What is the connection between dance, which is an art, and a martial art form like Kalaripayattu from Kerala, which is meant to develop defensive and offensive physical skills? Judging by its popularity in dance training, the connection is a strong one. Kalaripayattu is characterised by fluid acrobatic play, flexibility, sweeps, kicks, and the use of weapons and other elements of combat. It also instils a disciplined way of life that propagates a strong mind in a strong body. Inevitably, many dancers find it an invaluable for techniques that can be used in performances.

Kalari is fast catching up as a means to prefect your dance moves. Pic: Nritarutya

Apart from helping develop physical fitness and flexibility, Kalaripayattu also provides a detailed knowledge of the marmas (pressure points) and incorporates Ayurvedic treatment such as therapeutic and strengthening herbal massages. Its aesthetic quality and unique physical form provide many artistes with a powerful tool of expression.

Jayachandran Palazhy, the director of Attakkalari Centre for Movement Arts (ACMA), considers it a rich body of knowledge with a unique form and physicality that lends itself to various interpretations. Combat is one of its facets, and it has had a tremendous influence on traditional performing art forms like Kathakali. Apart from including it as a part of the training regimen at ACMA alongside Bharatnatyam, Ballet and Contemporary dance, he is also interested in deconstructing its movement principles as a choreographer.

City dwellers practicing Kalaripayattu for fitness, therapy and a holistic way of life. Pic Courtesy: Ranjan Mullaratt (Kalari Gurukulam)

Kirtana Kumar, a Bangalore based theatre director, works with Kalari to engage with indigenous forms. Here text, voice and body are seamlessly interwoven as modes of expression, moving away from what she considers the postcolonial 'face actor' tradition, where theatre is limited to voice and facial expressions. 

A martial art form is highly recommended as a mode of fitness too. Umesh Naidu, a Taekwon-Do practitioner and a full- time dancer with Nritarutya Dance Company, applies principles of martial art to understand movement from a different perspective. He says that dance thus becomes a spiritual practice for him, like practicing a ‘Tul' or a pattern in Taekwon-Do.

Chitra Arvind  , director of Rhythmotion dance company  was exposed to Kalaripayattu for the first time  a decade ago in London and  ironically was taught by a foreigner. As a student at the Natya institute of  Kathak and choreography  she was trained in ‘Thang tha' (sword and spear), a  martial art from Manipur that involves choreographed combat .  She incorporated the structure of this form in historical and mythological dance dramas to depict valour and warfare. She currently uses the nuances of martial art forms in her independent  work to transcend beyond the traditional narrative aspect and explore abstract conceptualisation. Also trained in Chauu (tribal martial dance with origins in Orissa) she wonders how this extremely graceful martial art, adorned with beautiful masks and colorful attire was once used to attack or kill.

Stressing on the commercial value of martial arts Mayuri Upadhye,  the director of Nritarutya says that the city not just endorses but celebrates the form in itself through the performing arts. Many famous film stars and cricketers are often seen 'performing' Kalaripayattu in advertisements for various products. Martial arts have now donned the role of cultural ambassadors like many other performing arts, promoting tourism and earning revenue for the nation.

Kalaripayattu helps the children focus better. Pic: Courtesy: Ranjan Mullaratt (Kalari Gurukulam)

Martial arts can be applied in the realm of education too says Madhu Natraj, the director of Bangalore based Stem Dance Kampni. She says the inclusion of Kalari into a school's activities can provide a very exciting, codified, artistic approach to physicality and strength. This especially in a society where children's need to experience and innovate with the body is limited to boring physical education classes or competitive sports only. Palazhy, however, stresses the need for deeper research into the history, heritage and technique of Kalari, especially its potential impact on the emotional, physical and psychological growth of children, before assimilating it as a core subject in schools. 

Though devoted practitioners believe that the art form should not be used for exhibition (performance) today its popularity is not due to its 'pure' form. For example, Ranjan Mularatt, who moved to Bangalore 11 years ago to establish Kalari Academy, runs an institute that trains city dwellers in this martial art. Apart from performing artistes, many of his students are software engineers who treat it as a means of releasing stress through an art form that they have heard about on Discovery channel! Totally impressed by the ‘low altitude flying' in Kalari, Shreekanth Rao , an engineer and an actor, humorously says that he learns the form, "just for kicks!". 

Undoubtedly, the performing arts have managed to expand the realm of martial arts beyond conventional frontiers. Martial arts now cater to the needs of practitioners of theatre, dance, movement, choreography, and films; and address areas of therapy, health, fitness and more in Bengaluru. Many foreigners opt for training and treatment in Kalaripayattu as a holistic approach to cleansing their bodies and minds. 

The original article was commissioned by the Goethe-Institut as part of a joint project with Citizen Matters on Art & the City. This version is produced by Citizen Matters.