the training difficult – they are just starting to build strength, develop flexibility, deepen their breath and coordinate it with movement, not to mention future combat sequences and learning about vital points. Breathing is just one of the key issues in regulating the intensity of training. We should train enough to be able to breathe through our nose. Gradually, our breathing will lengthen and deepen, allowing a higher intensity of exercise. This process can take several weeks or months depending on individual fitness. If we are exercising and start panting heavily, it is a sign that our body is not ready for such an effort. We should either slow down, change the exercise or rest. Kalari masters do not force anyone to make an effort that is beyond someone’s reach. They „force” only those they know will endure it, because their body and mentality are prepared for a greater load – which also changes over time. Anyway, at a certain stage of practice, the greatest difficulty is working with the ego and consciousness, not the physical body.

Kalarippayattu masters and adepts aged 40+ gradually practise less frequently and less intensively, but their technique and awareness do not stop developing. The practice moves more into the spiritual realm. And at the same time, there are masters aged 80+ who are still actively teaching and wielding their weapons, although obviously not with the vigour of a 20-year-old.

So how often should I practise?

Back to the question: how often do you practise kalari? The only possible answer is: it depends. To see progress, it is best to practice 2–3 times a week.

However, you need to consider your age, your current situation (work and family responsibilities), the time of year and day, as well as your health, and think first about how often you really want to train and why. Ask yourself: Is this my primary physical activity, which I complete with occasional walks, yoga, cycling, fitness etc. or vice versa – kalari is an addition to yoga or sport. Or is it the only physical activity I do? How important is training to me and how can I incorporate it into my current lifestyle?

If I sort it out with myself, I can think about when I want to exercise and what I can do to actually work in that rhythm. If I want to exercise twice a week for an hour each morning, but I’m dropping my child off at school or working the morning shift, I might start with one day when possible and general short warm-up exercises on the second day when I don’t have much time (unless getting up early isn’t difficult for me and I can exercise at 6am). On top of that, on the other days I’ll go for a walk in the park, forest or by the sea. If I have a dog, it’s not an issue at all – I don’t have time to train, but I’ll go out for a walk with my dog three times a day (unless I make my kids to walk it). The walk may not fully satisfy my need for intensity of movement (although I may jog or walk a bit), but it counts too. There is no need to burden ourselves unnecessarily with the remorse of not training for an hour each day if the current life context does not allow us to do so. Perhaps such a rhythm will be possible for a few weeks or months and then it will change.

If I want to go to a class organised at a certain time and I don’t have other obligations at the same time, the most important question is: why do I practise? Are these classes important to me and why.

If my lifestyle is busy, fast-paced, full of movement and change, and I am committed to practising kalarippayattu regularly, I need to consider what I will give up so that I don’t fall behind and that the practice has a beneficial effect on my health and overall fitness.

3Rs: Regeneration, variety, balance

Regardless of how often we participate in kalarippayattu training or other movement activities, it is important to balance the type of movement implemented during them with others. In the case of kalari, outdoor activities in exposure to sunlight, stretching, slow forms of yoga (e.g. yin yoga), swimming, walking in natural surroundings (green areas, water, mountains) are beneficial. These activities balance the fiery, intense nature of kalarippayattu and help with regeneration. Additional regeneration will be provided by a bath or shower, a massage, a relaxation treatment or, in the minimum version, lying on the sofa in silence and stillness (including mental stillness).

I would be happy if you let me know if this topic is interesting for you and what your thoughts are on it 🙂 You can leave a comment below or write me an email.

Kalari, kalaripayat or kalarippayattu?

kalari kalaripayat kalaripayattuThe conversation in Polish usually goes like this: – I practice a martial art. – Cool, which one? – Kalarippayattu. – [Consternation] Uh… I’ve never heard of it. What’s it called? I won’t repeat…

On the one hand I understand that the name may be surprising, but on the other hand if Polish people can pronounce easily “Szczebrzeszyn” or “źdźbło”, the word “kalaripayatu” (that’s how you hear it) shouldn’t be too complicated to say.

However, how is the name of this martial art actually spelled and pronounced? Not only is it little known, but also the name may be confusing – so how to popularise it? In this article, I’d like to explain the name and its meaning so it becomes clear and comprehensible.  

I don’t know how much the readers of the blog are interested in linguistic nuances, so I won’t go into detail very much, although personally I like such topics (I’ve learned various languages since childhood and also studied Latin and ancient Greek at the university for two years). Also, I really wish there’s clarity on the topic of kalarippayattu, especially since it’s not easy to get explanation of spelling.

What is the meaning of kalarippayattu?

Although the martial art of kalarippayattu has been known for many centuries or even millenia (more on history is here), its name was created at the beginning of the 20th century. It consists of two words: kalari (from the Sanskrit khalurika) – a place of military training, space, an arena, and payatt (from the Tamil payil), which is translated as exercise, training, practice. Earlier these words were used too but separately. The word kalari is also used to describe, among others, a hall for training of kathakali or kutiyattam (Kerala’s theatre and dance genres) and a place where healing treatments and massages are applied. 

Kalari, kalaripayat or kalarippayattu – which version is correct?


This word written in Malayalam script (the language spoken in Kerala) in English transliteration looks like this: kalarippayatt. Malayalam is a syllabic language – it means that one letter corresponds to one syllable with a default vowel (“a”) which can be modified with different diacritics. When we decipher the name, it will be:

(ka) (la) രി (ri) പ്പ (ppa) (ya) റ്റ് (tt) 

Although the correct transliteration of the word is kalarippayatt, it is so complicated that various forms of writing function, of course also in Kerala and India itself. The most common English-language versions are: kalaripayattu, kalarippayattu, kalaripayattu, kalarippayat, kalarippayat and – luckily for everyone – the shortened version: kalari. 

kalari kalaripayattu kalaripayatThe kalarippayattu version was popularised in the West mainly by Phillip B. Zarrilli, author of the book published in 1998 “When the Body Becomes All Eyes. Paradigms, Discourses and Practices of Power in Kalarippayattu, a South Indian Martial Art” (I also invite you to read the article on books on kalari). The final “u” can be argued about (theoretically – in spelling – it does not exist, but the “t” is pronounced in a way that “u” is kind of heard), and although the number of “p” and “t” is clearly defined in spelling, they sound rather like single letters . Hence the various versions of the name.

Transliteration of words from Indian alphabets can be complicated because they have sounds that are difficult to render in other writing systems. For example, sometimes there are better equivalents in Polish than in English, because in Polish we have the sounds “s”, “ś” and “sz”, although in Indian languages there are hard and soft “sz” (2 types) rather than “ś”. English, on the other hand, has only “s” and “sh”. For example, the name ശങ്കര് in Polish is Śankar, while in the English transcription there are two versions: Shankar or Sankar (in my husband’s passport it’s spelled Sankar and some people pronounce the name this way). Apart from that, there are many other letters that do not make learning Malayalam easy, like two kinds of “l”, “r” or “n”. On top of that, many consonants come in retroflexed and aspirated versions (t, th, ṭ, ṭh), and vowels can be long or short. Some examples:

  • ആന (aana) – elephant
  • പഴം (pazham) – fruit (ഴ is „l” spelled and pronounced in English as “zh”)
  • ഞങ്ങൾ (ñaṅṅaḷ) – we (pronounced „nyangal”)
  • അടി (aṭi) – beat („t” pronounced similar to „d”)
  • കഥ (katha) – story („aspirated t”)
  • തിരുവനന്തപുരം (Tiruvanaṁtapuram) – Tiruvanantapuram, the capital of Kerala

It is therefore not surprising that Indian words are written in the Latin alphabet in very different ways. Although there is an official system of transliteration (but differences can depend also on state, administration and a clerck), in common practice the notation is simplified and often based on hearing. If you wish to learn more about Malayalam alphabet and pronounciation, you can visit for example the website of the Austin University.

There are 22 official languages in India (some use the same alphabet, Devanagari, but many languages have their own alphabets, such as Malayalam) and over 400 dialects, so the scale of this phenomenon is very large. This article does not explore the subject fully, but is only meant to signal the complexity of the naming issue and to encourage you to draw the only possible conclusion: kalarippayattu is not such a difficult word. Not even mentioning a kalari.

PS Another issue is names of Indian cities which were renamed during the British Rule (1858–1947). Since reclaiming independence by India in 1947, the original names have been restored, although sometimes both of them are still in use. Some examples:

  • Bombay – Mumbai
  • Madras – Chennai
  • Calcutta – Kolkata
  • Trivandrum – Thiruvananthapuram
  • Bangalore – Bengaluru

Animal postures in kalari training

cat posture kalari
Maarjaara vadivu or the cat posture.

Animal postures are one of the characteristic elements of kalarippayattu training. There are 8 classical postures (ashta vadivu), but the number and exact performance of a posture often depends on the style and the particular school of kalarippayattu. For example, a cat is often combined with a turtle and a peacock with a fish. Then there is also the snake pose (sarpa vadivu).

Crouching lion, hidden boar

sara vadivu studio kalari
Sarpa vadivu or the snake posture.

The animal postures are based on the observation of vigilant animals and are aimed at concentrating power and achieving explosiveness, i.e. generating the greatest possible force in the shortest possible time. Just as an animal before attacking or defending itself is crouched and ready to make a sudden, energetic and precise movement, so the kalarippayattu adept is maximally focused and ready to react. These poses, like many other elements of kalari training, have various effects on the body: they strengthen muscles (often a given position is held for several dozen seconds), make joints more flexible, and develop balance and stability.

The animal postures presented in the film are:

  1. Gaja vadivu: elephant
  2. Simha vadivu: lion
  3. Varaaha vadivu: boar
  4. Kukkuda vadivu: rooster
  5. Mayura vadivu: peacock
  6. Matsya vadivu: fish
  7. Ashwa vadivu: horse
  8. Maarjaara vadivu: cat
  9. Kurma vadivu: turtle

The video below shows the animal postures in one of the ways we often do them in our classes – one at a time, one after the other, right and left. There are also many exercises where a posture is repeated many times to master it to perfection. Individual postures are also part of longer sequences of movements and combat, but then they are performed quickly, moving smoothly between different elements.

Some of the exercises using animal positions are shown on the blog in the article 10 typical kalari exercises.