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

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!