Padma Shri at 93 says Kalari-Ass will teach ‘as long as I live’
Republic Day began like any other morning for Sankaranarayana Menon, the 93-year-old Kalaripayattu exponent who was awarded the Padma Shri for his contributions to the martial arts. For as long as he can remember he has been waking up as usual at 5 a.m., bathed in the family pond, prayed in the court temple and entered the kalari (arena) in Kerala’s Chavakkad where his disciples were waiting for him. ready for three hours of grueling training of body and mind.
There was brief applause for his performance, announced by the government on Tuesday night, but no undue celebration. “Obviously I’m glad the government recognized me. But it’s not the end. I will continue to teach students as long as I live. It’s my duty,” he says in a soft but clear voice.
Nowadays, his body cannot endure the hardships to demonstrate the complicated steps (“adavu”) on a daily basis. So he confines himself to reciting instructions in a metrical, chanting slang, almost like folk poetry handed down to him by his ancestors.
However, Menon says he can still do most steps “without breaking a bone or pulling a muscle.” The movements are no longer muscle memory, but memory itself. “I’ve been practicing these movements since I was seven years old, so it’s become a part of me, like my mind. I feel like I need to refine a few steps,” he says.
In the best traditions of Kalaripayattu, Menon has a toned and lithe build. Says his son Krishnadas: “We don’t build big muscles like Pehelwans, but compact muscles that give us flexibility and strengthen our reflexes. My father had a perfect Kalaripayattu physique and was known for his nimble movements in his prime.”
Times were different when Menon took baby steps at Kalaripayattu in Tirur, now in Malappuram district. His family had commanders in the army of Vettathu Raja, a local chief. He was trained to fight and not teach the martial arts form. Back then, Kalaripayattu practitioners were wealthy and powerful – even as fighting between the princely states dwindled under British rule, they still thrived under royal patronage.
However, the collapse of the princely states and the subsequent abolition of the kingship endangered their existence. Soon, modern martial arts forms such as karate and kung fu became popular in the state, and Kalaripayattu lost its reach and resonance. There was romance in art, but it didn’t keep the fire burning in the kitchen.
However, Menon and his family never gave up. “My father never thought about retiring. He neither watered down his teaching nor made it expensive. Whatever the student can afford is his guiding principle,” says Krishnadas, who also chairs the Kerala Kalaripayattu Association and is the consultant for martial arts, an evergreen genre in the Malayalam film industry.
In 1957, at the invitation of a benefactor, Menon moved his base to Chavakkad in Thrissur District. Today his school – Vallabhatta Kalari, which follows the Kadathanadan tradition and emphasizes footwork and body movement rather than armed combat – has 137 students. The center has also expanded with 17 branches outside the country, including in Brussels and Amsterdam, and twice as many in Kerala. There is also interest from Punjab and Haryana.
Krishnadas says the boom started with the tourism boom in the state. “In the mid-1980s, I think a man came from Belgium and after years of training with his father, he went home and opened his own centre. And then more people started coming. Traditionally, we only allow those who have trained with us to open branches anywhere in the world,” he says.
Menon’s sons are seasoned professionals themselves, which allowed him to take a break from teaching. But Unni Gurukkal, as Menon is affectionately known, insists on teaching himself those who knock on his kalari’s doors. “It’s not our tradition to send them back. Those who come for knowledge will get knowledge,” he says.
The ancient martial art form has spread worldwide, losing some of its feudal symbolism and association with bloodshed, and is now recognized as a sport in the country. And Padma Shri is a recognition of this upward curve. But for Menon, award or not, each morning will begin as it has for decades.