We met with Sankar in December 2005 in the village of Bollopur, West Bengal, where, together with a group of friends, I came to participate in a monthly theatre workshop led by the Indian group Milon Mela.
The group, still active today, consists of artists representing, among others various Indian traditions of theatre, dance and martial arts, and its founder and leader is Abani Biswas. In the early 1980s, Abani participated in the Theater of Sources project, led by Jerzy Grotowski, a Polish director and theater researcher. The project was carried out, among others in Brzezinka, the forest base of the then Laboratory Theater (and now it is one of the seats of the Grotowski Institute) near Wrocław, and in the villages of Kenduli and Khardaha in West Bengal. The work with Grotowski inspired Abani to carry out creative research and activities within Indian native traditions.
He invited Bauls – Bengali mystics and singers (some also participated in Grotowski’s project) – chhau dancers from Jarkhand, gotipua dancers from Orissa and masters of Kalarippayattu from Kerala to cooperate with him. The group was completed by Abani’s several close theatre collaborators. In this shape, the Milon Mela group have conducted workshops for several years: several weeks each winter at their Indian headquarters and several-day workshops in Europe, including in Brzezinka.
In July 2004, together with my friend Iza Młynarz, I took part in the workshop that was taking place in Brzezinka for the first time. Intensive training sessions intertwined with calmer activities focused on singing, presenting texts or staying in silence and developing focus. Our day started at 6 am and with breaks for meals lasted until 10:30pm. This extraordinary experience has greatly affected – in fact changed – my further life. Although I had always been active in theatre and sport in different ways and with varying intensity, the few years before the workshop were filled with Greek and Latin grammar and the history of theatre and drama, rather than physical and spiritual training.
During the participation in the workshop with Milon Mela, Iza and I also became volunteers at the “Grot” and we helped Stefania Gardecka in organizing the workshops. This is how two spheres of my life interwined together for many years: passion and work. Volunteering transformed after a year into regular work as a coordinator of workshops and educational and artistic projects, which lasted until October 2019.
In contrast, the Indian adventure – although it seemed to end with the workshop in Brzezinka, because “the Indians will never come back and it will never happen again” – it was going on in parallel.
A few weeks after Brzezinka, Iza and I went hitchhiking to Casa Laboratorio di Cenci in Umbria to participate in the next workshop, and later we tried to find sponsors for a trip to India (how naive it was…) because we had no money at all.
A year passed and in the summer of 2005, the Indians came to Poland again with workshops, then we hitchhiked to Italy again, but we also had savings, which in December allowed us to fly to India to take part in monthly workshops.
A few more friends joined us, including Karolina Szwed, who got into the Indian lifestyle so much that she has lived there already for a couple of years.
From the beginning, in the workshops I liked the kalarippayattu trainings the most, although they were quite short and contained only some elements of practice.
I liked the intensity of the exercises and sequences, the concentration and precision they required, and the fact that they involved the whole body, attention and energy. They were exhausting, and at the same time gave a lot of satisfaction and fulfillment.
I knew from the beginning that in India after the workshops with the whole group of Milon Mela I would go to Kerala to focus only on kalari.
During workshops in Europe, kalari trainings were led by master Jayachandran Nair (Joy) with assistant Sathish. They taught the Southern style of Kalarippayattu. When we arrived in India, it turned out that the assistant had changed and Sankar became the new one.
It was love at first sight, but long undisclosed and hidden. Especially the second aspect later brought us many additional emotions and adventures …
In addition to practicing and teaching kalari, Sankar worked at an Ayurvedic hospital. His family for generations has continued the traditions of kalarippayattu (on the father’s side) and ayurveda (on the mother’s side). His first Kalari teacher was his grandfather, and his later teachers included famous masters of the southern style: Madhavan Assan and Thankappan Assan.
After a month in Bengal, I went to Trivandrum with the master, assistant and other friends for several days, where we only participated in kalari training twice a day. It was a magical experience – sweat, tears and blisters at dawn and at dusk (trainings lasted several hours in the morning and evening). Our master did not have his own kalari and we practiced on the roof of his house. We were coming back to Poland tired but excited because …
… after two months, in spring 2006, master Joy and Sankar arrived at the invitation of the Grotowski Center to conduct training sessions and open workshops in Wrocław and Brzezinka for a month and a half. Several hours of training took place every morning. Then I barely sat down to work in the office and worked to buy another ticket to India. During this stay, we helped our friends renovate the house, integrating happily in the fumes of plaster and dust.
The next year and a half – until December 2007 – went in the rhythm of summer workshops in Poland and Italy, winter trips to India and daily morning trainings before work at the Grotowski Institute, during which myself alone or together with Karolina we repeated the elements, which we had previously learned from the master. There was no kalari teacher in Poland at that time, and in Europe they were just few. Trips to India were the only option for solid learning. I omit here such details as reconciling a full-time job in Wrocław with a full-time university study in Cracow 😀
In the meantime, the distance feeling flourished and my trip to India at the turn of 2007 and 2008 brought an unexpected end. Generally speaking, our desire to develop a relationship with Sankar did not meet with the favor of – no, not our families, as one would expect, but members of the Milon Mela group, with master Joy at the forefront. While the Indian future mother-in-law was cheerfully supporting us, and the Polish future mother-in-law kept cool and waited for the development of events, we met with firm resistance from the master of kalari … Here it should be mentioned that in India the master – guru – is more than a teacher; he is a master of life, an authority, often caring for his disciples and feeling responsible for them. Also in this case, the master was probably guided by concern – indisputably. After a few weeks of practice, the kalari bomb exploded, love came to light and Sankar was banned from training until Europeans left. We were quite a large group of people from Europe who came to practice for a few weeks. In such a situation, I also resigned from training, as well as – in the act of support – the previously mentioned Karolina.
There was a month left until the end of my stay in India. We made an express decision that Sankar would come back to Poland with us.
Adventures in the following weeks are comparable to those from the movie “Bunty and Babli” – who does not know, please watch this Bollywood road comedy. And all because Sankar’s passport was quietly stuck in Milon Mela’s office in Bengal and unfortunately nobody wanted to send it to us to Kerala (2500 km). We were successful only after over a week of telephone negotiations: on that day we stepped out from an internet cafe with Karolina when suddenly Sankar came on his motorbike, triumphally taking out the passport from the pocket ! With the package of documents in the backpack, from Trivandrum we went to Mumbai (1700 km) to apply for a visa to Poland. In anticipation of a visa from Mumbai, we went to Bhubaneswar in Orissa (another 1700 km) to meet and say goodbye to Sankar’s friend Basant, a master and dancer of gotipua. We traveled by trains, in which we also spent a few days in total. On the eve of departure to Warsaw, we received a visa at the consulate and were able to fly together to Poland.
Over the next two years, we conducted occasional workshops in various cities in Poland, and Sankar simultaneously began work as an ayurvedic therapist. We tried to organize regular trainings at the Grotowski Institute, but at the time it was not possible due to the lack of a free room. However, this possibility appeared in the spring of 2010, when the Institute acquired another seat, housing, among others rooms for rehearsals and training – Studio na Grobli – and we could use one room for regular trainings. And so in May 2010 Studio Kalari was created.
Since then, we have been conducting regular trainings several times a week, several-day workshops in Poland and abroad (Italy, Germany, Finland, Norway, France, Russia, Brazil, Ukraine), annual summer schools and (since 2013) several-week winter practices at our kalari in Trivandrum, located near the house of Sankar’s parents. During our stays in India, we also visit master Raja Gopalan Assan and learn from him.
During cooperation with the Grotowski Institute (until mid-2018), we have conducted many classes for students of Polish and foreign theatre schools, as well as participated in research and artistic projects. In the field of artistic cooperation, we regularly cooperate with Teatro dei Venti from Modena, Italy.
Currently, we focus primarily on promoting kalarippayattu as a martial art and life – an art that strengthens and stretches the body, clears the mind and shapes the spirit. It makes us feel full of energy, stable and ready to act. Paralelly Sankar collaborates as an ayurvedic specialist with several clinics of integrative and natural medicine in Poland.
In May, we will be celebrating both the 10th anniversary of Studio Kalari and the 12th wedding anniversary. Well, we also have three children, but that’s another story… 😊