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.

Martial art of life and health, or what connects kalari and ayurveda

Ancient India is a unique cradle of the art of life, culture and philosophy. Indian civilization has created, among others, systems such as ayurveda, yoga and kalarippayattu. It can be said that Ayurveda – nomen omen knowledge of life (from Sanskrit: ayus – life, veda – knowledge) – lays the foundations for various areas of human activity and is present within them in various ways. Although at first glance dance, music, yoga or martial arts are areas distant from each other, requiring different skills, characterized by different dynamics and focusing on different aspects of life, deeply in their foundations they have a lot in common.

Continue reading “Martial art of life and health, or what connects kalari and ayurveda”