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Martial arts in a dance workshop
- Padma Jayaraj
Photos: Sreenath Narayanan

August 7, 2018

Navaneetham Cultural Trust has intervened enlightening and enriching the artistic sensibilities of the art lovers of Thrissur, Kerala, for the past 26 years. Workshops in connection with performance times, is its regular feature. A workshop on Kalaripayattu and Chhau was this year's special as part of its Monsoon Fest (20- 23 July 2018).

Intimately related to martial origins, these art forms have traversed through centuries from the southern part of the subcontinent. Kalaripayattu and Chhau are parts of dance now, parts of dance format even beyond the bounds of India. Sangam literature speaks of warriors receiving regular military training (3rd c BC to 2nd c AD). The combat techniques of Sangam period evolved into Kalaripayattu in Kerala before the advent of European powers. Kalaripayattu was practiced as a martial art for combats by the bodyguards of rulers in Kerala and for battles between chieftains in feudal times.

Today, a number of South Asian fighting styles remain closely connected to Yoga, dance, and performing arts. Folk art known as Velakali performed by the Nair soldiers of southern Kerala combines elements of Kalaripayattu to depict ancient battle scenes from the epic Mahabharata. Kathakali artistes trained in Kalaripayattu proved better performers, which opened the gateway for its entry into performing arts. Some traditional Indian classical dance schools still incorporate martial arts as part of their exercise regimen for flexibility.

Kalaripayattu workshop

The 3-day workshop began early in the morning in Natyagraham. Dancers, theatre artistes, and students formed a team of 10. I watched Dilsagar introducing the theme of the workshop - how Kalaripayattu, a martial art, is today used to make the dynamics of dance performances. His instructions focused on Kalaripayattu techniques: its basic eight stances (ashta-vadivu), leg swings, and steps (adavu). By the third day, the team was introduced into the art of combining postures and swings to make innovative dance vocabulary.

"Today, this combat technique is used by performers for flexibility, strength, and grace both in dance and theatre," assured Dilsagar. As a Kalaripayattu artiste and contemporary dancer, he has performed in UK and Europe. He was connected to Attakkalari based in Bangalore, a name to reckon with, for 20 years. Now he has settled in Thrissur as a trainer of Kalaripayattu and Capoeira, a Brazilian martial dance form. During the recess, Dilsagar spoke of his travels abroad and his visit to Shaolin temple in China. The temple is the living monument dedicated to Bodhi Dharma, the Buddhist monk and traveler, who took this martial art to China where it developed as Kung Fu. A worldwide interest in martial arts occurred in 1970s, which brought forth a genre known as Kalaripayattu films, which increased its fame and popularity.

Chhau workshop

The second half of the session was set for Chhau, a martial dance that originated in Eastern India. Govind Mahato from Jharkhand is a follower of Seraikella style. He learned this dance form from Guru Shashadhar Acharya in gurukul tradition. Since there is no written material, tradition has recharged this martial dance. However, today adopting Hindustani ragas and talas, Chhau is consciously deviating from its tribal origin and folk traditions. Chhau is close to Nature, unique in depicting birds and animals using masks and mimicking their movements. As a heroic dance, it uses swords and bows. Heavily dependent on rhythms that spring from a variety of drums and wind instruments like reed pipe, Chhau retains its folk resonance.

This Spring festival dance has evolved as a regional dance that stages mythological and contemporary themes. The trainees in Thrissur were excited over its stylized animal and bird poses and poises; its acrobatics and athletics; its nuances of rural rhythms. Govind Mahato concentrated on the distinctive salutation of Chhau dance; its postures, gestures, and vigorous jumps, a different grammar that builds up from slow to fast movements. I enjoyed watching its basic two-leg posture, and the shoulder exercises that remind of birds preparing for a flight. Govind Mahato, who pursues history as his optional subject, is passionate about his tribal heritage. He has taken his traditional legacy all over India and to countries like Japan, Asia and France.

The team of 10 was a mixture of artistes from dance and theatre. July is the month when non-resident Keralites based in Middle East come home for vacation. Some of them are dance teachers who are serious about the workshop and such contacts with other art forms will surely help them in choreographing dance numbers. Trained in classical dance, they are happy to learn and enjoy the masculine energy of a thandava style. At the end of the session, they gathered around Belraj Soni, the founder director of Navaneetham, who has taken Kalaripayattu from Kerala to Mumbai, a journey out of devotion to a passion. Under him, Navaneetham Cultural Trust is known for its activities in different parts of India.

Padma Jayaraj is a freelance writer on the arts and a regular contributor to