BOOK REVIEW: Kalari Margam by Ranjan Mullaratt

Kalari MargamKalari Margam by Ranjan Mullaratt

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is one of the few books on the Indian martial art of Kalaripayattu–particularly written in English. [There are English and Kannada editions–Kannada being the language spoken in Karnataka, the state where the book was produced.]Kalaripayattu is believed to be one of the world’s oldest martial arts and many believe it to be an ancestor to many popular Asian martial arts.

This will be a quick review because this is a pictorial book–i.e. like a coffee table book. While there is text throughout, the book primarily seeks to convey the feel of the martial art through photographs. In that regard the book succeeds tremendously. The photos, often full-page format, are vivid, engaging, and bring Kalaripayattu to life. The photographer, Arabind Govind, did an excellent job, as did all of the practitioners who served as demonstrators for the photos.There is pleasing use of natural lighting for both the photos taken in the kalari and outdoors. The acrobatics are awe-inspiring.

The text is well-written and concise. There were a couple tiny typos that didn’t detract from the meaning in any way. (It’s a first edition and a photo book, so I don’t grade hard there.) The text is most extensive and useful toward the front of the book in the discussions of history, philosophy, and mythos of the art. Throughout most of the rest of the book the text consists of sparse paragraphs used to give a little additional information on the weapons and techniques–including the massage style.

The book starts with background, then it delves into the physical exercises that are used to build fitness, then the unarmed fighting approach, followed by the arsenal of weapons employed in the art, and it concludes with a discussion of vital point massage.

I’d recommend this book for students of the martial arts who are interested in Indian martial arts, or who are just interested in martial arts generally.

I will say that the book may be difficult to get one’s hands outside of Bangalore because it is self-published by the Kalaripayattu Training and Research Center. I will, therefore, give their address: Kalari Gurukulam, 102 Maple Meadows, Chikkagubbi, Bangalore, India 562149.

Their website is www.kalarigurukulam.com

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Krabi Krabong Double Swords: Coordination in Action

Earlier in the month I took a few Krabi Krabong classes during my two-week visit to Tiger Muay Thai in Phuket, Thailand. For those who are unfamiliar, Krabi Krabong is a Thai martial art that focuses on weapon fighting. However, Krabi Krabong is what one might call a comprehensive martial art. That is, there are a number of different weapons utilized, and there is also an unarmed component. (It’s apparently unclear whether Krabi Krabong was practiced in conjunction with Muay Boran [the old Thai boxing style that predates Muay Thai] or whether they were always independent. Some of the weapons used in Krabi Krabong are sword (singly and in pairs), sticks (singly and in pairs), long staff, shield (used in conjunction with sword or club), halberd, and clubs worn on the forearms called mai sawk (the latter look vaguely reminiscent of the Okinawan tonfa, but upon closer inspection are quite different and are not designed to be spun freely like tonfa.

While I saw the instructor work with both staff and mai sawk, what we learned were double club techniques that the instructor did with double sword as well. The use of twin short weapons is common in Krabi Krabong. Working with two independently operated weapons is fairly new for me. In Japanese martial arts the use of weapons in such a way isn’t that common. Miyamoto Musashi advocated using the long and short swords in unison, and there are a few sword schools that teach this. I learned the fundamentals of one such school, Jinen-ryū Ni-tō-jutsu, but never practiced enough to develop any skill with it. So it took some effort just to get the basic warm-up drills down (e.g. spinning both sticks simultaneously with each stick going in the opposite direction. It’s a piece of cake if they are both going the same direction.) Of course, in any martial art one is likely have to drill a lot of movements where one is doing two or more different things with different limbs at the same time, but it can still be a challenge finding a grove with double weapons.

In most cases what we were doing was moving one stick through a guard position as the other was attacking. This creates a set of exchanges of strike and counter that feels fast.

I learned four basic forms. The first was just alternating downward angled hits at neck level. The second alternated downward strikes first at neck level and then at knee level. (When I was looking through Youtube videos on Escrima–which I’ve heard has dual stick fighting that looks similar to that of Krabi Krabong–I did see a single-stick Eskrima drill that looked quite similar.) The third form also involved two neck and two knee strikes, but it didn’t look like the previous form because it involved a spinning maneuver such that the last two strikes were to the outside of opponent’s same knee with the first one being a forehand hit and the second being a backhand strike coming off the spin. Spinning techniques were brand new to me. Contrary to what one sees Tom Cruise do in Last Samurai, spinning maneuvers (and other “fancy” techniques) are anathema to the Japanese mindset. The fourth form was head strike – knee strike on the same side and then the same on the other. (So unlike form 2 which was head – head – knee – knee, this was head – knee – head – knee.) We then ran these forms together in various orders.

I see the value in drilling this way to ingrain coordination. However, as someone who is relatively slow but has a decent command of range, I’m not sure how comfortable I would be utilizing the approach we practiced as my go-to tactic. In other words, there was a lot of staying at a range the opponent could strike one and relying on being able to get the guard/block/parry in place. This has the advantage of keeping one in striking range as well, but you’ve got to be confident you’ll have the upper hand in speed. Of course, I saw a minuscule part of the system, so maybe there’s more making the opponent reach out for one among the techniques (or maybe we were practicing them wrong and the instructor was just worried about us getting the basic movement down.)

It was definitely an interesting, educational, and humbling experience.