Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Kerala, Kalari, Love

I was hoping that would alliterate and thought of putting in “karuna” for love. But I decided that was being pretentious and it isn’t compassion, it’s love, so the alliterative genie will just have to settle for the next letter in the alphabet.
Speaking of alphabets, I’m now on my fifth one since I’ve been in India, not counting any I may have passed through on the train and failed to notice. (For those keeping track, that’s Devanagari in all the Hindi-speaking places up north, Tibetan in Ladakh and Dharamsala, Bengali in Kolkata, Kannada in Bangalore, now Malayalam in Kerala). I can get my head round the fact that India has so many languages but I find it hard to grasp how a country with a different script for almost each one manages to communicate with itself. In the south, English is a bit of a lingua-franca (apparently preferable to the northern Hindi), though a very particular kind of English. One irate pedestrian in Bangalore told me once, when my rickshaw driver and I asked him for directions, “I don’t understand your English!” (R.P. doesn’t get you very far here.) This leads to some delightful spellings (and of course I never have my camera to hand when I whizz past them). India has the world’s best sign-designers. Here are some of my favourites, not always entirely due to the spelling:
“TAILET” (a gompa in Ladakh)
“BETTER MISTER LATE THAN LATE MISTER” (on a Himalayan Ladakhi road)
“SPEED THRILLS BUT KILLS” (on the road to Kovalam beach)
“MEN DO NOT URINATE AGAINST WALLS. ONLY DOGS URINATE AGAINST WALLS.” (an exasperated householder in Bangalore, my first time round, eight years ago)
But I digress.
My journey, sleeper class to Trivandrum (Thiruvananthapuram officially, though I’ve yet to hear anyone call it that, even if it is written everywhere) was entirely uneventful and at a mere seventeen hours felt quite short. It was a complete treat having company while I underwent the tortuous procedure of squeezing my belongings into my rucksack on my last night in Bangalore and I was even more grateful to Abhilash and Vibhinna for then seeing me to the station. Having lugged myself and my guff across India solo over the last few months, actually being seen onto my train (by people who speak the language) was sweet beyond words.
My final Bangalore addendum is to direct anyone interested to our very amusing review in the Deccan Herald (click here!) and to say (because I forgot last time and it’s really quite amazing) that we performed La Blanche & The Spaces Between to a full house.
I look at this picture (featuring an attendant desperate for something to do in the kitchen quarters of Padmanabhapuram Palace – more on that in the next entry. Having had similar dull jobs in my chequered career, I sympathised) and realise I have changed colour over these two and a half weeks in Kerala. Contrary to what some people predicted, I don’t think it makes me look any more Indian.
Then again, I’ve long since given up any idea of trying to blend in. People will stare at me no matter what I wear, and at least here in Kerala they usually smile with it (a vast improvement). In any case, I reasoned with myself as I walked down the street today, I’ve spent my life sticking out wherever I am. Perhaps living in London so long – where everyone is from somewhere else and so no one takes much notice – softened me up a bit. Now I’m becoming more used to being the next best thing to the circus coming to town, so I just cover up the requisite bits and sally forth.
I stayed my first couple of nights in Trivandrum in the upstairs room at the CVN Kalari, which made the 6:45 am training a little less jarring to my night-owl-inclined system. Sathyan, the kalari’s gurrukkal, spends most of his time in the attached Ayurvedic clinic (it’s traditional for the martial art and healing system to go hand in hand) and Rajan does most of the teaching. (In fact his name is Rajasekharan, but I think he thought that might be too much for me to cope with.) It turns out that Rajan is also my landlord (and a completely delightful one at that). On day three, I moved into the lovely house he rents out to people associated with the kalari, a few minutes away by bus (three and a half Rupees, please) off the road to Kovalam. Through a typically confusing set of circumstances, I was initially going to share this house but now have it solo. I find it rather ironic that the main theme of my life in London was lack of space and here I am rattling around in a three-bedroom house with as many roof terraces, where it takes me a good five minutes to go round and shut all the windows before I go out. It’s a good job I like my own company, as I have a lot of it here. After all the bustle and sociability of Bangalore, it was a bit of a shock to be so much by myself, but I am used to it again now and feel something of the freedom I experienced when I moved into my Westminster flat in London for that first year to myself (seven years ago now – how scary is that?!).
I completely love the Kalari. It’s quite hard to describe. Kalari is both the name of the training place – come temple – come clinic and the abbreviated name of the martial art practised there, thought to have originated in Kerala in the mists of time. Some people claim it is the father of all martial arts but they are usually Indian and I don’t know enough to take on any Chinese martial artists who might have something to say on the matter. If I remember correctly, “kalari” means “place” and “payatt” means “practice”. So the full (Malayalam) name of the martial art is “kalarippayatt” or “kalarippayattu” and it means very simply “the place of practice”.
The kalari is laid out along compass points according to tradition and has set traditional measurements. I find myself occasionally wishing the elders had envisioned a rather larger training space, as the kalari can sometimes negotiate like a busy Indian road, legs kicking in all directions but everyone emerging miraculously unscathed.
According to tradition, it is set below ground level and is quite dim, so I really have the feeling I’m entering the belly of the earth as I go down to train – something very feminine, almost womb-like about it.
I enter the kalari right foot first and touch the packed-earth floor with my right hand and pay my respects. Then I head to the southwest corner to pay my respects to the presiding deity, Shiva-Shakti. I then work my way clockwise, first to the serpent god (I haven’t worked out whether that’s some reference to kundalini shakti or something quite other - any information very welcome), then Ganesha, remover of obstacles (“Please oh please have compassion on my uselessness and remove those boulders in my way”), then the lineage of gurus, then the mythical founder of both Kalari and Kerala, Parasurama (“Thank you for this beautiful land and this beautiful practice”). Then it’s to the northeast corner and Bhadrakali (“the fierce form of the goddess”, said Rajan gently on about day three, when I asked him to explain who all the gods I was paying my respects to were). Then it’s a hunter god I’m still not totally clear on, and then along the southern wall, Lakshmi, goddess of plenty, Durga, the beautiful warrior goddess, and Saraswati, goddess of learning and the arts. Once I’ve done all that, I can begin (and then do it all again before I leave).
“It is good to pay your respects but if it is a problem for you, you do not have to,” explained Rajan on my first morning, after I had duly presented him my beetle leaf with nut and coin (thankfully fetched for me by one of the kalari regulars as I have no idea where you get such things and would have been hard-pressed to know what a beetle-leaf looked like). “We are very humble here.”
And they are – astonishingly so.
“No, I have no problem,” I said. I think I must be a closet Hindu (even if the local temple won’t let me in – and here it is).
The men wear a sort of loincloth-underwear-thing, which is very practical for then slathering on the gingilly (sesame) oil we’re all supposed to put on before we train, and makes for minimal laundry. While I can think of few things more excruciating than to be kicking my legs about my head in my knickers, I did initially feel rather overdressed in my dance baggies, surrounded by virtually naked men. Now there are a few more women around, and they all wear traditional kurtas and pyjama bottoms, so in my leggings and vest-top, I’m somewhere in the middle.
I do find the clothing a bit of a pain though. The only way to keep on top of the small mountain of laundry it generates is to do it daily, with long periods of soaking (my house is lovely but does not have a washing machine).
First I have to get the sesame oil on, and then there are the rivers of sweat that pour off me (I don’t think Bikram yoga can have anything on Kalari in the tropical humidity of Kerala). I was sweating so much that for the first couple of days I stopped going to the loo entirely. I can’t imagine my pores have ever been so clean. And then there is the packed-earth of the kalari floor. For some reason, it clings to me like a needy neurotic lover (get it where you can, I suppose). Everyone else in the kalari sports an elegant sheen and no mud in sight, whereas my hands and lower legs and belly-clothing are thick with red paste, the delightful combination of earth, sesame oil and sweat. Someone tried to say it shows up more on me because my skin is lighter but on closer inspection, I don’t think that’s true. The dirt just loves me.
So I begin going through the various leg kicks in order, as does everyone else, people filing in any time between 6:30 and about 7:30. (“Take rest when you need” advised Rajan “but you must not let the sweat dry.” Absolutely no danger of that.) Rajan then calls people in twos or threes or fours and leads them through the salutation to the Shiva-Shakti or the sequences or weapons work. While he is working with other people, the rest of us try and negotiate space to continue our kicking practice across the floor. I’ve discovered that it’s best to get there early to get this in, as the kalari gets more congested as the morning progresses.
It’s probably the most leg-intensive thing I’ve ever done – lots of high kicking (which is the warm-up! Keralan heat is very forgiving), lots of deep lunging and keeping hips in low, low, low openness to the ground. The typical (male) Kalari body seems to be long and wiry.
“Slowly slowly higher” said Rajan to me in week 1, to my carefully aligned legs. Well they’re less carefully aligned now but they’re higher.
“Slowly slowly more force” said Rajan to me in week 2. I think that’s coming too, but more gradually (I’m a bit frightened of tearing a hamstring attachment at a slightly sensitive right sitting bone.)
I find it all a bit exhausting but I completely love it. My body seems to bend in the right sort of directions for Kalari (when your Kalari master tells people you’re flexible, really you must be) and as ever I’m working in the mud and the sweat and the sesame oil to find the strength to support it.
I've found some Youtube clips taken in the kalari (so you can see what it looks like), with the goddesses taken down (perhaps they were camera-shy). There also seems to be some additional lighting for the filming, as I've never seen it that bright.
This one is Rajan and Sathyan with sword and buckler (I'm sure there's a groovy Indian name for that, but I don't know it). Rajan is on the left of the screen, Sathyan on the right.
Rajan's been practising six days a week for fourty-two years, in case you were wondering.
Here is some unarmed training (more along the lines of what I attempt to do, as I'm not experienced enough to learn the weapons yet).
And here's a groovy sort of general medley (which has some women in, so you can see how strange clothes look in there).
I feel a little as though all those traditional elements I once sought and long gave-up on finding in yoga teachers (though I have some very lovely ones) I have found in the kalari. There’s a great sense of personal investment from Rajan and great care from him “because you are my student now.” He comes by the house to dig out books on classical Indian dance and Kalari for me and enquires most mornings as to how things are at the house. It slightly frightens me that I only came to Kerala as an afterthought, that the Kalari has happened almost by accident. I would hate to have missed it.
Every two or three days I get on the bus to Kovalam beach (the only bus on which I’ve seen any other foreigners). I don’t quite understand why the guide books and certain travellers get so snooty about Kovalam. I was fully expecting the Costa del Sol after some of the descriptions of the tourist nightmare. In fact, Lighthouse beach is a very lovely stretch, and yes there are restaurants and sun loungers and people attempting to earn a living selling stuff (at pretty inflated prices, but business seems to be slow right now), but if you want to go swimming in a bathing suit in India, you need to be on a tourist beach, and I don’t see why Indians aren’t allowed to have a tourist industry too. I also haven’t come across anyone remotely offended by my bikini, from my grandmotherly fruit-lady who pats me on the legs as she chats to me at my sun lounger, to the guys walking up and down the beach in the sun with piles of embroidered bedspreads on their heads.
I’ve enjoyed the sun on my skin and the sea. The waves, much like Kerala, are big and loopy but actually rather gentle. The lifeguards watch like hawks and whistle furiously if anyone ventures out very far (which is actually a bit frustrating for those of us who are pretty confident in the water, though in fairness, most people in it seem to have a limited relationship with swimming).
Here are some obligatory beach shots. Don’t you feel sorry for me?
I feel something melting in me here in Trivandrum, like the butter I cook with as soon as it comes out of the fridge. Or perhaps more like the Wicked Witch of the West, green skin and all. Everything seems to soften into curls here: the loops of the Malayalam script I am beginning to recognise in a way I never did the Kannada in Bangalore, the rounded sounds of the language, the curves of people’s smiles, even people’s hair is curlier and thicker than anywhere else I’ve been. I get off the bus and walk through quiet streets and look up and see coconut trees everywhere, climbing high above the houses. The air is soft and hot and the earth smells sweet and birds sing a new distinct song. Children often come up to me, practising their English. “What is your name? Where are you from?”
I have been ruminating a lot on the meaning of names. It started in Bangalore when I was discovering the meaning of my dancers’ names, all of them so redolent with hidden poetry. One meant “gold”, another “feet of god”, another “beloved”… I had never much liked the meaning of my own name (it comes from the Latin root “lux”, meaning “light”). A rather pompous definition I had read when I was about eleven spoiled it for me: “Lucy: light, she who brings the lamp of learning to the ignorant”. This seemed to me decidedly unsexy at the time. But I am becoming reconciled to having a name that means light. I’m even now seeing it as something rather special.
The other day, two girls walked by me on the road to the house, beautiful, dark-skinned, soft-eyed creatures, black, black curls falling to their brightly-clothed waists. A little later, as I turned a corner, they cycled past me on a bike, one propped behind the other. “What is your name?” one called out as they passed.
“Lucy, Lucy, Lucy,” they chanted to one another as they wheeled away, my name like a strange new mantra falling from their lips to be caught by the breeze and lifted into the trees.
So light, light, light to you.
And of course, love, love, love. xx


  1. What an absolute beautiful pleasure to read, Lucy. Trivandrum is good for the soul. Love to you! xxx

  2. Oops. so tired I meant Kerala duh!! xzzz

  3. fun came to me reading your blog!! Write more and more please!

  4. beautiful blogging! xxx

  5. Nice description of the kalari life...happy to know you felt in love with it too!
    And yes! Trivandrum is so good for the soul, i totally agree!

  6. Really nice blog Lucy! I loved the Kalari description - I am missing it now after reading

  7. Kalaripayattu is one of the best martial arts form. Nice informative post about Kalaripayattu martial arts.

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