Dressed in a crimson satin vest, Gurukkal stands with his two feet firmly rooted in the ground. He is muscular and has strong, handsome features, as well as small tufts of hair beside his ears, the symbol of a wise man in India's cultural context. Behind him there is an array of ancient weaponry, portraits of former gurus, and a shrine for Shiva, complete with burning incense. We would only be in his company for less than 48 hours, but Gurukkal and his community offered us a warm welcome and their generous hospitality throughout our course trip to Kerala, India, earlier this month, during which the members of NYUAD's Making Theater class were trained in the ancient martial art of Kalaripayattu.
Later, when we stepped out of the Kalari, the day was already coming to an end. But the chaos was just about to begin. As we gathered with Professor Polendo to review the research tools of the trip, a thunderstorm broke out. Ignoring it, we continued our conversation — until the rain was too much for the tent roof, and it collapsed, soaking everyone underneath. Studying in Abu Dhabi, where it rarely rains, the cool shower made us burst into laughter. And after the exhausting physical work of Kalaripayattu, the sweet rain was a treat. Soon the plastic chairs fell to the ground and cups rolled on the table, but Gurukkal kept his composure, guiding us to the Kalari where others had taken shelter from the storm. Due to the power outage, it was lit only by candlelight and a small oil lamp.
In the midst of this chaos, Gurukkal and Chechy prepared for their Kalaripayattu and Mohiniattim performances, the most striking of which was a Kalaripayattu match between Gurukkal and John, his trainee, using long flexible swords that functioned as whips. While the fresh smell of rain seeped into the Kalari, sparks exploded as the two swords collided and dust and gravel rose up from the ground. Throughout the match, we remained breathless and time seemed to stand still.
These two incredible days in India felt like one lifetime in a dream. With the drums, the elephants, the sparks, the storm, the stars, the earth, the Kalari, Chechy, and Gurukkal, we shared the same air and pieces of our lives. I am now back in Abu Dhabi, writing essays and catching up on readings. But every time I scratch the honor badges of mosquito bites all over my arms and legs, I am brought back to Gurukkal's Kalari in Kerala.
Before the training began we met with Gurukkal and his wife Chechy — amazing artists and mentors of NYUAD Associate Professor of Theater Rubén Polendo's theater company, Theater Mitu. The session consisted of leg-raising exercises and four stances that resembled the postures of a horse, a lion, an elephant, and a snake. The strength and flexibility of the body, as well as the concentration of the mind, demanded by Kalaripayattu were tremendous. Nonetheless, the encouragement from Gurukkal's enthusiasm paired with the focused attention of the entire class allowed us to make good progress.
Next came a training session in Mohiniattim, the traditional female dance of Kerala, with Chechy, who captivated us with her graceful gestures. It wasn't until after her demonstration, when it came time for us to train, that we realized that this dance was not only rigorous physical training, but that it also involved intricate hand movements and facial expressions, which were often unsynchronized with our body positions despite our best efforts. After expending most of our energy during the two training sessions, we had just enough left to enjoy dinner. Enticed by curries and spices of different colors, tastefully laid out on banana leaves and accompanied by steaming rice, we savored every mouthful with our hands.
The next day, the class gathered with local men, women, and children to watch the Pooram procession, an annual temple festival after the summer harvest. Little girls with eyes as clear as crystal held candles. They were attended by their mothers or grandmothers whose hair was decorated with strings of white flowers that hung down to their shoulders. The sweet scent from the coconut shells that held the candles permeated the air, the sound of the drums pierced through our hearts, and the clanging sound of manjira (small hand cymbals) spiced the orchestra. Then the elephants arrived, carrying the icon of god majestically into the procession. Some old women bowed as the huge creatures passed by accompanied by drummers and the procession of people preparing for trance. After the march commenced, we returned to Gurukkal's Kalari for one final training session.
The strength and flexibility of the body, as well as the concentration of the mind, demanded by Kalaripayattu were tremendous.