Archive for the ‘Kalaripayattu’ Category

King of Kalaripayattu

22 Feb
TRIBUTE To Sreedharan Nair who has contributed immensely to the martial art form, on the occasion of the exponent’s birth centenary year. 

SHEER WIZARDRY: Disciples in action.


(Chirakkal T.  Sreedharan Nair, a resident teacher of Kalarippayattu from 1956 to 1965, at the YMCA College of Physical Education, Madras, and the celebrity author of the first ever book in Malayalam (1937) on Kalarippayattu, played a significant role in preserving this ancient martial art legacy once banned by the British.)

Kalarippayattu, the martial art heritage of Kerala, is one of the world’s most ancient martial art traditions. The ballads of North Malabar (‘Vatakkan Paattukal’) in Kerala sing the praise of Kalarippayattu stalwarts of the 15th and 16th centuries. The 14th century account of life in Kerala written by Portuguese traveller Duarte Barbosa describes Kalarippayattu as an integral part of its society.

Several traditional art forms of Kerala, including Kathakali, Patayani and Thitambu Nirtham, have adapted many exercises from Kalarippayattu. In the past few decades, traditional and contemporary dancers the world over, have adopted many body-conditioning exercises (‘maippayattu’) from the perennial fountain of Kalarippayattu.

In 1804, the British banned the practice of Kalarippayattu fearing its use against their army and thus for over a century it was not practised in several parts of Kerala. Nevertheless, a few practitioners such as Kottakkal Kanaran Gurukkal, Kovilkandi Kelu Kurup Gurukkal and Maroli Ramunni Gurukkal  secretly kept the art alive. Then came Chirakkal T. Sreedharan Nair (1909-1984) and C.V. Narayanan Nair.

Late starter

Sreedharan Nair, already well trained in bodybuilding and wrestling, started learning Kalarippayattu when he was 21, though for centuries the age of initiation has been seven. In the year 1936, Sreedharan Nair started ‘Rajkumar Kalari’ (in Chirakkal and taught a number of students. The martial art form was making a comeback after years of ban. In 1948, after Independence, Sreedharan Nair renamed Rajkumar Kalari as Sree Bharat Kalari and shifted to Valapattanam, a historical river port village some six kilometres north of Kannur, where his legacy continues through his son and disciple S.R.D Prasad.

Traditionally a master instructed his students with ‘vaaithaaris’ (oral commands) – they were never written down. In 1937 Sreedharan Nair wrote and published ‘Kalarippayattu’ in Malayalam listing the ‘vaaithaaris’ of all the exercises relating to the conditioning techniques (‘maippayattu’) . It is the first book ever published on Kalarippayattu and many masters of that time chastised Sreedharan Nair for the unpardonable sacrilege. Over the centuries the practitioners unknowingly distorted the actual ‘vaaithaaris’ and this book corrected, listed and preserved these oral commands in its pristine format.

Sreedharan Nair

For nine years from 1956, Sreedharan Nair was a resident teacher of Kalarippayattu at the YMCA College of Physical Education, Madras. He would often talk about some of his students from Punjab who were the most outstanding.

The YMCA College library did not have a single book on Kalarippayattu. Sreedharan Nair took up the task of writing one in Malayalam, and it was published in 1963. It contains explanations of each and every exercise and continues to be the most authentic reference material on the subject.

As English was the medium of instruction at the YMCA College, he suitably adapted the traditional Malayalam vaaithaaris to suit English oral commands.

From the copious teaching notes in English that he had maintained at the college, his two sons S.R.A. Das and S.R.D. Prasad, who had learnt the art from their father updated it as ‘Kalarippayattu – A Complete Guide to Kerala’s Ancient Martial Art’ and it was published by Westland Books, with over 1,700 action photographs.

Starting from the 1930s, Sreedharan Nair wrote a series of articles on various aspects of Kalarippayattu and other related topics (both in Malayalam and English) that were published in several newspapers and magazines.   

Bombay-based director, Pervez Mervanji, produced an award winning documentary film titled ‘Way of the Malabar Warrior,’ based on Sreedharan Nair’s contribution to Kalarippayattu, and released it in France in 1981. Sreedharan Nair was also a genius in weightlifting, literature, classical music and other streams of fine arts. He was one of the celebrity oil painters of his time. 

As one of his disciples M.K. Ramachandran, Physical Education teacher at Theosophical High School, Adyar, and national Volleyball coach, puts it, “He excelled in Kalarippayattu – he was a superb performer, an excellent teacher, a painstaking researcher and a precise theoretician all rolled into one.” His innumerable disciples, and aficionados of Kalarippayattu are celebrating 2010-11 as the birth centenary year of Sreedharan Nair.


(Friday Review, The Hindu, Feb 11th 2011)


Kalarippayattu and Chirakkal T.Sreedharan Nair – part 2

11 Dec

By S.R.A.Das*

In 1948 Sreedharan Nair established Sree Bharat Kalari in Valapattanam near Chirakkal and taught anyone who chose to learn.

Between 1956 and 1965 Sreedharan Nair was the resident teacher of Kalarippayattu at the Y.M.C.A.College of Physical Education in Madras. Each year some four hundred men and women from different parts of India, Ceylon, Africa and Malaysia joined that college. All in their athletic twenties, dressed in normal sportswear and canvas shoes, they learnt and practiced payattu in the vast playgrounds. The medium of instruction was English.

Sreedharan Nair adapted the Malayalam vaaithaaris into English commands while teaching in that college. It was then that he decided to write an exhaustive book on Kalarippayattu in English especially meant for a global audience.

That book ‘Kalarippayattu – A Complete Guide to Kerala’s Ancient Martial Art’ was published by Westland Publishers Pvt Ltd, Chennai (Price Rs.395) in 2008. Every oral command (vaaithaari) was changed into appropriate English expressions. For example, ‘thozhuthamarnnu’ became Bow and Crouch, valathu nere became Straight Right, ‘valathethu veethu’ became Outward Right, ‘etathethu akam kaal’ became Left Inward, ‘theruthu, theruthu, theruthu’ became Trot Thrice and so on. The movements in each Phase were then explained in easy to understand English. With a liberal spread of more than 1700 action photographs, this book is an almost “do it yourself” on Kalarippayattu.

From the 1930s through to 1980s Sreedharan Nair wrote a large number of articles both in Malayalam and English on various aspects of Kalarippayattu and related topics and published them in magazines, newspapers, souvenirs and others. He and his students staged lecture demonstrations on payattu in several parts of Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.

In 1981, Pervez Mervanji, a Bombay-based director made a documentary film, ‘Way of the Malabar Warrior’ on Chirakkal T.Sreedharan Nair and how his was a life dedicated to the promotion of Kalarippayattu. When it was screened in France it won an award.  

Many of his students who had the opportunity of learning payattu under his direct guidance and knowing him personally expressed their sentiments in varying ways. For example, a student in Rajkumar Kalari now nearing 90 had this to say: “The training in Kalarippayattu and the way I was trained helped instil in me self-confidence, discipline, humility and courage. All these helped me throughout my career. In large measure, I owe my success in life to my guru Sreedharan Nair and Kalarippayattu.” The student is K.K.Padmanabhan Nambiar who retired as the Chief Engineer of Indian Telephone Industries Ltd, Bangalore. Another student at the Y.M.C.A.College of Physical Education in Madras remembered his master in a letter while condoling Sreedharan Nair’s death thus:  “A life passionately dedicated to learning, practicing, teaching, researching and writing that made him a unique amalgam of performer, master, research scholar, and author. And Sreedharan Nair came to be revered as a legend in his lifetime.” This student, M.K.Ramachandran, was the National Volleyball Coach and was engaged in training players in Chennai. 

Chirakkal T.Sreedharan Nair, during his lifetime, proved that Kalarippayattu could be redefined as an excellent self-defence technique and fitness discipline. The Sree Bharat Kalari that he established in 1948 continues to teach payattu to a large number of students.  A lifetime devoted to the propagation of payattu did not go to waste. Those associated with that kalari continue to follow the noble tradition of their revered guru while teaching payattu. 

 * S.R.A.Das is the older of the two sons of Chirakkal T.Sreedharan Nair. 


Kalarippayattu and Chirakkal T.Sreedharan Nair – part 1

25 Nov

By S.R.A.Das*

From the early 1930s, Chirakkal T.Sreedharan Nair’s name was synonymous with Kalarippayattu. Even now, twenty-six years after his death in 1984, it continues to be so.

     The reason for this is not hard to find. The outstanding contributions that he had made to this unique martial art of Kerala stand testimony to why Sreedharan Nair came to be regarded as a legend in his lifetime and why he continues to be remembered as a doyen of payattu.  

    In 1930 when Sreedharan Nair started learning payattu, he was twenty-one and well trained in weight training, bodybuilding and wrestling. That was unusual, for, all aspiring

Students had to necessarily start learning payattu when they were just about seven. He did not enrol himself as a student in a traditional kalari. Instead, several masters (gurus) taught him payattu in the forecourt of his mansion at Chirakkal. That again was unusual as payattu was always taught only within the confines of a conventional kalari.              

    His gurus considered it a privilege and honour to be teaching the son of C.K.Rama Varma Raja who was the Valiya Raja of Chirakkal Kovilakam. To their delight and surprise their student was learning extremely fast and practicing almost throughout the day to master each and every technique. In normal circumstances it would have taken a student several years. But within a matter of less than six months Sreedharan Nair learnt and mastered almost the entire series of exercises.

    In 1935 he started Rajkumar Kalari at Chirakkal. There he taught payattu to a large number of youngsters. However, within a few months, there were more students than the traditional 42’ x 21’ could hold. Therefore, the classes came to be conducted in the spacious hall of the Raja’s Primary School at Chirakkal. By doing this Sreedharan Nair was breaking the age-old convention of moving the classes out and away from a traditionally built kalari.

    He believed and proved that payattu could be taught and learnt in any place well ventilated and clean. From his personal experience as a student and in later years as a teacher, he proved that any able bodied person, irrespective of age, could master everything in payattu within a matter of months if he had the required focus and his master was willing to teach unreservedly.

     Kalaripayattu was always taught following the oral tradition. The vaaithaaris or oral commands that a guru used to instruct his students in Malayalam were considered esoteric and holy. And they never got written down, as it was believed to be a sacrilege to do so. Because of this, over the centuries, the vaaithaaris got distorted. And many were lost as gurus kept them to themselves and refused to pass them down to their students.

    Convinced that the vaaithaaris were nothing but well-structured scientific instructions that a guru used to guide his students through each and every phase in payattu, and that there was nothing sacred or esoteric in them, Sreedharan Nair wrote down the vaaithaaries of maippayattu (body conditioning foundational exercises) and published them in his book ‘Kalarippayattu’ in 1937. That was the first ever published book on payattu.

    Thereafter in 1963 he wrote an exhaustive book in Malayalam explaining each and every exercise in payattumaippayattu (body conditioning foundational exercises), kolethaari (defence and attack using different types of wooden weapons), angathaari (defence and attack using swords, shields, spears and daggers) and verumkai (unarmed self-defence techniques). That book, ‘Kalarippayattu’, was the very first exhaustive treatise on payattu and it continues to be the most authentic reference volume on payattu even now.

    Sreedharan Nair wrote two other books in Malayalam titled ‘Marmadarpanam’ (1956) and ‘Uzhichal’ (1983). In Marmadarpanam he explained with sketches the one hundred and eight vital points of the human body (marmam). In Uzhichal he explained with sketches how to perform massage on a person.

* S.R.A.Das is the older of the two sons of Chirakkal T.Sreedharan Nair.

(To be continued…)


Development of Kalaripayattu as martial art

23 Jun

The long rule of the Perumals (or Cheras) in Kerala ended in the early years of the 12th century. To fill this vacuum, as it were, mushroomed a number of kings and chieftains. By fighting for supremacy, they fragmented the land of Kerala. By then the law and order and the administrative machinery had more or less collapsed.

For personal benefit, each and every king and chieftain maintained private armies and mercenaries thoroughly trained in the art of warfare.

Needless to say, kalaris training youngsters in payattu flourished.

Archives of Royal Families of Kerala, including those of the Zamorin of Calicut, Raja of Pazhashi, Kolathiri of North Malabar and others in the southern parts, tell us of their armies.

The fighting readiness of those armies, the valor of their warriors and their expertise in payattu, as also their chivalric and fighting exploits are graphically portrayed in the pages of Vatakkanpaattukal or Ballads of North Malabar.

The extraordinary feats of payattu stalwarts including Mathiloor Gurukkal, Tacholi Othenan, Aromal Chekavar, Unni Archa and many others are fondly remembered and sung as folklore by the people of North Malabar.

Tacholi Othenan, the undisputed exponent of payattu, was born in 1584. After his death at the age of thirty-two, the people of Malabar made a cult hero of him and eventually deified and worshipped him as a demigod.

Tacholi Meppayil in Vatakara is the house where Othenan was born. This house is preserved as a sacred shrine and annual festivals are conducted there. During the annual festivals, a person dressed as a theyyam to represent Othenan appears on the temple’s forecourt. The theyyam dancer wields an ornamental sword and shield simulating Othenan’s payattu movements. The villagers gathered there seek the theyyam’s blessings.

Payattu, as a highly developed martial art, reached the acme of its popularity in Kerala between the 14th and 16th century.

During this period, in some parts of Kerala, especially in the Malabar region, if a King or Chieftain could not satisfactorily settle a dispute between two groups or families, it was settled by an ankam.

An ankam was an armed fight between two men. Here the two hired payattu experts face each other and battle it out in full view of the village assemblage till one vanquishes the other. The group or family whose mercenary emerges victorious gets a judgment in its favor. While the victorious warrior is adequately rewarded, the family of the vanquished is compensated.

It is interesting to observe that the mercenaries did not fight an ankam just for the money, but they considered it a social honor to get invited to fight an ankam.

Poithu was similar to ankam, but the poithu combatants fought to settle their private, individual quarrels.

Many breathtaking tales of ankam and poithu, common during the feudal society of Kerala, are poetically portrayed in the Ballads of North Malabar. Here the importance and popularity of Kalarippayattu come alive.


Kerala’s ancient history relating to Kalarippayattu

09 Jun

Now let us take a look at the ancient history of Kerala.

According to some historians, it was during the Sangam Age (circa BC200-600AD) that Kalarippayattu evolved and developed. Tamil literature and anthologies describe the warring tribes of that period.

The word kalari was used for a battlefield and also for an arena for training in weaponry. Ancient tribals who populated the mountainous terrain were well trained in wielding weapons including the sword (vaal), spear (vel), shield (khedam) and bow (vil), and they were brutal in battle.

Our journey now takes us to the period between the 7th and 11th centuries.

Between the 7th and 9th centuries, the Brahmins held sway over Kerala and this period was appropriately called the Brahminical Age. Those early Brahmins established salais or centers for training themselves in the Vedas and warfare.

During the rule of the Perumals (or Cheras) between 8th and 11th centuries, salais continued imparting martial training to Brahmin students, while kalaris groomed soldiers belonging to the other castes and groups.

By then the Brahmins, having cemented their intellectual superiority in almost every sphere of society, decided to remain as landlords and priests. The salais continued imparting Vedic education and stopped training students in martial arts. Eventually, salais ceased to function in Kerala.

Yet kalaris continued to function teaching payattu.

 The Malayalam word kalari means a training center, and payattu means the martial art. These two words are combined to coin the word Kalarippayattu.


Mythology and Legend relating to Kalarippayattu

30 May

Kalarippayattu is well known all over the world as the martial art of Kerala in South India.

            It will be interesting to find out how mythology, legend and history mingle to make up for the origin, evolution and development of this ancient art before we try and establish Kalarippayattu’s practical relevance to the present.

            Mythology tells us the story of the warrior-saint Parashurama who is believed to have reclaimed the land of Kerala and parts of Konkan from the Arabian Sea. In the new reclaimed land, he settled sixty-four Brahmin families. Out of them, thirty-two families were settled in Kerala.

            Parashurama who is presumed to have mastered the art of warfare and archery from Lord Siva taught these arts to twenty-one disciples. He and his disciples are then supposed to have established one hundred and eight training centers in different parts of Kerala.

            One hypothesis is that of a wave of Aryan settlers migrating to the Konkan region in South India and eventually into Kerala some three thousand years ago. Those settlers were believed to be the members of Bhargava Gotra, or the clan named after Bhargava or Parashurama.

            In time, the cultural, religious and social practices of the succeeding generations of those early settlers took deep roots in the land reigned by Kolathiri Royal Family in the far north of Malabar.

            Another theory points to naayattu or hunting that had developed almost to the level of a ritual in the hilly terrains of Kerala. The hunters of yore had followed a rigid set of ethical codes, with well-defined terminology for hunters to communicate with one another, about their quarry and positioning. And they had followed a highly disciplined ethical code while employing their skills.

It is probable that Kalarippayattu borrowed and adapted several of those skills and ethical code from the hunters of yore.


(To be continued)