Kalaripayattu is enjoying a surge in popularity in India, thanks in part to the belief that it is ‘the mother of all martial arts’—mastered by an Indian monk in the 5th century who travelled to China and taught the Shaolin monks to fight, leading to the birth of the world-famous Shaolin Kungfu.
Now a Kerala man is seeking to make a new home for the martial art in Australia, getting it approved as a recognised sport by the Australian Sports Commission (ASC).
Anish Thayil, four-time Kerala State Kalaripayattu champion, migrated from India just six months ago to settle with his wife and her family in Sydney’s western suburbs.
Already the 35-year-old social worker has established training classes in Merrylands and Penrith. He is now building contacts in Sydney’s martial arts world to start the complicated process of getting Kalaripayattu, commonly known as Kalari, recognised by the ASC.
Kalari—which marries acrobatic combat with self-defence, yoga and traditional Indian medicine Ayurveda—was not popular when Thayil first started learning it as a boy in Kerala in the late 1980s. Luckily for him, he was born into a family with a long history in martial arts that had even developed its own family style of Kalari.
“I first saw Kalari on television and then I was looking for a teacher and I found someone in my family,” Thayil says.
“It was very difficult at that time. There were very few practitioners,” says Thayil, who went on to study under great Kalari masters including: Vasudeva Gurukkal, Mervin Suraj Aashan, Swami Anthar Bhagavat Giri, TN Jayakumar and more.
Thayil believes Kalari started flourishing again in the 21st century thanks to the internet, which put the ancient practice in front of an audience of billions in India and around the world.
“The last five years have been really good for Kalari as far as popularity is concerned. You now have regular competitions, you have associations being set up,” Thayil says, adding that now most of the Kalari schools have websites, which makes getting information easier.
The Kerala government has seen the value of Kalari as a promotional tool to elevate the tropical state within India and around the world. It’s sold to tourists as an “ancient regional martial art” that they can learn in between exploring the backwaters. The state government is also promoting Kalari within India, with a national-level championship competition launched in 2008.
Kalari is thought to be around 3,000 years old, originating in South India. The Indian Buddhist monk Bodhidharma is believed to have mastered Kalari in Kerala before journeying to China and training the Shaolin monks.
As the martial art evolved over the years in India, different regions added their own spice so today there are many regional varieties.
A passionate researcher in the martial arts, Thayil says he unearthed many lesser-known styles of the traditional combat form through his studies.
New birth in Australia
Nearly 1,600 years after Bodidharma is said to have brought his Kalari skills to China, Thayil is setting the foundations for a new home for the art in Australia.
“I just started three months ago, so I don’t have many classes yet,” Thayil says.
“Most of the people right now who are training are from a yoga background, or who have some connection with Indian culture, or through their friend they came to know about the art,” he adds.
“In Penrith most of my students are Indians but in Merry lands it’s a mixed group; we have white Australians and we have Chinese Australians and also Indians,” he says.
A tiny handful of people have started offering casual Kalari lessons in Australia in recent years, but there has never before been an organised effort to promote the martial art or get it recognised with the ASC.
Thayil says he needs recommendations from two accredited martial arts instructors to get ASC approval. “You know, you can’t do it in a day… I’m building up contacts and I’ve started the class … maybe in a year I’m trying to get accredited,” Thayil says.
Dreaming big: global competition?
Thayil has reason to dream big for Kalari’s future in Australia—with the possibility that one day a team from down under could fight for glory in competitions against the masters in India.
The global body for Kalari, the World Kalaripayattu Federation, is keen for Thayil to start a formal association for the martial art in Australia. Thayil sits on the Federation’s technical committee and was made its official representative in Australia.
“One of my teachers is the technical director for the World Kalaripayattu Federation, so they’re trying to promote it… he has asked me to form an Australian association,” Thayil says.
“In the future I have in mind, if it becomes more popular or there are people who are more interested in the art, then I might start an association or try to promote it and send a team for the competitions in India,” he says.
In the meantime Thayil is trying to promote Kalari less as a competitive martial art and more as an exercise for health and wellbeing that anybody can practice.
“A lot of people ask me, ‘Is it very difficult to learn the art?” but the thing with media is, you know for demonstrations and videos people make it more artistic and more flashy. But the original art is less flashy, it’s more practical in terms of self defence or health,” Thayil says.
“There are different styles which suit different age groups. There are more acrobatic styles and less acrobatic styles. There are more self-defence oriented styles and more ritualistic dance like styles. So the opportunities are there, the scope is there for people from different groups to learn,” he adds.
Thayil is currently teaching several classes in Merrylands and Penrith, Sydney: traditional Vadakkan Kalari—yoga-like moves, develops flexibility, speed and coordination; traditional Thekkan Kalari—more combat-oriented; hybrid Combat Kalari—based on realistic self-defence situations.
ANISH THAYIL offers private classes and instruction in Kalari medicine. He can be contacted via email at email@example.com for more information