Rings of fire
While we were in Kumily in the Periyar region we had the opportunity to watch an exhibition of Kalaripayattu, which is the form of martial arts indigenous to Kerala. It is thought to be the oldest form of martial arts, dating back a couple of millennia, and more modern martial arts such as kung-fu, karate, judo, kick-boxing and tai-chi owe their origins to it. It is described in the Vishnu Purana as one of the eighteen traditional branches of knowledge.
Legend has it that Kerala was created by the warrior Parasurama, an incarnation of Vishnu, by throwing his axe into the sea which receded to the point of the axe, creating new land. Then Parasurama created 42 kalaris or training schools and taught 21 masters of these kalaris to protect the land he had created.
The display we witnessed – in a rather hot and cramped sports hall with seating on balconies running along all four sides of the building – consisted of a mixture of footwork and movement and work with weapons such as sticks and swords and defensive equipment such as shields. Practitioners are taught how to strike at the vital points or marmas of an opponent’s body – there are some 108 which are considered to be lethally vulnerable, apparently.
Proponents claim that the training aims at the ultimate co-ordination of the body and mind. Whether the practitioners we watched had reached that state was difficult to tell but it was impossible not to admire their suppleness, their hand to eye co-ordination when whirling swords and the like around and the co-ordination of their movements, both individually and as a sparring pair. The most exciting aspects of the demonstration were the sword fights – sparks flew as the blade struck the shield – and their piece de resistance which was jumping through ever-decreasing rings of fire. The whole demonstration, which lasted an hour, was performed to the accompaniment of pounding drums.
Next door and immediately after this exhibition was to be found a demonstration of Kathakali which is a stylised form of classical Indian dance and drama. Well, when in Kerala – and so we paid our 200 rupees and sat down in another dark, hot room with a stage at the front. Without much ceremony two chaps shuffled on – one with a large drum and the other with small hand percussion. Shortly afterwards an elaborately dressed and gaudily made up chap came on stage, essentially in drag. And the performance began.
The basis by which stories are told in Kathakali is a series of formulaic movements of the hands, called mudras, of the face and, particularly the eyes – called rasas (our particular performer had trouble with his false eyelashes, don’t we all?) and of the body. There are basically 24 forms of mudras and 9 of rasas and the preliminary part of the demonstration demonstrated each of them. There are five types of character who all have specific costumes and colouration – our character was playing the part of a woman and so, in accordance with tradition, besported a lustrous, yellowish face.
After the explanation, the dance proper began and it all sort of made sense. Alas, though, the combination of 100 minutes of pounding drums, the hot, sweaty conditions, aching buttocks from an earlier thirty minute ride on an elephant and the lure of a cold Kingfisher beer proved too much and we made a swift exit, stage left.
An interesting insight into Keralan culture but If you want my advice, do one or the other, not both on the bounce.