Behind Kalaripayattu lies a searing tale of blood and fire
The warrior is ready for another combat, seemingly unfettered by the idea that he might suffer a grave injury on a show, performing to empty chairs.
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The clamour of swords against shields, and steel against steel is one of the enduring human fascinations with medieval war that has found its way into the modern world. Grand battles excite us, the battles on Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings are proof, but it is only when surrounded even by a small number of sparring warriors that one realises just how loud, energetic and chaotic war can get without the volume controls of our respective TVs.In economic battles, these warriors lag behind.
Visiting a Kalaripayattu exhibition in Thekkady, Kerala, these were my first recollections even as Shirin, a practitioner of the ancient martial art form for 16 years, wielded two long sticks with a fire blazing at both ends of them like two giant phooljhadis, even as tiny lines of fire branched outwards on the floor, dripping from the flame-laden sticks and searing the crowds' faces.
The arena is small. The audience very close to the artists, and, consequently, the echo of the clamouring swords or the searing heat of the fires is wont to make viewing more exhilarating, more real and more uncomfortable, to the point that as Shirin gets ready to jump through a hoop of fire perhaps half his size for his next act, you have your hands covering your mouth and are glued to your seat - praying all the while that he makes it.
He does, save for a brush with the flames that seems less than ideal to the naked eye, but the warrior stands up, takes a bow, doesn't so much as touch his wound before he takes his leave.
Such is the way of warriors, you think, and Kalaripayattu the famous warrior art form most recently popularised by 76-year-old Meenakshiamma's heroic exhibition of the swordplay against a man half her age that sent social media into a frenzy of adoration for her skill, flexibility, and even some feminine stereotype busting.
In the viral sensation that followed, much was made of Meenakshiamma's skill and stamina on display in the video, but disproportionately little was made of the struggle and sacrifice not in the video.
That is not surprising, for "born-geniuses" or "prodigies" in sport or art have far and away captured the public imagination the most, and, consequently, folklore of effortless ease such as that surrounds the Tendulkars, Federers and Carlsens far surpass the stories about their work ethic and dedication that experts never fail to point out as party to their genius.
Concentrating on the human aspects of practice and training takes away from the myth of superhuman-ness that makes for a huge chunk of the fascination displayed even in Meenakshiamma's viral video - here the superhuman factor is that she is so old, yet so agile.
David Foster Wallace in his piece on a first round qualifying match for a random Tennis tournament between two players in the top 100 talks about the same phenomenon: how much hard work and skill are required to make it to the top 100, and how little it excites the crowd beyond, say, the top 5.
But the toil, the sacrifice, however unsexy and bad for publicity save for movies such as the Rocky series, is well-nigh never given its due when compared to talent and spectacle.
Smitten by the same bug, I was captivated by Shirin's performance and worried for his well-being following the minor accident until I had a chance to talk to him backstage and found to my surprise that he didn't make much of his wound at all.
The rest of his crew wasn't perturbed either, as they told me the show today had gone without a glitch, more or less. "Usually injuries incurred during training and practice are much worse than these" Shirin says, and points me to his senior, Arka (not part of the day's crew) who has heavy-taping around his thumb from when it was almost chopped off his hand when he missed his mark with the sword during practice three weeks ago.
"This has kept me out of the show for over a month now," Arka tells me, and looking at bandage, I'm not surprised. Nevertheless, injuries like these are frequent in the days building up to expertise, where every missed note is likely to be rewarded with a wound by an unforgiving sword, stick, dagger, fire or fist, for the price for failure is the warriors' own body.
As for the jumping-through-fire act which carries a renewed life-altering risk every time it is performed, Shirin tells me the artists practice jumping through the hoop without the fire a million times, before they do a single dry-run with fire before the stunt is done on-stage.
When I ask where the confidence comes from to put oneself through such a risk for the very first time, or after a devastating injury such as Arka's, the crew is unanimous in telling me it comes from their way of life, dedicated as it is to Kalaripayattu's practice and proliferation.
In a state of astonishing literacy rates in the context of India, many here have foregone education for their choice of the art form. No one in the crew has studied beyond Class 12, while some quit school as early as Class 5.
Instead, men like Shirin and Arka have spent over 16-17 of their 25-30 odd years practising the mind-bogglingly meticulous and complex manoeuvres of war over and over till they got it right.
"We have been practising an hour in the morning and an hour in the evening, at the very least, for over a decade" Shirin tells me. His family, in fact, have made Kalaripayattu their livelihood for generations - his grandfather was a Kalaripayattu teacher, as was his father, and now him, well on his way to following the tradition."
It's a disciplined, worthy, warrior's life" is Arka's conclusion, and with the tone he says it in, it serves as ample justification from his side for his choices.
However, more than dignity and discipline make for an everyday existence, and in economic battles, these warriors lag behind.
Their exhibition, which lasts around an hour and features risky stunts, costs just 100 rupees, and is demonstrated usually to quite a few empty chairs in the house. The artists' takeaway, consequently, is meagre - not nearly enough for everything I have seen and heard.
As Shirin wraps his waist around a red cloth tied in turn at one end to a pole, like a graceful, twirling dancer preparing for yet another show, I admire the disinterest with which he treats his aforementioned minor burn.
His attire and the years of practice protect him, he has told me, but in the light of all I have learnt from these warriors I see the empty chairs in the arena as a deep misfortune, reminded of Wallace's great essay.
Meanwhile Shirin is ready for another iteration, seemingly unfettered by the idea that a grave injury might happen to him on a show without even a reasonable audience. The crew, similarly, is ready for another tryst with fire and steel. Such is the warriors' life.