KALARI IS THE MOTHER OF MARTIAL ART.
Introductionone of the most complex and intriguing phenomena of Indian performance tradition is the prevalence of performance modes which have evolved from or been influenced by martial arts. These modes range from folk, ritual and mask performances to highly evolved forms of dance drama. The nature and degree of transformation from the martial trait to the stylized and aesthetic has equally great range. While martial trait remains apparent and strong in some forms as in Kathakali dance theatre of Kerala, it has been absorbed and has achieved a high degree of stylization in others, as in Seraikella Chhau masked dances.
Why should martia l art lead to the evolution of performance forms or inter -act with a form in its evolution and vitally influence its nature and design of movements? Integration of psycho- physical impulses, concentration and control of energy, flexibility and quick reflex action, overall agility, stamina, body balance, plasticity and sense of rhythm are the virtues of both a martial artist and a performer. There are several varied processes in operation in the working of this phenomena. While in some cases the martial art and the performance forms co-exist, in others, the tradition of martial art has disappeared leaving behind its elements in the performance forms.
The tradition of martial arts is not merely a matter of holding and hurling weapons and engaging in combats, it is a composite culture incorporating elements from the whole range of people's social, religious, artistic and cultural life. In almost all the martial traditions, elaborate initiation ceremonies are observed when mantras are chanted, offerings made and blood oath taken for using the martial skin only for self defence and for a righteous cause. Religious rites are also performed during various stages of training, demonstration and combat. Secrecy and sacredness surrounded the world of training, practice, preservation and transmission of martial knowledge. In some cases the practitioners of a particular martial style organize themselves into a secret sect with a restricted membership and follow strict rules of discipline and secrecy.
The tradition of martial arts has the same cultural setting as the theatrical arts, and this creates many links between the two seemingly opposite arts. Also, the principles and techniques of martial arts are governed by the same aesthetic concepts and values, which govern artistic modes and performance forms. They have a common terminology denoting some important aesthetic concepts. It is this commonality of aesthetics between the two arts, apparently of divergent nature, that fascinates evolution of a variety of performance forms from the tradition of martial arts, and also provides for constant exchange and interaction between the two. The training is aimed at acquiring both the trainee in martial art and in dance to discover his or her ki (life force), and allow it to flow with the surrounding ki-energy field. The aesthetic concept of bhava, that is emotion, is as much applied to the martial arts as to the performing, literary and visual arts. Unless a trainee or a performer of martial arts is able to infuse his bodily movements with bhava, it remains at the mere physical and lower level. A kalari teacher constantly keeps the trainee reminding of sharir bhava, that is body expression, in executing a martial movement.
Having given this general background to the tradition of martial arts, we could now look at the contemporary situation with regard to the relationship between the martial arts and traditional performance forms. It is of interest that the martial arts movements undergo a process of stylization when used in a performance form. The nature and degree of transformation and stylization varies from form to form, and also helps in the evolution of a variety of forms. While the martial trait remains obvious and strong in some forms, it has achieved high degree of stylization and aesthetic dimensions in others. There are performance forms which have fully absorbed the elements of martial arts in their structure. The question of nature and degree of stylization of the martial movements is both complex and of great interest for the scholars of kinetics is view of the fact that the martial art movements with their basis in bird and animal imagery have already undergone first phase of stylization.
In the case of Kalari of Kerala, the relationship between the martial art and a variety of performance forms from folk dances to highly evolved dance theatre Kathakali, is of varying nature. In several of the folk dances, including even those performed with holding a stick or a sword, the influence of Kalari techniques and movements in minimal, even though the name suggests martial dance. It is primarily in the swinging and whirling movements and flourish of the sword that one finds an indirect influence of or similarly with Kalari. Also, the wielding of sword and shield in some of the dances around and over the head, as if in defence, can be taken to be an influence of Kalari which we are giving practice at our ayurveda in Wayanad. Half and full circling of the body, a characteristic part of preliminary training in Kalari, has been taken over in training and/or performance of several dances including Kathakali. Also steps, jumps, body bends and hops have their basis in Kalari exercises.
Several of the Kalari training exercises have been adopted with suitable modifications for the training of the Kathakali actor including special massage system. Most of the body attitudes, leaps, flips of Kalari have acquired a subdued character in Kathakali. There are a few fighting scenes in Kathakali plays, and fighting choreography involves taking positions of challenge and encounter, circling and inter locking of the arms. But it is a highly stylized stage fighting and blends beautifully with the general choreographic structure of Kathakali. It has absolutely no martial character. Several of Kalasams, pure dance units, both in Kathakali and Krishnattam, have their origin in the Kalari postures and movements.
In Kalari itself, the movements based on animals and birds such as elephant, horse, tiger, cock, bear, cat, fish and snake have a highly stylized character. Larger sequences of Kalari, movements combining movements of more than one of these animals and birds, such as the one used for solution by a Kalari trainee, are the most elegant and graceful, they involve the body of the trainee in a complex geometric pattern.