Learning Kalaripayattu In Bandra

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I’d pass the sign on Pali Hill every day. It had a photograph of a young yogi, curly hair to his shoulders, in what I thought was a variation of the elephant pose. I was wrong. Pradeesh is a Kalari warrior. It was the Kalari Wild Boar stance.

Kalaripayattu (the u is silent) is the mother of all the martial arts. Over the centuries, movement, manner and muscle memory have permeated the membranes, differentiating dance forms, yoga, ancient medicine and the performing arts. You see ripples of the Kalari warrior’s practice in Kathakali, in yoga, in ayurvedic healing.

It is hard to think of the mild Malayali man as a fierce, fearsome warrior. But watch Kalari warriors seemingly fly through the air wielding lethal weaponry or engaged in hand-to-hand combat: it is a gravity-defying, dexterous, deadly ballet. It's easy to see why the British banned the practice of Kalari to stymie rebellion.

Pradeesh teaches yoga and kalari and moved his class from Pali Hill to the Retreat House in Bandra, an open, airy, circular hall where on some days young seminarians listen to lectures, on others engaged Catholic couples are given sex education by celibate priests and I once took a Sufi swirling workshop.

Pradeesh’s grandparents were healers, practicing yoga, kalaripayattu and Ayurveda. The families’ healing centres, Sribharat Kalari Sangam and Hindustan Kalari Sangam, still thrive today in Calicut. For Pradeesh, it was home in every way. “I was in my element,” he says. “There was so much satisfaction. Mornings to evenings, I was immersed, involved.” Even today, when he travels back home, he falls seamlessly into the routines of grinding medicines and administering to the sick, his inheritance as healer intact.

These primal connections seem far removed from the usual suspect urban yoga classes filled with middle-aged yuppies and yummy mummies, gently ageing television personalities and young hipsters.

As a child, Pradeesh displayed incredible physical acumen and excelled at every sport he tried. He played cricket for Kerala, was a journeyman pro and played circuit tennis tournaments, represented his university in boxing and wrestling and was a national karate champion. He is fluent in 15 martial arts and has a black belt in karate and taekwondo.

He also has a Bachelor’s in English Literature, mostly because his parents insisted he get a degree and he chose the easiest one.

I tell Pradeesh about how I thought he was in the elephant pose. We start talking about how the East looks at elephants so differently from the West. We don’t treat them as clumsy, blustery, comic Colonel Haathis. Here there is a reverence for their wisdom, their strength, their intelligence. We know they acknowledge their elders and mourn their dead.

I don’t know why, but I ask him if he believes in spirit animals. “Yes,” he says and goes quiet. I’m momentarily nonplussed. “I can’t tell you what mine is. You have to keep that to yourself. But spirit animals are guardians. All ancient systems – the shamans, Native Americans, aborigines – speak of spirit animals. As you practice your arts, meditate, you find yourself most attuned to a certain spirit. Maybe your teacher will pick up on it.”

Kalari works with invocations to eight or nine animals. “You invoke their powers, their presence, their styles of fighting. It could be the leopard, the eagle, the horse. Their strength, stealth, cunning…”

These primal connections seem far removed from the usual suspect urban yoga classes filled with middle-aged yuppies and yummy mummies, gently ageing television personalities and young hipsters. Pradeesh however doesn’t see it like that. “You find that a good teacher will be able to bring something to the people,” he says. “Even if the class is somewhat aerobic, there will be a moment when the students will be privy to a small glimpse of what Samadhi is. When they experience this, their path shifts.” And their journey is surer.

Pradeesh explains the essence of the Kalari warrior. “Sound body, sound mind. Always calm, peaceful, nothing bothers you. Very caring, immense clarity and emotional stability.” Yes, I say. But could you handle yourself in a street fight?

He chuckles. “Yes, Kalari teaches you self defence, how to use your body. When I was young I used to love getting into fights. I didn’t go looking for them but when they came, oh, I was so happy. But at some point you gain so much confidence, nothing can affect you. You walk on the street with nothing to prove. To anyone. Not even to yourself.”

And maybe that is Samadhi. Nothing to prove. Not even to yourself.

Classes at Retreat House, 6 Kane Road, Bandstand, Bandra West, Mumbai 400 050. Phone: +91 9967257976

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