What are we fighting for?



‘There is Amur, where the toddy is potent and sweet

one of his legs squeezes the chest of the powerful wrestler

and crushes his vigorous strength while the other leg wrapped

around the back stifles his attempts to break free

How I wish that Tittan, so difficult to oppose, a winner

of battles, could see this, whether or not it would please him!

Like a famished elephant trying to gobble down bamboo

at head and foot he twists and snaps the body

of the wrestler who has taken the field and triumphing

he is killing him.’1

– The Four Hundred Songs

of  War and Wisdom.

THE entrance to the kalari is through a low door facing east. The seven steps of knowledge are in the southwest corner; there is a god in every cardinal direction, making it ‘a holy place, where a greater reality can be found.’2 The centre is empty, weapons line the periphery – long sticks, short sticks, the otta, double-curved like a spine, the mace, daggers, swords and battered shields, spears, weapons from a time when you looked your opponent in the eye. These are real weapons – if you get hit, it’s going to hurt.

But why? Once movements that constitute part of a fighting technique are rendered obsolete by modern fighting implements such as guns and removed from the context of wars, duels, and effective self-defence, the question inevitably arises: what are we fighting for? Why do we maintain that connection to the martial past?

The category of movement, ‘martial arts’, putting into such close proximity words that seem to have no immediately obvious connection serves to emphasize the contingency of such designations. This problem of nomenclature is further heightened when we look at the words in Indian languages for these forms: kalaripayat, foregrounding the place – kalari where the fighting techniques – payat – are practiced; silambam and kuthu varisai named for the weapon used, the long stick, and fists; varma adi, referring to the target of attack, the varma or secret points; and thekkan Southern, kalari, emphasizing the geographical location of origin.

In South India, there are very few settled conventions as to which techniques fall into which category; rather, they are all interwoven through mythology and history into the larger pantheon of a holistic South Indian system that includes fighting, medical and spiritual practices.

Tracing the shifting balance between the ‘martial’ and the ‘arts’ outlines the different forms of patronage that prevailed over the centuries of their evolution. Patronage goes beyond a relationship of simple exchange, especially for fighting techniques. The patron and the patronized are linked by bonds of mutual obligation which then extend into their relationships in society, enhancing status: ‘…what we call patronage recreates the ideological context of contemporary history and projects an individual or group into posterity: it inevitably involves both wish fulfillment and self-announcement.’

As we shall see, the techniques no longer used in battle in the service of kings, nevertheless are part of a process that continues to recreate an ideological context, different from the original but still driven by ideology, and involving participants in new kinds of wish fulfillment and self-announcement. Somehow that seems to be a necessary part of what makes them ‘martial arts’.

As with the origin stories of most Indian art forms, myth and history intermingle, to link present-day practices with whatever knowledge it might have been that Lord Parashurama taught to some brahmin families or Lord Shiva and the quasi-historical Siddhars, may have conveyed to the Nadar caste. Such stories affirm divine sanction for existing norms, especially where caste is concerned: which caste serves, which caste is served.

Once this account reaches historically verifiable figures such as the Valluvanad king and the Zamorin of Calicut, the emphasis is on the strictness of the training and the heroism of the fighting, essentially martial qualities that allowed small bands of warriors to defeat much larger armies. When such fighting techniques are used in the service of a king or a petty chieftain, it is their effectiveness and efficacy in maiming and killing that define them, though even at this stage these are linked to moral qualities of self-sacrifice and heroism, at least in present day retelling. Incidents from the past that find a place in this story share a common thread of fighting against invasion and oppression, eventually leading to and affirming pride in regional identity. For example, it is said that Haider Ali sent his son Tipu Sultan, the most successful of the Indian leaders in resisting the British, to Kerala to train in kalaripayat.

The so-called ‘Northern Ballads’ of Kerala tell the stories of duels fought to decide disputes. Each side would hire, instead of a lawyer, a warrior, usually coming from the Ezhava caste, paying a huge sum of money to the family, since the death of one of the fighters was assured. After ritual preparation for death, the two men would apply the full extent of their fighting techniques, with victory in
the dispute going to whichever man had hired the more skilled warrior. The giving of wealth in exchange for life itself is a form of patronage that produces ‘a special symbolic quality that transcends the limits of formal exchange’ and ‘projects the individual…into posterity’, as attested by their being memorialized in the ballads.

As we leave the distant, un-documented past, coming to us only as stories told and retold, and move toward the present day, we can mark the shift in who is in command of the fighting technique and how it is used. As with many Indian art forms, with the fight for Indian independence the martial arts experienced a revival and resurgence, most prominently effected in Kerala by C.V. Narayana Nair and his guru Kottakal Kanaran Gurukkal.

This shift in the meaning of martial arts can be traced in films. Many practitioners in Tamil Nadu cite MGR as the reason for the revival of silambam. The late actor and chief minister of Tamil Nadu capitalized on regional pride by using the stick fighting technique in his films. In the 1966 film Padagotti, MGR plays a fisherman from one fishing community working to unite with another fishing community in opposition to a corrupt zamindar trying to cheat both groups. When MGR uses his martial skills, though, it is neither in the service of the zamindar, nor against him. In fact, it is against the other fishing community. They too are fighting with sticks – that is, both communities share the same embodied knowledge and set of fighting techniques.

In essence, MGR’s character is fighting for himself, defending himself against a large group of attackers from the other side. He is honorable and just, and inevitably, he is also the most skilled fighter. We understand from this juxtaposition that qualities of character and fighting skills go together.

This is where we can see the ‘martial’ tilt towards the ‘arts’, for though it is efficacy in attack and defence that is being represented, it is artistry that we actually see. Films featuring martial arts show highly choreographed fight scenes that have little or no relationship to an actual street fight.

In the 1996 film Indian Kamal Hasan plays a character skilled in varma adi, who can aim his blows at secret vulnerable points on the body of his opponent, effecting lethal damage quickly and effectively. The hero looks like a harmless old man, but hands out vigilante justice to corrupt government officials, fighting for the downtrodden of his own accord, not on another’s behalf. His skill in his particular fighting technique requires only that he punch and strike while holding his fingers in strange positions: a fist with the knuckle of the middle finger protruding, index and middle finger extended and twisted one over the other or curled like an animal’s claws. Since the technique itself is widely known to be secret, it only needs to be hinted at in the film to convey its effectiveness while preserving its mystery.

Again, moral qualities are associated with skill in varma adi; the fighter expresses compassion and care for the poor victims of government corruption along with ruthlessness in meting out violent, bloody retribution to the victimizers.

Gurus notice a close link between the movies that include martial arts and the participation of students. Rajendran Asan of Madurai did not have very many students until he choreographed the fighting for Indian, after which his classes were full, at least until the new students tired of the punishing physical regimen.

But now other meanings of patronage inhere. These martial arts are embedded in the cultural fabric of South India and many of the prevailing societal values are incorporated into the martial arts as moral requirements for both the students and teachers. The power structures in the martial arts could be seen as modelled after those in a family. In a ‘traditional’ Indian family, the head of the household is usually the father, followed by the eldest son. The person who has the least power will be the grandchild, who isn’t allowed to refute the elders.

Similarly, the kalari has its own hierarchy of service: the gurukkal holds the most power, which comes to him through a symbolic connection to his ancestors and his own gurukkal, followed by the senior-most disciple, while the newest student must unquestioningly obey instructions. Seniority is not determined by age but rather by experience. Just as the leader of the household makes decisions on behalf of the members of the household, who are bound by social and familial ties to follow his directions, the master of the kalari makes decisions for the students in terms of their learning and often extends his authority into everyday life, marking patronage as ‘an integrated, organized behaviour pattern through which social control is exercised’.

This practice of obedience towards the master appears to be common to performing traditions as well. This greater authority is conveyed through the manner of address, as ‘guru’/‘gurukkal’ or ‘Asan’ which express a level of authority greater than the English word ‘teacher’.

Being accepted as a student by a guru means becoming ‘an active player in  the hierarchical relationships that constitute teacher-student affiliations and structures of legitimacy.’3 When this happens in childhood, the stated reasons for entering into such a relationship may be to do with health, for self-defence, or because they (or their parents) want to participate in the propagation of an important cultural artifact to be transferred intact from one generation to the next. In this case the South Indian martial arts, like other art forms with a strong regional and cultural connection, like bharata natyam, or Carnatic music, become tools of nostalgia for a shared glorious past, uniting people under a complex collective identity, and at the same time being inherently divisive, as the equally powerful category of ‘other’ naturally arises.

Identity formation happens on many levels – language, religion, nationality, and gender, but collective identity as it emerges in the kalari seems to transcend communal identity; Muslim and Christian students practice in Hindu kalaris even following rituals that are known to be Hindu practices and vice versa.

The assumed expectations and obligations that arise between teacher and student are also built on a ground of mythological and historical stories repeated as models for behaviour. For example, Dronacharya, the great teacher of fighting techniques in the Mahabharatha, is a benevolent guru to Arjuna but uses his position against Ekalavya, a gifted tribal archer whose superior skills he destroys by demanding as his guru-dakshina the young man’s thumb. While seeming to be about Ekalavya as exemplar of devoted student, it functions much better as a cautionary tale about tyrannical gurus.

Ekalavya through his own practice without any guru, became a greater archer than Arjuna who had the benefit of Dronacharya’s teaching. That bloody thumb, essential to the person who gave it, useless to the person who demanded it, for services never rendered, since Dronacharya had refused to teach Ekalavya because of his tribal origins. In tribal retellings, such as among the Gonds, Ekalavya nevertheless comes out on top, for the Gond manner of shooting doesn’t require the thumb.

Beyond regional identity, there are other contexts and meanings for the martial art, divorced from usefulness as a fighting technique. Adult students, with no connection to or desire to reinforce Tamil or Kerala identity, nevertheless take up and participate in a practice that demands they submit to being ‘patronized’ – condescended to by the guru, treated like a small child within the hierarchy of the kalari. The adult student and the teacher willingly enter into a closely linked relationship of mutual interdependence, with the exchange of money providing access to a process rather than a product. The guru needs the patronage of students to support himself, bolster his reputation, and propagate the art form; students need the guru to learn and practice an art form that retains the imprint of its martial past. Guru and shisya are ‘reciprocally dependent on one another in asymmetrical ways.’

Paul Valery, in attempting to define the parameters in his essay on the philosophy of dance, describes dance as ‘an action that derives from ordinary, useful action, but breaks away from it, and finally opposes it’ The movements and structure of patterns of movement in all the South Indian martial arts taught in kalaris, classrooms, dance studios, today break away from the ‘ordinary, useful action’ of drills of attack and defence, creating formalized movement patterns that stand in opposition to maiming and killing which constitute the ‘ordinary, useful actions’ of a fighting technique.

If we take as our model of art the transcendence of the everyday implied by Valery, then the entry into the kalari, bending to navigate the low door, touching the mud floor, the guru’s feet, bowing to the gods in each direction, provides an embodied entry out of our ordinary actions and into a form
of moving the body where the accom-plished practitioner is brought to an awareness of external and internal states that is fully experienced and where the one performing the action and the action itself take on a distinct quality of awareness that is similar to what a performer experiences, musician or dancer or actor. At the same time, martial arts in other ways aligns with actions like sweeping or digging, in that there is a functional, rather than aesthetic, aspect to the way one moves.

As philosopher Alva Noe said in an interview, ‘the capacity to see and the capacity to move are interwoven.’ As we move the view changes, we better understand and know the environment we’re in by moving through it. But it is not enough to practice our postures, attacks and blocks seeing before us the empty space of the kalari as one is objectively doing. Ritual action, being ‘a synedoche by which one may be able to perceive… the fuller state of things’ reminds us that the repetition of forms like the meipayat are directed towards a heightened state of awareness, defined in kalaripayat as ‘when the body becomes all eyes.’

This heightened state of awareness, achieved by warriors fighting to the death in duels immortalized in
the Northern ballads, remains the goal of practice. It is only by ‘seeing’ the opponent, that one’s own attacks can be aimed or placed or timed or balanced to exert the right force. By fully imagining the opponent, seeing where the vital points are, and where the fists or feet should go in punch or kick, one perfects one’s own movement. The patterned sequences are in effect a partnered dance, with one partner visible, one invisible.

In practice, the evocation of the other that informs one’s own positions and attitudes is not always made explicit, especially in the beginning. One learns the hand gestures or the punches, corrects the order of movements, refines aspects of posture and technique. But once the outer delineation of the form is more or less in order the imaginative work is in most fully creating the other on whom those punches land.

To the extent that theatrical art is imitation, it is the imitation of action. The work of the warrior is heroic action; the imagined other leads to effective actions.

The gurukkal, to whom the practitioner has subsumed his own will as demanded by the hierarchy of the kalari, gives shape to this invisible other, directing the gaze to what isn’t there, bringing awareness to locations on the body that exist conceptually – the vital points, the chakras, showing how to surprise the invisible opponent while keeping one’s own vital organs at all times protected from  attacks that never land.

These instructions are given as defensive warnings or as injunctions to attack. But now, rather than fighting in the service of another, the practitioner fights in service of his own interests, not even to win, or to defeat some enemy, but to become more skilled, more aware, more responsive.

To again quote Noe, ‘the skilful ability to move is at the very core of what it means to be a conscious perceiving agent.’ As recent research into what happens when we watch another person moving shows, the perception of another person’s body in motion gives rise to reciprocal top-down and bottom-up processes between the actor and observer. In this duel with an imaginary opponent we are creating in ourselves a quality of movement; no longer is there the simple pattern in which one moves according to that pre-made structure, but now the practice takes on a life of its own. The rhythm changes. The body stretches, not to stretch, but to reach. There is force in the punches, resistance in the defence.

This is especially important in the martial arts because practice with an actual opponent is always restricted now that the death of one’s opponent is no longer the aim. There is no sparring in kalaripayat, but even in martial art forms where there is, these are inevitably situations where one is holding back, playing by the rules. One is not in a position to hit or kick one’s partner with full force, or attack the head, the genitals, as one might do in a real fight.

This distinction becomes especially clear in the partnered sequences with weapons. Here, the guru or senior student steps into the opponent’s role, so the fight is no longer imaginary, and neither are the injuries that can occur. Rather than freedom, the real opponent leads to a containment of the action – aiming with the sticks or swords for the air instead of the ear, the shield instead of the person behind it. Only the imaginary opponent is fair game. Limitless force can be harnessed and unleashed on this absent warrior. It is the very fact of the opponent’s not being there that allows one to surrender so completely to the action, to allow the body its full extension, range of movement, speed and strength.

The choreography of the moves is a distillation of techniques into a formal structure for practice, blows and blocks, advance and retreat, kicks and turns. Without the inner work of imagination, this is empty and looks to be so. But in no circumstances can a sequence like the meipayattu be likened to a real fight.

In kalaripayat, the imaginary opponent creates a field of action, disinhibiting and freeing the practitioner to move beyond real-life limitations, to reach the transcendent state that unifies the martial and the art. The kalaripayat practitioner is transformed by practising with the imaginary opponent in the same way that the devotee is transformed by seeing and being seen by the deity in the temple. This is not so fantastic, because the kalari is in a sense a temple, sanctified by gods, ancestors, the lineage of one’s guru, one’s own guru. The reciprocity and transformative quality of the seeing and being seen in kalaripayat is similar to the seeing and being seen of the religious experience of darshan.

In the practice of weapons, darshan becomes an actual reciprocal seeing; focused on, and held within, the guru’s gaze, we experience the flow state where action comes without thought. Warriors who fought to their death might have willingly exchanged life for this state of consciousness, or so we can imagine.


1. George L. Hart and Hank Heietz (eds.), The Four Hundred Songs of War and Wisdom – An Anthology of Poems from Classical Tamil: The Purananuru. Columbia University Press, 2000.

2. Peter Brooks, The Empty Space. Penguin Classics, 2008.

3. Greg Downey et al., ‘Apprenticeship as Method: Embodied Learning in Ethnographic Practice’, Qualitative Research 15(2), p 187 (183-200). https://doi.org/10.1177/146879 4114543400.