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Kalarippayattu, the martial art heritage of Kerala
Posted on Thu, Feb 10, 2011 at 8:20 am
by IDMA Editor

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.

Chirakkal T. Sreedharan Nair

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 keep the art alive. Then came Chirakkal T. Sreedharan Nair (1909-1984) and C.V. Narayanan Nair.

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 come back 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 manymasters 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.

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 it 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.

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