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:

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?

കളരിപ്പയറ്റ് 

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.

10 typical kalari exercises

Studio Kalari exercises training kicks

How does a kalari training look like?

Usually when we come to a kalari (kalaripayattu) class, the first exercise done after a ceremonial salutation that starts the training, is different kind of kicks. Afterwards, there are sequences of steps and postures done along the long side of the room. Each exercise ends with a specific transition, which aims to maintain the flow of training and develop stamina. The next elements are done in one place and include different types of lunges, jumping, push-ups, bridges, as well as animal postures. These exercises often combine conditioning elements with stretching. The next part is movement sequences that include defensive and offensive movements. They are practised together with the group, but not in contact. The last part of the workout is empty hand combat and weapon combat which concerns only the most advanced students. This stage usually is done after at least a few months of practice.

What matters most in the training, from the very beginning, is observation and understanding of how our body works, as well as precision. Basic positions and movements are repeated later in more complex and dynamic movement sequences done both individually, as well as in contact with a partner / opponent during combat.

First kalari exercises

In the film below, the initial warm-up exercises are shown. Each of them is presented once, but during a training, we repeat them many times (especially the kicks). This part of a class usually takes a dozen or so minutes. Traditionally students in Kerala would even do just the straight kicks for months before a master would decide that they are ready to learn further elements of training. 
Although at our classes we teach more than one exercise at once, we always emphasize that the most important is the precision and patience. Progress requires time and takes place on several levels such as breath control, strength, flexibility, range of movement, coordination, balance, speed, concentration and stamina.

 

10 kalari exercises shown in the video:

1. Straight kick (ner kaal)
2. Round kick (otta kal)
3. Cross kick (kone kaal)
4. Double kick (tirichu kaal)
5. Kick-sit-turn (irutti kaal)
6. Sliding lunge (neeki theruthu)
7. Sliding lunge with sit (neeki ammarnnu)
8. Sequence that combines the lion and wild boar postures (veedu vangi)
9. Squat with stretched arms (kai kuttu nokku)
10. Sequence with elephant posture

These exercises are common in kalarippayattu schools, although often there are small differences in some movements or postures; they can also be repeated in a different order.

Do I need to be strong and flexible to start kalari practice?

Looking at photos and films that show exercises and forms of kalarippayattu, you can doubt your condition. Of course, when new students come to a class, no such skills are expected from them – they come to learn something during trainings, and not to immediately demonstrate anything. If someone is interested in practice and they will practice regularly, they gradually will progress. These exercises are very complex and there is always something to be discovered and improved.

Uniting kalari through photos – an interview with American photographer Jeff Schaeffer

kalari_photo
Jeff, Arjun, Kuttu – Paramu Ashan Memorial Kalari, Vypin Beach, Kerala. Kuttu is Jeff’s friend and main collaborator in kalari projects.

This article is an interview with Jeff Schaeffer, an American photographer who is an author of fantastic photos of kalari practitioners. Jeff got fascinated by kalarippayattu a few years ago during his trip to India. Later on he travelled to Kerala regularly and visited kalari schools to research this martial art more and capture its unique character and beauty. His adventure with kalari evolved from a simple photo project into a passion that keeps him busy on retirement and contributes to raising worldwide awareness of kalarippayattu. 

kalari artists in fighting posture
Arjun and Aromal at Athirappilly Falls – Paramu Ashan Memorial Kalari, Vypin, Kerala.

Jeff takes photos, works on books, initiates video projects that bring kalari practitioners together (including our Studio) and promotes kalari through his profiles on social media. In his captivating photos, you can see more than just effective postures and spectacular scenery – there is soul, dedication and energy of practitioners who embody the beauty, depth, complexity and spirit of the art.

I got in touch with Jeff in 2019 when he was planning his trip to Kerala and we were going to Trivandrum for our annual winter practice (here you can see our kalari school in Trivandrum) but finally we did not manage to meet. Hopefully it will happen next time when we are all in India. Meanwhile we keep in touch and collaborate virtually.

I was curious about Jeff’s photographic past, his experience in Kerala and projects he’s working on, as well as the origins of his fascination for kalari. I thought that his story may be interesting also for admirers of his art, kalari practitioners and fans, as well as other readers of the blog, and that’s how the idea of the interview came out.

Enjoy your read!

Interview with Jeff Schaeffer

Hello Jeff, thank you for accepting the invitation for the interview! Please tell us first something about your background and its connection with India.

Miya and Rebaka, Jai Sankar KJV Kalari, Kottayam, Kerala.

I’m Jeff Schaeffer from Temple, Pennsylvania, USA.  I am a retired IT professional with most of my career focused on Business Intelligence and Analytics.  In 2014, I had the opportunity to visit India and the company that was doing consulting work for us which is in Nagpur.  I traveled a few days during that visit and was fascinated with the sights, the history, the flavors, and colors of India. But what had more of an impact on me was getting to know the people.  The trip made me interested in seeing more of India and learning more about its people and culture.  It began an incredible journey for me.  I’ve made many friends.  And after seven trips, I’m still looking forward to the next one!

How then did your passion for photography get started?

kalari fight with knife
Nadir and Shijin, Gurukkals Ayurveda Kalari Marma Chikilsalayam in Vadakara, Kerala.

My degree was in Accounting and Computer Science but I was always drawn to the arts.  When I graduated from college, my parents gave me my first film camera.  My father and I took a course together to learn more about our cameras and taking photos.  I think it fed my creative side.  My work in IT and in a major corporation required me to use the logical and structured side of my brain. Music and photography gave me an opportunity to express another side of me to help create a balance.  I was fortunate to have had the opportunity to retire early in 2017 at age 57 and it was time to do something quite different than the work I did in my career.  It was at that point I began to focus on learning and developing my photography skills.  

Coming back to India, please tell us more about your experience in Kerala.

kalari female artist kalarigirl
Gouri Sudheesh at Athirappilly Falls – Sreebhadhra Kalari, Vypin, Kerala

My first trip to Kerala was in 2016.  I was taken by the beauty of the place as well as the friendliness and openness of the people.  I only had a few days there but since then I have returned annually in February/March.  2021 is the first year I will miss the trip as the pandemic is keeping me home.  

So, how did you find out kalarippayattu? What drove you most in researching this topic?

I stayed in Fort Kochi during my first visit to Kerala and attended a cultural show which included Kalaripayattu and Kathakali.  I was really amazed at the skills of the folks in the show. When I was in Munnar a couple years later, I found another show to attend.  Again, I was impressed.  Since my retirement, I began attending yoga regularly at a local studio and as a personal project, did a photo shoot for them taking yoga from inside the studio to outside locations around our city.  The photos were well received.  

kalari artist with sword and shield
Noble Josey – Allepphey Beach, Kerala.

When I was planning my India trip in 2019, I had the thought to extend what I did with yoga folks and find kalaripayattu martial artists to photograph.  As I had been in India several times already, I wanted this trip to be a deeper cultural experience and wanted to learn more about the people who practice Kalaripayattu.  I also wanted to challenge myself and photograph something quite different for me.  So, I guess it was a combination of wanting to learn more about the training practices as well as challenging myself to capture the visual beauty of this martial art.  Since then, my interest has deepened, and I’ve learned a lot more through reading and discussions.

How did you find kalari schools to visit and take pictures?  Were there schools who refused to be photographed?

kalari artist with sword and shield
Vijesh, Sree Gurukulam Kalari Shangham, Thrissur, Kerala.

I found schools and martial artists mainly through Instagram and Facebook.  I did not know anyone personally who practiced kalaripayattu when I decided to do this.  I spent time looking for Instagram accounts that had kalaripayattu photos and started sending out messages.  I generally complemented them on their photos, introduced myself and said I would like to come to their school and photograph.  In exchange, they would get the photos for allowing me to do this.  I never expected a monetary exchange from either side.  I was a little discouraged at first.  I had many ignored messages.  I had one master respond with ‘I am not interested at all in this’.  I was not sure if it would even be a possibility.  I looked back through my photos and posted 3 nice ones from the show I attended in Munnar.  That helped get me a little attention.  

Jeff with Arpit Sigh (on the right from Jeff) and his students in Mumbai.

Arpit Singh, from Mumbai, was the first to respond with ‘come – we would be honored to have you’.  Wow was I excited.  It gave me the encouragement I needed to keep trying as I felt this was going to be a possibility.  That trip I lined up 6 groups to photograph.  I also started to get support from others.  In fact, that is how we first connected.  Unfortunately, you were leaving Trivandrum a week or so before I was arriving, but your responses were very encouraging. Overall, I have felt quite honored to be an unknown traveler with a camera and to be welcomed into the kalari community and given a chance to work together.  In 2020, it was a combination of lining up schools from previous contacts as well as through my friend Kuttu who had lined up masters to interview for our upcoming book project.

What was the attitude of masters and students to the proposition of taking photos? And what was the atmosphere in kalaris which you visited?  

kalari kids in India
Young students at Sree Bharath Kalari, Kannur, Kerala.

Generally, the attitude of the master and students has been good.  It is a different experience entering into a place you do not know with people you never met before.  There is some uneasiness from both sides.  There is some awkwardness at first.  I often do not have a set idea of what I want to capture.  I do not know the specific skills of the students or the shooting conditions.  Once we get started, however, initial barriers begin to break down and we all begin to do what we do best.  Its in those moments when we begin to make the connections with each other that the best images are created.   Overall, I have felt very welcome into each of the kalari communities.  

kalari fight with sword and shield
Aromal and Arjun – Paramu Ashan Memorial Kalari, Vypin, Kerala.

My kalari photo work in 2020 was extra challenging.  We had 24 separate photo sessions with 13 different kalari schools in 19 days.  Our sessions ranged from an hour to over 3 ½ hours each.  Each location is different.  Each school has its own ‘personality’ and each kalari has different challenges, especially in lighting.  I had some very good experiences and a couple were a little tense for a variety of reasons.  But overall, my experiences in each kalari have helped me grow as a photographer and in my understanding of another culture.  

Did you have a chance to practice kalari while in Kerala or later?

Kids practising at kalari.
Jai Sankar KJV Kalari, Kottayam, Kerala.

Unfortunately, I did not get to practice kalari in Kerala.  I have been too busy on my trips trying to fit everything in that I have not been able to stay anywhere more then a couple days.  However, due to the pandemic, I have had the chance to try some online sessions with Studio Kalari and my friend Arpit with Arpit Kalaripayattu in Mumbai.  They have been great experiences and by doing some basics myself, it has helped me learn more about what I’ve been seeing and shooting in each kalari.  It will help me to think through some of the shots next trip!

The pandemic has been a big challenge to all of us. How did your project develop after taking the pictures and also during the lockdown months?

kalari fight with otta curved stick
Kiran and Kuttu – Vypin Beach – Paramu Ashan Memorial Kalari, Vypin, Kerala.

I shot over 7000 kalari photos last year and it has given me endless work during the lockdown to practice post processing to get the best out of each image.  I’ve had more time to spend on the photos as I haven’t been out shooting a lot of new ones.  Sometimes, reviewing and re-reviewing helps me find another edit on a photo that makes it a more impactful image. 

As I mentioned, I am working on a book with a kalari friend.  The lockdown gave us more opportunities to talk about both the book and personal life experiences.  It has given us a better understanding of each other and our perspectives which will help in our continued collaboration our project and create a stronger book.

After a few months of the lockdown, we recognized the challenges isolation had been on everyone.  We started a video project just to give people something to do as well as keep us connected in this time of separation.  We asked kalari martial artists to record a few seconds of video and send it to us.  I took the clips and blended them together into one video.  Everyone enjoyed doing it and the video was well received.  We did a second video project too and blended a Meipayat sequence together from different practices.  We are calling our initiative ‘The Kalari Project.’  We have a YouTube channel as well as an Instagram page.

This is a great initiative that connects many kalari practitioners and will hopefully also attract more students. Why according to you kalarippayattu is not so popular yet? Do you think it will change? What can help in raising awareness of this art?

kalari fight with bamboo sticks
Bijesh and Akshay – Hindustan Kalari, Kozhikode, Kerala.

I am not sure why it is not so popular.  In the USA, there is little awareness and knowledge of kalaripayattu.  There are many judo, karate and jiujitsu studios in our area but no kalaripayattu centers.  I was hoping to get a practice going in conjunction with our local yoga studio, but the pandemic has halted that work.  I am still hopeful. Many friends and connections in the USA have been exposed to kalari for the first time through my photography.  I have a few friends in India that did not know much of anything about kalari and are now asking more questions about it.  I believe getting more information out about kalari and its benefits will help spread the word about the art.  I think the online training options will also help as people in areas that do not have a nearby kalari school are now able to learn the basics which I believe may help create a demand for local training in the future.

What are your next steps and plans in terms of the kalari project?

For our book, Kuttu and I are continuing to work through the interviews he made and the photos I took to develop the right content for the book or possibly books.  Hopefully when the pandemic is under control and travel opens again, I will be able to return to India to finish up the photography work as we still want to include about 5-8 additional kalari schools and masters.  There are also a few places I would like to return to for additional photos as several people were not available when we arrived last trip.  

eyal meyer in kalari with sword and shield
Eyal Meyer who studies at Hindustan Kalari Sangham in Kozhikode and teaches in Chile. He took part in The Kalari Project.

As far as ‘The Kalari Project’, we hope to do more videos in the future to continue to unite kalari practitioners across the world.  We are using our Instagram page to feature the stories of kalaripayattu martial artists to help raise the awareness of the art as well as introduce others to the people who are passionate about practicing it.  Overall, it’s exciting to see people come together despite our differences in backgrounds, languages, cultures, etc. and create something better than we could each do individually.

It sounds really great. It also sounds like kalari has become an important part of your life. How has the kalari adventure influenced you?

kalari indian martial art fight at beach sunset
Midhun and Shijin from Gurukkals Ayurveda Kalari Marma Chikilsalayam in Vadakara, Kerala.

My kalari adventure has had a big influence on my life.  It has given me a chance to grow my photography skills and learn about a culture that is different than my own.  I do not think a day goes by that I am not connected with kalari in some way.  The images I shot decorate some of our walls, are in personal photo books and are screen savers on my computer and TV.  I continue to practice yoga and some kalari basics.  I’ve done some reading to learn more about the history and practices.  Also, just about every day I am having a conversation with one or more kalari friends.  So, what started as a simple project and a personal challenge has become a major part of my life.

Where can we find your work online?

kalari lock with knife
Visakh and Manu from Maruthi Marma Chikilsa Kalari Sangham, Trivandrum, Kerala.

You can find my work online at:
    Website:  www.jeffschaeffer.com
    Instagram:  @jeffschaefferphoto  

You can find The Kalari Project at:
    YouTube:  The Kalari Project
    Instagram:  @thekalariproject

Thank you so much, Jeff! It was great to learn about your kalari experience. We’re looking forward to next steps of your projects!

Books on kalarippayattu

Książki o kalari books on kalari

Although the awareness of the existence of kalarippayattu (in short kalari), as well as the basic knowledge about this discipline, are still developing, there are at least a few books on kalari, and gradually new ones are published (in November 2021 the first book on kalari in Polish, written by myself, will be published).

Who writes books on kalari?

Some of the books are written by researchers, travelers, theoreticians and/or practitioners of martial arts from outside of India who are fascinated by this art, and their purpose is primarily to introduce it to wider audience by showing the historical and cultural background, philosophy, holistic approach to practice and connection with the medical system, as well as by viewing kalarippayattu as a path of personal development.

The authors of other books – mainly in the Malayalam language spoken in Kerala – are usually masters who want to popularize kalari among the Keralan society, as well as to provide knowledge about specific sequences and techniques. Some of these books have been translated into English.

What’s in the books?

Regardless of the author’s nationality, the information included in some books is based on the style and tradition of a particular school (because it was written by a master or someone related to that  school in a certain way), while others treat the subject more generally or comparatively and discuss different schools , styles and techniques.

All books include, in different range, information on history, mythology, elements of training and combat techniques, customs related to practice, and also discuss the connection between the martial art and the traditional medical system (kalari chikitsa) and massage, as well as the performative arts of Kerala (including kathakali theatre).

Can you learn kalari from a book?

Of course it is a provocative question. Some books are fully or mostly theoretical, while others try to convey knowledge of the techniques of this martial art and enable its practical application. However, technical tips and instructions may be helpful rather for people who have already had some experience in kalari practice. For readers for whom this art is completely unknown and whose purpose is not to recreate specific patterns, this type of information may be too detailed and incomprehensible. Such people will benefit more from publications that include photos but discuss the practice in a more general way.

Performing a lion posture in Zarrilli’s “When the Body Becomes All Eyes”.

A perfect situation would be to get inspired by a book enough to just take part in a training – in the times of online communication, kalari is not that unavailable anymore. Although it seemed impossible to teach a martial art online, it turned out that actually kalari offers a lot of possibilities for individual  practice.

In this article I was discussing the issue of kalari online versus offline, and here you will find out what you can learn online (and subscribe to our online trainings).

List of books 

In this article, I will focus on books on kalari published in English and French (including two translations from Malayalam), and I will discuss books available in Malayalam in a separate article (after a consultation with a native speaker). I bought most of them in bookstores in Trivandrum, but many are also available for purchase online, mainly at Amazon (some are in electronic version).

When the Body Becomes All Eyes. Paradigms, Discourses and Practices of Power in Kalarippayattu, a South Indian martial art, Phillip B. Zarrilli

This book is an essential reading for kalarippayattu enthusiasts. First published in 1998 and reprinted many times, it is the first comprehensive publication on kalari in the West. Its author is an American director, teacher and theatre researcher Phillip B. Zarrilli, who passed away in 2020, who incorporated kalarippayattu, yoga and tai chi into his theatre work and in the teaching work with students of drama at the University of Exeter (Great Britain), where  he worked many years. He also built there his own kalari, where the classes were held.

Zarrilli first encountered kalarippayattu in 1976 while traveling to Kerala where he studied classical theatre kathakali (he is also an author of a book on this subject). His fascination with the martial art turned into a great passion that brought him to India many times in the following years. 

The book is based on over 20 years of personal practice and field research that Zarrilli conducted during regular, many-month stays in Kerala between 1976-1993. Although he spent most of his time at CVN Kalari Sangham in Trivandrum, where he practiced under the guidance of master Govindankutty Nair and from whom he obtained permission (as the first person from outside of India) to teach, he also traveled extensively around Kerala, observed other schools and interviewed other masters and kalari adepts, thanks to which the book shows, among others, the similarities and differences between different kalari styles and schools.

In the following chapters, the author discusses issues such as the history and the present day of Kerala, the construction and rituals of the kalari (training building), physical training, the subtle aspects of energy practice, the kalari chikitsa medical system, and the relationship between with kathakali theatre practice. He also lists texts that exist in the kalari tradition and lists the masters and schools he visited during his fieldwork.

The work contains a lot of information in the field of ethnography, anthropology and cultural studies, showing the role and functioning of this art in the Kerala society, which allows a better understanding of its unique character. A great contribution to it are numerous interviews and quotations from Kalari masters and students, showing their personal perspective and attitude to practice. 

This is not a book for people who want just specific training instructions and tips.

The book contains many illustrations, charts and tables that complete the information contained in the text. 

The Martial Arts Tradition of India, Patrick Denaud

The book was originally published in French in 1996 and in English in 2009 by a French reporter and documentary filmmaker, Patrick Denaud.

This book also covers, although in a much more general, fragmentary and superficial manner, topics such as history, the practice of kalarippayattu and its psychological aspect, its relationship to traditional medicine and theatre, and the influence of kalari on Chinese martial arts.

Despite interesting reflections and looking at some issues, much of the information contained in the book seems to be based on quick observations made in few schools, because the theses made on their basis do not show a wider spectrum of this art and its functioning in Kerala.

The book contains an interview with two masters: P. S. Balachandran (Indian School of Martial Arts), to whom the author dedicates the book, and Sathyanarayanan Govindankutty Nair (C.V.N. Kalari Sangham) – the son of Govindankutty Nair, who was the master of Phillip Zarrilli.

Le kalaripayat. L’Ancêtre de tous les arts martiaux d’Asie, Tiego Bindra

A book in French by Tiego Bindra, a martial arts specialist, was published in 2005.

It is a very short and general introduction to kalarippayattu. The author discusses the basic elements of the practice, presents the figures of the two masters (Pramod Gurukkal and Prasad) and their statements, as well as the relationship of kalari with the Buddhist tradition and traditional Indian medicine. The last part of the book briefly discusses Chinese and Japanese martial arts, which the author draws from the Buddhist tradition that has its roots in southern India.

Kalarippayat. The Structure and Essence of an Indian Martial Art, Dick H. Luijendijk

Print out of the electronic version of the book Kalarippayat. The structure and essence of an Indian martial art.

A book (published in 2008, electronic version in 2011) contains a lot of detailed and practical information about kalarippayattu.

 
The author based on the tradition of teaching by master C. M. Sherif Gurukkal at the Kerala Kalarippayat Academy school in Kozhikode, to which he dedicated a lot of space in the book. While focusing on the particular school, the author discusses in a clear and specific way many important and interesting aspects of the practice (not covered in other books) regarding styles, customs and rituals related to the practice, as well as local festivals, various weapons and links to medicine.
 

Kalarippayat: India’s Ancient Martial Art, Dick H. Luijendijk

Unlike the book by the same author discussed above, this one, published in 2005, focuses on practical instructions for selected sequences in the Northern, Central and Southern styles which the author was learnining for 10 years from Gurukkal Sherif. 

Big and clear photos have precise captions which explain the movemements and their meanings. There are postures and movements described, as well as some techniques with weapons. The book includes also basic information on the medical system, kalari chikitsa, and massage.

 

Kalarippayattu. The Complete Guide to Kerala’s Ancient Martial Art, Chirakkal T. Sreedharan Nair

A book originally published in Malayalam in 1963, printed in English in 2007. Its author is the legendary master Chirakkal T. Sreedharan Nair, who founded Sree Bharat Kalari school in 1948 and promoted kalarippayattu as a practitioner, researcher and theorist. 

After a short initial historical and theoretical part, the main part of the book follows which contains numerous descriptions of exercises, sequences and sequences of empty hand combat, as well as combat with weapons taught at his school, illustrated with photographs, as well as accompanying commands (in English translation)

For experienced practitioners of the Northern Kalari style, this book may be a kind of syllabus of techniques and sequences (although the Malayalam version of the book will probably be more useful for them), but for beginners (and / or theorists) it will be only illustrative material, giving a very general idea about certain positions, movements and types of weapons.   

Kalarippayattu. History and Methods of Practising the Martial Art of Kerala, P. Balakrishnan

It is also a book that was originally published in 1995 in Malayalam, and its English translation was published in 2003. Its author, P. Balakrishnan, practiced kalarippayattu from an early age. He became a co-founder and member of the Kerala Kalarippayattu Association.

The book provides background information on Kerala’s history and warrior traditions, types of weapons, local differences between styles and schools, and links to the medical system. The main part is dedicated to practice – positions, steps, sequences and arrangements of fights with weapons and empty hand combat (in the Northern style, in the tradition of the C.V.N. Kalari school). Most of the basic elements (exercises, positions and steps) are preceded by interesting and detailed descriptions containing technical information on how to perform them, and they are completed by large photos. The next, more complex and complicated sequences are not shown in the photos, but only described. 

Although the book contains a lot of technical information, it is provided in an comprehensible way even for people who will not use sequences of commands and combat patterns in practice.

Kalarippayattu: Guide Book, Jules Morel and Maneesh Mohanan

Printscreen of a page from Kalarippayattu: Guide Book, Jules Morel and Maneesh Mohanan

An e-book published in January 2021 by Jules Morel and Maneesh Mohanan who represent the Kalari Kshetra School located in Auroville and Pondicherry. The school continues the tradition of the master of the northern style, E. P. Vasudevan Gurukkal.

The publication provides brief and general information on the history of kalarippayattu and the division into styles, while the main part of the book contains illustrations and descriptions of training elements such as positions of animals, types of kicks, movement sequences (Malayalam commands are provided in English transliteration), as well as information about different types of weapons. 

The content of the book is essentially the content of a free app created by Jules Morel. The authors emphasize that the publication is intended to help beginner students who practice under the supervision of a master, to systematize their knowledge.


Books that I know but haven’t had the chance to read yet:

Kalari Margam. Ancient Secrets for Modern Living, Ranjan Mullarat

The album contains photographs showing the practice of kalari in the school led by master Ranjan Mullarat in Bangalore. The photos show various elements of the practice (preparation for training, exercises, weapons, healing techniques) and are accompanied by short descriptions.

The article will be gradually updated along with further reading. 

I’m curious if you knew any of these books and if the article was useful for you. If you feel like sharing your opinion, please leave a comment below. And of course if you know any other books, please let me know! 🙂 

kalari ebook rodzinska-nairIn autumn 2022, the first Polish book on kalarippayattu: Kalarippayattu. A Holistic Martial Art from India written by myself was published and it will be available as an e-book by the end of January 2023.