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Spooky Action At A Distance

Kalari Payat

By Gitanjali Kolanad


Vijayan Gurukkul is the son of the hereditary kalari payattu master, Gopalan Gurukkul, living on the road that bears his father's name and practising both the martial and healing aspects of his art. Early in the morning, the children and young men and women of this neighbourhood of Calicut come to do their exercises in the mud floor kalari or gymnasium. In my room just above I wake to the sounds of the Malayalam syllables shouted out as instruction. I lie there under the mosquito net and listen. It is too early in the morning, 5 am, and the rooster in the neighbouring house has started an insistent forceful crowing. "Idathu vecchu. Vallathondu chauti..." The master is reciting the instructions for the attack-defense sequences with an imaginary opponent: "step with the left foot, jump with the right" so that by listening, I can imagine exactly what the bodies are doing. The young oiled bodies, the men wearing just shorts or more traditionally the wrapped and tied langoti are kicking, twisting, jumping and turning . The rapid-fire pattern of hits is resonant and musical for stick on stick, metallic clang for dagger against dagger and shuddering thud for sword against shield.

The young lithe bodies with long muscles under dark skin glistening with oil and sweat crouch and kick and leap, taking inspiration from the movement of elephant, lion, horse, snake. The actions are low to the ground, curving, punctuated by sudden high twirling jumps, just like the Malayalam script, all curves interrupted only rarely by a straight line.

I am going to have the traditional kalari payat foot massage and some treatment for my shoulder which has been worsening over a couple of months; a sharp pain like a thin wire being pulled too tight inside the muscle if I try to raise my arm above my head to put on a kurta, or bend it behind my back to undo a bra strap. I haven't done anything about the shoulder, knowing that I was coming to the Gurukkul, and trusting that he would be able to fix it whatever is wrong.

I change out of my clothes and put on just a little white starched paper-thin langoti, a kind of wrap-around thong, a sop to modesty, and stand before the Gurukkul. He is a short stocky man with a full beard and gray hair, solid and muscular. He reaches up with coconut oil to touch the top of my head, my ears, my navel, the inside of each palm and each instep in a ritual anointing. Then he spreads the massage oil all over my torso. I lay myself face down on the woven reed mats he has spread out for me just under a set of hanging coir ropes. He will hold on to these so that he always has control of how much of his body weight he puts into each stroke.

The oil is beside me in a steel plate, half a bottle, wine-red, unctuous, full of a muddy sediment that swirls in the deepest part, leaving a jeweled colour all around. The oil smells of herbs and camphor, an intense medicinal smell that will be my smell for long after the seven day treatment is over, because it enters every line and fold and crevice of my skin, impossible to fully wash out.

I lie sphinx-like while the Gurukkul does a quick steady moon walk across my lower back. I can feel his weight and perhaps it is not his full weight because I can hear the creaking of the ropes but it is enough that my breath is completely pushed out of me and it feels as if my spine is being pressed through my internal organs.

The strokes to the upper body are adjusted for my sore shoulder. It is too painful to have that arm flat on the ground above my head. His foot, dipped in oil before there is ever any sense of friction, makes Us on my back and continues over my shoulder and arm all the way to my fingertips in long strokes. The temperature of the air in Kerala is a perfect body temperature so that my skin, covered in oil, is neither hot nor cold. When I lie on my back, his foot pushes my breast aside with the hard outside edge and glides over it with the arched inside edge. I have to remind myself to breathe.

The strokes along the legs are more forceful. The sustained pressure starts at the top of my thigh and I follow a line of pain all the way to my toes and back again, but it is a pain I have learned to recognize as a good pain. More painful are the rapid back and forth movements of the foot across the muscles, as if trying to separate the flesh from the bone. Most painful of all are the long strokes to stretch the muscles of the inner thigh. As a dancer, pain is a part of my life, telling me my limits, which I cannot easily accept but must always push against. So it is a certain kind of masochistic pleasure to be in the hands of a master who knows how to inflict just the right amount of pain.

There is no room for false modesty here. When he massages me with his hands, I am reminded of my Kerala grandmother's benevolent, matter-of-fact touch. She used to insist on bathing me though I was 11 and protested that I could do it myself. I wanted to get it over with quickly, but my grandmother's idea of a bath was a long drawn-out affair which began with turmeric paste spread to inhibit hair growth on my face, arms and legs, and coconut oil heated with black pepper to promote it on my head. She ended by scrubbing me hard with a rope-like vine that exuded a soapy paste. Her hands went all over my body while I squirmed and struggled under bucket after bucket of cold water from the well. "There," she said as she dried me, "now you look like you are made of gold."

Now too, the red oil thick on my body gives my skin the gleam of polished metal. I am grateful for this childhood body memory, this present body sagging, thickened, coarse, but with that young innocent child somewhere within. He does a movement around my neck again and again so that it feels as if my head detaches from my body. I am describing a memory, because at the time I was without words, my head having in that movement just floated away, leaving only an oily glistening surface of skin alive to the air, all its nerves giving signals at once.

The treatment to my shoulder uses a different oil, green almost to black, and a cloth filled with herbs that have a deep earthy mushroom smell. While the oil heats in a bronze uruli, a shallow rounded pot, the Gurukkul massages my whole left shoulder, back and arm all the way to the fingertips. Then he holds the sack of herbs like a pestle, dips it into the hot oil and pounds it over my shoulder. This pounding with the hot, heavy dense bag of herbs overpowers and diffuses the sharp inner wire of pain.

Even this pain, the bad pain in my shoulder has its good points. It is a reminder of the existence of the part: these muscles usually do their work without my noticing, anonymously. This pain turns me away from my routine: I usually dress without paying any attention, but now that my shoulder hurts, I realize that I am used to putting my right arm into the sleeve first. Now I must change, and put the left arm in first. The massage treatment has been successful to the point where once again I return to taking my left arm for granted. Pain free is unnoticeable; it is only the sudden twinge of pain that reveals that I was pain free, until then.

I am used to being both subject and object to myself; as a dancer I am both the artist and the medium, seeing myself in the movements at the same time as I experience them. While I make the movements with the dagger, I feel what it feels like when the dagger is held correctly at just the right angle so that the hit doesn't vibrate up my arm, but is blocked and bounces lightly away, but at the same time I see the angle of my arm and the shape my body makes, my thighs bent and parallel to the ground, torso close to the thigh. Always the inner picture is more perfect, and the inner sensation more accurate, but it is a feedback loop, each one driving the other.

This is one of the pleasures of the martial arts, especially in the weapons sequences. The partner takes over the function of that watchful inner eye, just as the audience does for the dancer, and the feedback is immediate and intense. The dagger hits, or misses; hits correctly with just the right sound, the right feel or it doesn't. The block is correct, or you get hit.

Last year when I came, my teacher's daughter had a finger sliced to the bone by the urumi, the flexible sword, most dangerous of the kalari weapons, with which you can decapitate yourself if you aren't careful. But no one gave her much sympathy, saying, "She didn't block properly." Now I have a large purple bruise on my forearm. I can't complain. I didn't block properly. Every time I missed it hurt a little more getting hit on the already tender bruise. Getting hit is not a particularly good pain. But now I am more accurate in my defense, and the bruise has started to fade.

In the practise of kalari, nothing is made explicit about these aspects of the form. All that the master ever says is, "Look into my eyes." Then he comes at me incredibly fast with the weapon, attacking head, groin, ribs from either side, ankles, so that there is no time to think about where or how, which foot, which hand. This is what drives the ghost from the machine and brings about the dissolution of the dichotomy, of subject/object, body/mind. Whatever is left, it is just one.


© 2009 Gitanjali Kolanad