Thursday, November 17, 2011


In the cold inky blue of a frosty Beijing night, the Red Theatre stands out like a bright red flame emitting warmth and light. On a night like this even without the pre-booked ticket in my pocket, The Red Theatre would’ve called out to me like the open arms of a long lost lover in city full of strangers. I hurried across the road, through the gates and up the cold wet steps of the theatre and entered a world draped in red and ochre.

The Red Theatre is famous for showcasing traditional Chinese performing arts like kung fu, but I would be lying if I said I had expected the theatre and the performance to be world class in terms of quality. To begin with, the theatre had this officious communist-sounding name, which by the way, was a huge improvement on the rather oxymoronish Chongwen Worker’s Cultural Palace Theatre; a name it went by before Mao’s (Zedong) China became Yao’s (Ming, the former iconic NBA star) China. And secondly, Chinese production values have always emphasized quantity over quality.

But having said that, I did expect the very highest standards of ‘performance kung fu’ even if the platform was going to be loud and kitschy. But boy, was I wrong. The auditorium was well appointed and the stage impressed with its scale but nothing had prepared me for the brilliance of ‘The Legend of Kung Fu’.

I sat mesmerized as I saw the sublime blend of music and martial arts weave together a magical tapestry that told the tale of a young boy at the Shaolin temple and how he found enlightenment through kung fu. Halfway through the show, my neighbor, a fellow Indian, shook his head and said “isn’t it sad that we have nothing like this in India. Our classical music and dance is all fine but nothing compares to the virile vigour of a martial tradition. Our national character would have been different if we had a proud martial culture rooted in our history like the Chinese..” I nodded in agreement but I was too distracted for a conversation. My whole being was funneled into the mystical world on stage - beams of light, blue yellow and red, dancing in circles around the stage, catching the actors, skilled martial artists all, in shades of light and shadow - as the story unraveled its seductive charms.

Suddenly a little boy appeared, not on stage, like I first thought, but like a vision in my head. That little boy danced with the lights and the music for a while and then the stage faded while palm trees appeared around a lake where the child jumped in and began to swim across it. Once on the other side, he pushed his long dark hair away from his eyes, removed his tunic and wrung the water out. It is then that I realized that the boy wasn’t Chinese but Indian.

A voice…! The child looked up. Someone was calling out to him. I followed his gaze and saw a bunch of soldiers from another time, carrying shields and javelins. I wondered if these were friends or foes, but then I saw the child smile and run towards them. Ah, friends! This boy seemed to be a prince of some sort and this was some ancient kingdom by the Malabar Coast. The stage had faded completely as I got immersed in this story in my head.

The boy grew up nursing a keen interest in the ways of war as well as the scriptures of his chosen faith – Buddhism. He was the son of a king and he had the best teachers in the land instructing him on both paths which seemed to converge in his heart as he pursued their truths. He found that the way of the warrior, one who dedicated his life to the pursuit of excellence in his chosen martial art and then forged his will in the furnace of war for truth and justice found the same sense of enlightenment as those who meditated on the teachings of the Buddha and the scriptures for years in seclusion, and often sooner.

The boy was named Bodhitara. And as his understanding of the truth grew, so did his resolve to share it with the world and help them find the same peace that he had found. As the third son of his father, he was not bound by the same responsibilities that chained his elder brothers to the throne and so he left his kingdom, Kanchipuram, in modern day Tamil Nadu and became a wandering monk who spent his days sharing the light with the world.

Bodhitara was now known as Bodhidharma and he travelled across the length of India and then found himself on a vessel that was sailing east and after battling storms and pirates it dropped anchor in a Malaysian harbor. Bodhitara did not stay here for long and moved north towards China. However, he did linger long enough to leave behind his martial teachings which metamorphosed into the Malaysian martial art of Silat.

Along the way, Bodhidharma met kings and philosophers, learning and sharing, teaching and training all he knew of the way of peace and the way of war. And then he reached that famous Buddhist monastery in the mountains called Shaolin. But Bodhidharma, now known as Damo in China, was disappointed. The monks in the monastery were in poor physical and mental condition and their weak bodies just couldn’t handle the rigours of sustained meditative practices and nor could they defend themselves against the bandits who often raided the temple.

Damo went into a cave and stared at a wall to meditate on the problem. And it is said he meditated for many years. If you go to Shaolin today, they will show you the cave where Damo meditated. At one point, he felt his eyelids go heavy with sleep and so he cut them off and flung them to the ground. Where his eyelids fell, so runs the Chinese legend, sprang up a little plant whose leaves, when brewed, helped the monks stay awake through their austerities. Today, they call it tea.

When Damo found his answers, he went to the monks and taught them techniques to strengthen their bodies against disease and dacoits. Some of those teachings were inscribed in an immortal classic, versions of which survive to this day – The Muscle/Tendon changing classic or Yijin Jing. And these teachings that Damo brought with him all the way from India’s southern tip were the pillars that held up the Saholin Temple through wars and famines and floods and fires and laid the foundation of Shaolin Kung fu and qigong.

“Rise son, and honour the teachings of Damo…”, said the old master on stage, and mention of Damo’s name brought me back to performers on stage. The master continued, “… and as you honour his path, you will find the way to enlightenment.”It’s a sad irony that ‘Damo’s way’ became the way for a land far away from his own, but in his homeland, the twin arts of Kalaripayattu and Marma Vidhya (the art of striking the vital points), in which he trained with such passion to become the warrior ascetic, have been languishing, forgotten and forlorn, like an old senile grandfather left to die in a corner of the family courtyard.

About 155 years after Damo was born, sometime in the sixth century A.D., a minister from the Chinese Emperor’s court was returning from his travels and chanced upon Damo on the Pamir range that separates China from Central Asia and asked the revered sage where he might be going, to which the sage replied he was headed home. Then the minister noticed that Damo was walking bare feet and was holding a sandal in his hand. When the minister asked him why, he replied “you’ll know when you get back to court.”

Once there, the minister told Emperor Wei about his meeting. The Emperor was shocked when he heard that for Damo had died three years ago. Damo had been buried behind the monastery in Shaolin but when they reached his grave it was empty except for one sandal.

If only Damo could have brought Kalaripayattu and Marma Vidya back from the dead the way he himself returned from his grave, perhaps my neighbour wouldn’t have been lamenting the absence of a martial tradition in India.

The curtains came down on the show and we stood up and gave the performers a standing ovation. But I left the theatre with a gaping wound in my heart, regretting the fact that we had squandered with apathy and neglect the very riches that have enriched our neighbours so…


No comments:

Post a Comment