Kalaripayattu to Silambam, how ancient martial art forms have gone virtual

Many practitioners agree that the switch to virtual learning wouldn’t have happened in the field of martial arts, if not for the pandemic. So, what does the new normal look like?
Two Kalaripayattu artists performing outdoors
Two Kalaripayattu artists performing outdoors
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Aishwarya Manivannan is a Chennai-based Silambam practitioner. With nearly a decade worth of experience in the ancient martial art form, she teaches 40 students, passing down techniques and movements. But when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, she had to stop. Over a period of time various classes – like art, dance, and music – moved online, but Aishwarya was wary of teaching her students through a device. “For a long time I held myself back from conducting online classes since this is a weapon-based art form,” she says. Silambam is a martial art form from Tamil Nadu in which a ‘kambu’ or staff is used as the main weapon. It has been mentioned in ancient texts like the ‘Silapathikaram’ among others and is considered to be one of the oldest martial art forms in the world. 

Over the last decade or so, various Indian martial art forms, like Silambam, have gained popularity across the country and beyond. Originating from Kerala, the centuries-old martial art form Kalaripayattu has also gained new generations of disciples. Similarly, Kusti and Vajra Musti – forms of wrestling – have practitioners to this date across Karnataka. But how have martial art instructors adapted to the coronavirus pandemic? Does the physical nature of the form act as a barrier during the switch to virtual learning? What does the new normal look like for practitioners of these martial arts? 

With successive lockdowns taking place, Aishwarya soon realised she couldn’t continue to delay starting classes and decided to try the online route. She was pleasantly surprised by the results.“During demonstrations in a physical classroom, students depending on where they are standing are only able to focus on one aspect of the movement – footwork, grip, or hand movements – thereby missing out on the complete technique. But with online classes, I could take them through the process in a step-by-step manner,” Aishwarya tells TNM. She further adds that another advantage of online classes is that they could be recorded and her students could refer to the detailed instructional videos whenever needed.

Modifying teaching methods

The Ekaveera Kalaripayattu Academy in Kerala keeps alive the martial art that played out in ancient battlefields with weapons and combative techniques. Founded by 26-year-old Harikrishnan, the academy, which has 16 branches, was among the first few Kalaris (training space for Kalarippayattu practitioners) to start online classes in April 2020. First, new teaching modules were distributed to all the instructors in order to adapt and modify the teaching process, as teacher and student would not be in the same physical space. “We gave instructions on how a two-step movement should be broken down to four steps (to make it easier to understand online), and how to use alternative methods to better understand combat moves,” says Harikrishna. Further, as combat moves are learned in pairs, the teaching module showed how students could take the help of parents or family members to learn the techniques. 

The instructors found that with online classes they were able to give individual attention to students as the class strength was smaller. Geographical boundaries were also broken and they were able to take on students who were located in different cities and countries. The classrooms were also becoming diverse with people from different backgrounds, age groups, and nationalities enrolling for Kalarippayattu and Silambam training. “Age is not a bar in most of these online classrooms,” says Aishwarya, who has students from the age of 14 to 55 training under her.  

“I have hardly felt the difference between online and physical classes,” says Sathyabama, a 16-year-old who is enrolled at the Ekaveera Kalaripayattu Academy. “I find the online classes effective,” she adds, and says that she even took part in an online event.

The pandemic also saw the emergence of online tournaments and events, which weren't popular in the Kalarippayattu and Silambam circles earlier. While practitioners of the art form are not sure if the parameters used in such competitions are ideal, they say that for the moment, it works.

Image from Ekaveera Kalaripayattu Academy. Credit: Camp Cardamom

Not a long term solution

However, the martial art instructors say that this is not a long-term solution and there are concerns regarding how long they can teach in the online format. Aishwarya and Harikrishnan say that students who are at beginner or intermediate level can start classes online, but stress that combat training has to be learned in person. 

Harikrishnan adds that it is advisable for students located outside Kerala to attend workshops and classes in Kalari once in a while. “Many times, corrections in posture and movement need to be made and this cannot always be identified and rectified online. This makes periodical visits to the centre necessary so that the instructor can watch and make the corrections in person,” says Harikrishnan

There is also a digital divide when it comes to teaching martial arts online. “The coronavirus outbreak had a devastating impact on teachers who were holding classes for fewer students in remote places,” says Kalarippayattu veteran SRD Prasad Gurukkal, the son of legendary Chirakkal T Sreedharan Nair, who established one of the oldest Kalaris in Kerala. These instructors aren’t well-versed in technology and couldn’t take the classes online, moreover, many of their students wouldn’t have been able to access online classes. “Many of these instructors were completely dependent on teaching martial arts for a living,” he adds

He says that while the teachers working in bigger martial arts academies and those who treat patients through herbal medicines – a part of the Kalaripayattu training –  were able to sustain themselves better, the road ahead looks grim for many in the field.  

Aishwarya Mannivannan, Silambam practitioner. Credit: Instagram

Need for govt support

However, there is no denying that technology, especially social media, has helped increase the popularity of these ancient martial art forms and widened their audience. Ten-year-old Neelakandan, from Ekaveera Academy, garnered praise from industrialist Anand Mahindra and actor Vidyut Jamwal when his swift movements in a Kalarippayattu performance was posted online. Viral videos of Aishwarya wielding the kambu with grace and finesse helped spread the word about the martial art form.“Many people discovered me through a video where I was performing in a saree that went viral on National Handloom Day,” says Aishwarya.

But these martial art forms need government intervention and support to continue, say, practitioners and instructors. Aishwarya Mannivannan notes that the Tamil Nadu government’s efforts to include Silambam as one of the sports included under the 3% job quota in Public Sector Undertakings and government departments is appreciated. SRD Prasad, who has written five books on Kalaripayattu, including an encyclopedia, suggests that the addition of Kalaripayattu classes in schools in Kerala will have a positive impact and introduce the art form to newer generations.

SRD Prasad, who has been a guest lecturer for Kalaripayattu at Nalanda School of Arts, Bombay University, and Kannur University, explains that learning martial arts can help dancers and multidisciplinary artists too. And the pandemic notwithstanding, he is optimistic that these ancient martial art forms have a place in today’s world. “During the British era in the 19th century, there was a time when they banned Kalaripayattu and there was a decline. However, it has picked up again in the last few decades. With many students and parents wanting to preserve the ancient art form and continuing to practice it, we can hope for the best,” he says.  

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