Kalari ace Padma Shri at 93 says he will teach ‘as long as I live’

Republic Day began like every other morning for Sankaranarayana Menon, the 93-year-old Kalaripayattu exponent who was awarded the Padma Shri for his contributions to martial arts. As had been routine for as long as he could remember, he woke up at 5 a.m., bathed in the family pond, offered prayers at the court temple, and entered in the kalari (arena) of Chavakkad in Kerala where his students awaited him, ready for three hours of exhausting training of body and mind.

There was a brief round of applause for his achievement, announced by the government on Tuesday evening, but no excessive celebration. “I am obviously happy that the government has recognized me. But this is not the end. I will continue to teach students as long as I live. It’s my duty,” he said in a soft but clear voice.

These days, his body cannot withstand the rigors of demonstrating complex steps (“adavu”) on a daily basis. He therefore confines himself to reciting instructions in a metrical and singsong slang, almost like folk poetry, transmitted by his ancestors.

Still, Menon says he can still take most steps “without breaking a bone or pulling a muscle.” Movements are no longer muscle memory, but memory itself. “I’ve been doing these moves since I was seven, so it’s become a part of me, like my spirit. I feel like I need to polish some steps,” he says.

In the best traditions of kalaripayattu, Menon has a taut and flexible bone structure. Says his son Krishnadas: “We are not looking to build big muscles like the pehelwans, but rather compact muscles that give us flexibility and strengthen reflexes. My father had a perfect Kalaripayattu physique and, in his prime, was known for his dexterous movements.

Times were different when Menon took baby steps at kalaripayattu in Tirur, now Malappuram district. His family had commanders in the army of Vettathu Raja, a local chief. He was trained to fight, not to teach the art form of combat. At this time, kalaripayattu practitioners were prosperous and powerful – even when fighting between princely states was reduced under British rule, they still thrived under royal patronage.

But the disintegration of princely states and the subsequent abolition of kingship jeopardized their livelihoods. Soon, modern martial arts forms such as karate and kung fu began to become popular in the state, and kalaripayattu lost its scope and resonance. There was romance in the art, but it didn’t keep the fire burning in the kitchen.

Menon and his family, however, never gave up. “My father never thought of quitting. Neither did he water down his teaching or make it expensive. All the student can afford is his guiding principle,” says Krishnadas, who also directs the Kerala Kalaripayattu Association and is the go-to consultant for martial arts, an evergreen genre in the Malayalam film industry.

At the invitation of a patron, Menon moved his base to Chavakkad in Thrissur district in 1957. Today his school – Vallabhatta Kalari, which follows the Kadathanadan tradition, emphasizing footwork and body movements rather than armed combat – has 137 students. The center has also grown with 17 branches abroad, notably in Brussels and Amsterdam, and twice as many in Kerala. Punjab and Haryana are also interested.

Krishnadas says the revival of fortunes started with the tourism boom in the state. “In the mid-1980s a man came from Belgium, I guess, and after years of training under his father, he returned home and opened his own centre. And then more people started coming. By tradition, we only allow those who have been trained by 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 those who knock at his kalari’s doors himself. “It’s not in our tradition to fire them. Those who come for knowledge will get knowledge,” he said.

The ancient martial art form has gone global, lost some of its feudal symbolism and association with bloodshed, and is now recognized as a sport in the country. And the Padma Shri is a recognition of this upward curve. But for Menon, price or not, every morning will continue to start the same way for decades.

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