Thursday, December 10, 2009


Murugun P is a rather unassuming man. Neither tall nor short and of a slim sinewy build, if you saw him walk along the dusty streets of Delhi’s eastern corner, you wouldn’t think he warranted a second look. Other than the fact that his thick moustache, wavy mop and baked bronze looks make him stand out as a slice of southern exotica in this obviously northern, near rural settlement in this area straddling the Delhi-Noida border, there is nothing about the man that at first glance, you might find ‘arresting’. And yet he is a rare treasure to those who’ve known the power of this man’s touch. Murugun is a master practitioner of a dying art and its once grand traditions – the martial art of kalaripayattu.

Long ago, while in junior school, I had chanced upon my neighbour’s stack of Amar Chitra Kathas (ACK). I was so fascinated by the stories of valour and victory in those painted pages that while my friends played through that long summer evening, I sat on a bench in the park and read through that bound volume … I owe my sense of history and mythology to the ACK series and practically all I know of forgotten heroes like Surya Sen, Banda Bahadur and Chhatrasal to this evening with the comics. One of the stories, I remember most distinctly from that day was of a burly man, who fought off countless enemies beating the most impossible odds with his martial skill and by swinging a bladed belt like weapon called the URUMI. It was the tragic story of a Malayali folk hero, Thacholi Othenan, said to be one of the greatest kalaripayattu (‘kalari’ means gymnasium and ‘payattu’ means fight or exercise) practitioners of all time. That was my first introduction to kalaripayattu and its potent powers.

Many years later, I went to see a Kamal Hassan movie called Hindustani. In this film, Senapathy, the main protagonist is an ageing freedom fighter who has taken to providing summary executions to corrupt government officials. The old man uses his martial skill and knowledge of marmaati, a branch of kalaripayattu, to ‘immobilise and neutralise’ his targets. In certain scenes, Senapathy has to merely poke his opponent in the torso for the whole body to go limp… it was almost magical. I wondered, if this was mere cinematic fantasy or did kalaripayattu masters really possess such lethal skills. I was in college then and I went looking for a kalari where I could learn and explore the art but unfortunately, there were none that I could find in Delhi. However, I did find a book, ‘When The Body Is All Eyes’ written by a theatre professor, Phillip Zarilli. This book was an account of the author’s study of the kalaripayattu tradition, history and practice. And in that book, I found an interesting account that lent credence to the ‘touch of death’. Zarilli had witnessed a kalari master catch a large live rooster and gently press a vital spot. Immediately the rooster collapsed, as if dead. And yet, minutes later, the master poked at another point and the rooster jumped back to life, none the worse for wear.

So this wasn’t magic after all. My search for a kalari master continued and even on a trip to Kerala, I asked around and spoke to various organisations about the art and its branches in the north of the country… unfortunately, I couldn’t find any beyond Bangalore. In fact, I was disappointed to discover that kalaripayattu, even in its home state had been reduced to an ornament… beautiful forms practiced for demonstrations and cultural shows, with a very few masters teaching the underlying techniques that made the art such an effective form of self defense. But even the great masters, I was told, were apparently doing their best to smother the spread of the art. Secretive and conservative, these masters are “tradition bound relics of an era that’s long gone and they refuse to part with true knowledge that they’ll take to their graves with them.” Zarilli’s book told of one such who had used this very knowledge of pressure points to heal a boy, the doctors had given up on and yet had used a sari to cover the boy’s body while he worked on it so that no one could see what he was doing… “I will only reveal the secret of one of my students, and that too when I’m on my death bed,” he had told the author.

I first saw Murugun at a demonstration where lean oiled and muscled bodies jumped and battled with swords and sticks and while spectacular to watch, the elaborate movements seemed to be of little use for combat situations. Noting my skepticism, Murugun showed us a few techniques where an unarmed man took on armed assailants and this seemed far more impressive. Later, I asked him, why kalaripayattu was nowhere near as popular as other martial arts. “It is difficult… it has so many aspects. Kalaripayattu is the mother of all martial arts. Bodhidharma took this knowledge to China and from there it spread all over, but you see all the other arts have picked up different aspects of the art and made it simple… so you have Judo picking the joint lock techniques while Kung fu picked the strikes… but kalaripayattu is everything; strikes and locks, weapons and sticks, health and fitness, healing massages an above all, the healing techniques. The same knowledge of pressure points, when used with violent intent, can kill, while when used with goodness in one’s heart, can heal the deadliest of diseases. It is this knowledge that we need to preserve most.”

Murugun, though young, is an acclaimed master in his field and has students from all over the world learning at his kalari. A modest man, he admits that he had to deviate from tradition and dilute the esoteric and the mysterious elements inherent in kalaripayattu and give his students a far more practical and ‘easy to use’ art form in order to popularise it. However, he insists that the methods of the traditional masters are ideal, because the traditional method demands greater discipline and emphasises a sense of duty and discipline. This ensures that when the secrets are revealed to the students, he has the moral strength to use them responsibly. The flip side is that it makes the process too slow, ambiguous and demanding for the majority and most students shift to other, simpler martial arts.

I asked Murugun, like I have asked many other martial artists of an account when they had to use their skills for good effect. Every teacher, I’ve met from every martial art around the world has spoken of a time when the master himself or a student of his has had to use his skills to save his life. And yet Murugun said “A good martial artist, and definitely a good kalari practitioner should never have to fight… if you walk on the right path and are true to the martial way, trouble will avoid you unless you go looking for it. I’ve been living in Delhi for 13 years and never have I been tempted to fight. But I will tell you of a man called Rajkumar who had to be carried in here by two men. He couldn’t walk and he was in a critical state because his body couldn’t pass urine. His doctors were with him and they said they’ll operate on him immediately, unless I could do something about it. I got to work on him and within minutes, he had passed urine and it took me two more days to get him to walk on his own… so much more satisfying than beating up people on the streets, no?” I couldn’t agree more.

After a few demonstrations, sessions and a lot of research, I’ve begun to realise, kalaripayattu is not for everybody, who wants to wear a belt and break bricks. However, it’ll always have its faithful few who’ll keep it alive… and kicking, into eternity…



  1. Kalaripayattu, an ancient traditional martial art form of Keral

  2. Kalaripayattu is a martial art that is formed by the ancient Gurus completely on the basis of the human anatomy and The Nature

  3. Kalaripayattu (kalari abhyasam) is a martial art that is formed by the ancient Gurus completely on the basis of the human anatomy and The Nature.

  4. Kalaripayattu is a martial art that is formed by the ancient Gurus completely on the basis of the human anatomy and The Nature.