BOOK REVIEW: Vajramushti by Christopher Fernandes

Vajramushti; Martial Arts of IndiaVajramushti; Martial Arts of India by Christopher Fernandes

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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There aren’t many English language books on Indian martial arts, and most that do exist address a single style (most commonly Kalaripayattu.) Christopher Fernandes’s book, therefore, fills a void by providing an overview of martial arts on the subcontinent, and for the most part the book does an admirable job. I do have a couple of criticisms of the book that I’ll get into further down in the review.

The 350 pages of this book are arranged into 17 chapters, with the front and back matter of a scholarly work (i.e. in addition to an introduction and epilogue there are appendices and a bibliography.) The first few chapters set the historical background, and the last few chapters address topics that are related to—or interconnected with—the martial arts, e.g. pranayama (breathing), Ayurveda (traditional Indian medicine), dance, and games of martial relevance. Chapters 6 through 11 form the core of the book, and this is where one gets the book one expected. These core chapters are organized by region, and each gives an overview of one of India’s martial arts in great detail. The arts covered include: Thang ta (northeast), Gatka (author classifies as Central, but it’s commonly associated with the Sikhs [i.e. Punjab, in the Northwest]), Yudhkaushalya che Talim (Central), Silambam (south, Tamil Nadu), Kalaripayattu (south, Kerela), and Marma Adi (South). It’s not all-inclusive, but that might not be possible in a single volume. It does hit the major arts and covers a range of weapons and unarmed skills, and I suspect offers a fair representation of Indian martial arts past and present.

I have two major criticisms, and a third mild criticism. The first is purely technical and likely only applies to the Kindle edition (that’s the only edition I’ve seen), and you can probably guess my gripe. The formatting on the e-version of the book is poor. While this book isn’t as graphics-intensive as a typical martial arts book (i.e. there aren’t long sequences of technique photos) there are many graphics—and necessarily so. It would be hard to convey all the information in textual form for this type of book (e.g. consider the value of a picture of a complex weapon over a description.) What happens in Vajramusthi where the graphics are inserted is that the captions get kicked in among text. At least they italicized the captions so one can get used to this oddity, but it’s a bit hard on readability when one is reading along and there is a fractional caption randomly inserted mid-sentence. The photos also cause odd white space and very narrow columns here and there.

The second major criticism is that the book often forgets its theme. By that I mean that the author goes into far too much depth on topics that are tangential to the subject at hand and sometimes fails to indicate how the subject at hand is relevant. I’m not saying that historical background and discussions of breathing and Ayurveda shouldn’t be included, they are both quite pertinent, as are the other chapters that are more tangential. However, at one point the author provides a mini-herbal field guide that seems a bit too much information for those specific herbs, but, because it’s not an Ayurveda herbal field guide, he only covers a few. This creates a book that sometimes doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be or who its intended audience is. It’s most confusing in the early chapters that begin with the dawn of humanity. Obviously, the development of martial arts is inextricably tied into the rise of societies and states, but the author doesn’t consistently do a good job at connecting these dots so the book can maintain a consistent theme. I should point out that history buffs, dance enthusiasts, or physical education nerds may find the bonus material fascinating—and it is; it just belongs in different books. It does indicate that the author has done his research. While I’m a neophyte on the subjects covered, I believe that the quality of the information is quite good. (Although myth and fact are sometimes equated as with the discussion of Bodhidharma—a myth that many historians now believe false.)

The third criticism is classified minor both because it only comes into play in the epilogue and because if I was going to criticize every martial arts book author for this sin, I’d rarely have anything nice to say about a martial arts book. At the tail end of the book the author suggests that all the other martial arts of the world are just superficial competitive endeavors and only the Indian martial arts have depth that can lead to bettering oneself in a broad sense. This is a complete oversimplification, and especially odd for someone (like the author) who has apparently trained in other systems. (At one point there is a photo of Bruce Lee, captioned “Epitome of a Warrior,” and I can only assume from his commentary in the epilogue that the author is mocking the founder of Jeet Kune Do.) I do understand the passion that inflames the author’s sentiments, which is sadness that young Indians who study martial arts overwhelmingly look to the East—just as those in Europe and the Americas do. In Bangalore, where I live, there are two places that I know of that teach Indian arts (both Kalari) and at least eight places one can learn Muay Thai—not counting the fitness centers that have no one qualified to teach MT but do so anyway. Still, one need not take cheap shots at other martial arts in attempting to encourage people to study the indigenous arts.

While my review may come across as critical, there’s really not much wrong that a skilled editor and formatter couldn’t fix. (For example, one could get blitzed playing a drinking game whereby everyone takes a shot whenever they read the exact words “Vajramushti the classical Kshatriya Lion’s skill.”) The book’s virtues tend to outweigh its vices. If there were as many books out on the Indian martial arts as there are about those of China, Japan, or Korea, I don’t know that this one would get my recommendation in its present state, but there aren’t and so I do recommended it. It’s well-researched, contains useful graphics, and it provides insight into how the martial arts fit into the history, yogic science, and movement arts of India—if sometimes a bit too much insight.

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