The fight for betterment

Tough healing

The fight for betterment

It’s a little after 5.30 on a cool June morning as I breathe in the fresh air, still hungover from an overnight drizzle. My body is slathered with sesame oil as instructed by Meenakshi Amma, my master or gurukal. “For flexibility,” she says. Little do I know that my ego is about to take a beating as I stupidly head to the kalari  as I think that my on-off yogasana practice will hold me in good stead with the basics.

I step into the pit on initiation day after touching Meenakshi Amma’s feet. She spins me twice to my right en route to the poothara, the seven-tiered arched platform in the south-west corner that’s  dedicated to the deities of kalari. Irrespective of religion, the martial art kalaripayattu requires one to be respectful of it. No sequence is started without this ritual. It’s also welcoming of everyone — the children find it amusing; the adults, trying.

Half an hour into my first class, I’m dripping sweat on to the red clay floor, stomping my feet and thrusting my arms, fingers interlocked, as the guru calls out the commands. The vadivus, a series of eight animal poses, are what require to be perfected first. Another 15 minutes and I opt to sit out the next sequence, my back like deadweight, pulling me down. An occupational hazard, from years spent working at the computer.

It’s also the reason why I’m in Vadakara, a town in northern Kerala, burnt out and hoping that kalaripayattu and the following uzhichil (massage) will heal my back. “Give it two weeks,” says one of the senior instructors when I clutch my lower back. This is while I struggle to understand the commands bellowed by Sajeev gurukal, Amma’s eldest son, in Malayalam.

In the northern dialect, especially the one in Vadakara, the language sounds alien, different from the one down south, where I come from. “Forward, knee at 90 degrees,” he calls out in English for our benefit. He and the other instructors, who more or less grew up in the kalari learning under Amma’s late husband and guru, P Raghavan, are unforgiving as they pace the floor with quarter staffs in hand to tap the 30-40 odd pairs of hands and legs into perfection.

“Let that back stretch. It’ll do you good!” an instructor says.

Two hours away from Calicut, Vadakara is famed for the martial art once practised by warriors and over time, by laymen. Passers-by smile, innocent curiosity in their queries. Saying I’m here to study kalari hardly raises any eyebrows. Home to quite a few kalari training centres, the monsoon marks a beginning for a new batch of students every year.

“It’s that time of the year when the body is most receptive. It is also why Ayurveda recommends rejuvenation therapies in this season. Do your kalari now and you are safe for a year against illnesses,” an instructor explains. “Summer is when the body is dry and tired, incapable of absorbing anything.”  I also watch the members of the kalari gather every night after the last session, which ends by 10 pm, taking turns to chop the herbs they have collected to dry before the rains, and stir the boiling oils in large cauldrons for the treatments.

Impressive initiation
Meenakshi Amma’s Kadathanadan Kalari Sangam is in its 67th year. Practitioners hold a demonstration at the end of the season, after which they are busy with performances. “The kalari never closes. For those who want to practice, the gurukals are always ready,” she says, now 73, with not a strand of grey in her long hair. She’s agile and playful as a teenager, and sits at the gallery of the kalari after the morning session, clad in a sari and swinging her legs.

This year, the Sangam has seen a lot of media coverage. “I am only taking mash’s (master) initiative forward. Do you suppose he must be watching me now?” she asks me during one such shoot. It has been seven years since Raghavan gurukal’s passing.
During my stay, I’m asked, “Why here?” and “Why kalari?” I nod towards Amma and say, “She’s why.”

 The kalari is where she feels the presence of her master, and so she is there thrice every day. The kalari was dug into being by teenager Raghavan and a small group of supporters within one night in the light of lanterns. It was done in a fit of pained anger and determination fuelling their spirits, after he was denied advanced kalari practice by members who belonged to a higher order of caste. It began with four to five students in the neighbourhood. Five-year-old Meenakshi soon joined, hopping in puddles and chasing dragonflies with her mates on the way to class. “In my underwear!” Amma says, laughing at the memory. When she was 17, her master proposed marriage. In all these years, kalari practice has only taken a backseat to her five children.

Amma’s children and grandchildren are all trained in kalaripayattu. I hear from them that Raghavan mash ran the kalari with military-style discipline. Under Amma, there is plenty of teasing and laughter. Now, the kalari is also a place where children run around playing tag before the sessions. Amma adores girl children. “I try not to get attached to them,” she says. To former students, she is a confidante as well.

Back at the kalari, after three weeks of trying to raise myself off the floor while those around me fly to their kicks, I can keep pace. When I do falter, I’m forgiving. That I can hold a gaja vadivu (elephant pose) without my knees buckling leaves me elated. Amma thinks it’s time for me to train with a muchan (cudgel). “Don’t tell anyone you learnt that from me,” she says before cracking up as I clumsily hold the short stick.

The two-week-long uzhichil has started. With my hips up in the air, limbs splayed flat on the straw mat, the masseuse is using her legs to rub the oil in. The oil used on me in one 45-minute session is more than what I have ever used in my entire life. The difference shows soon enough as my skin gladly soaks it in and is hydrated. I am warned against afternoon naps or exerting myself during this period, though kalari practice is allowed. It hasn’t been love at first stretch. But now, I’m in sync while slapping the earth and pushing the air away from my chest. I feel a strength that holds me in place from within. The drama queen in me is also growing up. From wincing, I now smile at the blisters on the soles of my feet, and the black-and-blue bumps on my palms with pride. I have earned them. Later, I have a name for my experience: a lesson in pain.

After a performance in Goa at the Ink Conference and an Onam celebration event in Bengaluru, Amma is back, laughing about a black eye she received during a sequence with the cudgel. Amma’s boys tease her. She has hardly denied any shoots or performances since the season started — saying ‘No’ isn’t easy for her.  Anything to let the world know about her mash’s initiative. By the second week of October, it’s time to formally wind up classes. “In a way, I am glad. Enough for this year,” she says with a smile, fatigue in her voice.

Transformative tale
There is nothing romantic about kalari. It’s all sweat and blood as one, when the master deems fit, progresses to other levels of weaponry. As the late afternoon light streams in between the wooden slats of the kalari, I feel a sense of gratitude. It has been a break from life the way I knew it. The healing has quietly made its presence felt at many levels. And Amma has been a lesson in discipline, love, and not taking oneself too seriously.

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