CAPOEIRA IS THE NEWEST MARTIAL ART ON THE BLOCK
WORDS BY GENESIA ALVES AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY SURUCHI MAIRA
The Brazilian martial art Capoeira is instantly compelling and suitable for adults and kids alike.
Reza Masseh – “Baba” to everyone – has cartwheeled around the world. He is a licensed pilot who decided the confines of the cockpit were too stifling for him. He travelled to Israel where, as he set up a chain of French restaurants, he began to learn the art of Capoeira. Today Baba runs the India centres of Cordao De Ouro, a global movement across 85 countries under the Grand Mestre Suassuna and Mestre Cueca.
Baba first started training adults, but when his older son was three years old, he began to teach him. He travelled back to Brazil and Russia to hone his skills and only then began the kids’ classes. The classes now use a broad based, multilateral method of teaching basic body mechanics, encouraging and rewarding the children and creating a pattern that alleviates stress.
Watching the children at capoeira is a master class in social synergy. They first come in, leaving their shoes at the door. There is a palpable anticipatory energy as they run around while the instructors set up. Then you hear the music. The berimbau – whose origins may have been a weapon, disguised as a single stringed percussion instrument – has a distinctive vibration. In comes the tattoo of the atabaque, marking a rhythm that each capoeirista feels in their hands, in their feet. Even mothers on the periphery, watching the class, move their heads, fingers, soles imperceptibly. Keeping time is the pandeiro, a sort of tambourine, its percussion accompanied by the crisp swishing of its platinelas.
The children gravitate towards the music. Then smaller groups form, according to age, ability, tenure… There is a seamless flow to the leaping, the handstands, the backward bends – look here and someone is rocketing through a ring, look there, another is propelling themselves from a trampoline into a mid-air somersault. I catch my breath the first time my five-year-old runs, headlong into a wall. He opens his arms and each hand is grabbed firmly by an instructor, one places a huge hand on his tiny back as he “walks up” the wall, flips over and lands on his feet. He turns around to me, exultant. My heart beats hard in my throat.
On some days the groups meld into larger ones. They form circles around each other as they “fight”, drop kicking, falling back, jumping in the air. The instructors, many of whom are fluent in the language, sing and shout out instructions in Portuguese. They laugh. They fall down. They spring back up. They rely on each other for physical support, anticipating each other’s moves. At the Batizado, they are awarded a belt and a nickname to use amongst themselves. As the days pass, I realise something: this is a family.
This class in Mumbai resonates with Cordao-de-Ouro all over the world – in Russia and Israel and Brazil. The family gathers, from all over the world, at conventions, festivals and workshops – sharing their knowledge, exchanging ideas, replenishing each other and maintaining a consistency in the teaching no matter where the classes are.
Aparna Masseh, director at CDO says, “Unlike a school education, an education in Capoeira deepens and strengthens the child throughout his or her life. There is a process and scope to our teaching.” Capoeira is new, the youngest martial art of all, but it is instantly compelling. Aparna believes that Brazilian and Indian cultures have much in common, not least the dancing on the streets for festivals.
There is another similarity.
There are references to slaves in the classes. Now and again, Baba tells the children stories through which they learn the histories of a powerful people. “Six million men, women and children were enslaved,” Baba says. “There is no record of them, except in Capoeira. As Indians, we can relate to a history of slavery and the practitioner can connect with the harsh conditions, the longing for freedom. For children, it shows them how to create a positive outcome from a bad situation.”
There are children here from all backgrounds, socio-economic strata, some with debilitating allergies. Some days, one may struggle visibly. If they stop, or falter, out of nowhere an instructor will come to them, pick them up, take them back gently into one of the circles. “It takes four years if you’re training with us,” Baba says of their qualifications, “but my first requirement is that the instructor loves what he does and does what he loves. I lead by example.”
I watch Baba – stern one moment, hilarious another. He is ageless as he flips and stands on his head and somersaults. He is momentarily grim with my daughter as she flubs a move. At her next turn, she does a perfect mid-air flip and he grins at her jubilant face. More children come pummeling at him and as each one flips, his hand is perfectly placed, under the crowns of their soft, trusting heads, for one fleeting gravity-defying second.
The berimbau sounds. The children stop and move toward the music. They begin to sing a farewell song, jumping and clapping. “The music is embedded in the martial art,” Baba explains, “The stories and meaning are in the songs and the rhythm. It becomes poetry for the mind, body and soul.” Baba leads the circle in joining hands and they bow to each other. I can hear him saying, “It has given me an opportunity to transform peoples’ lives: capoeira is not what I do, it is who I am.”
The children sing the Capoeira songs at home, practicing, playing, speaking “Portuguese”. They cannot wait until the next class, the next song, until they get their nicknames, their badge of belonging. It fills the mothers with a heavy gratitude. May all our children find their tribe.
CDO India has centres at Khar, Bandra, Andheri, Malad, Dadar, BKC and Marine Lines. Its Khar centre is located at SS Sahney School, Plot No. 587-A, 18th Road, Khar (w), Mumbai 400 052. Phone: +91 86527 26738
For more information on its other centres, please visit CDO India's website.