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Fighting fit

Indulekha Aravind  |  New Delhi 

If the more familiar Southeast Asian martial art forms such as karate, taekwondo and jujitsu, or Israeli’s krav maga no longer appeal to you, then flex your muscles with these other martial arts.

If you fancy learning a martial art form combining history, music, language and sport, capoeira could be what you are looking for. An integral part of Brazilian culture, it was viewed with suspicion once upon a time by that country’s elite for its association with criminal elements. There are also reports that it was practised by African slaves in Brazil on the run. Whatever the origin, capoeira now has adherents around the world.

In India, the only official capoeira group so far is in Mumbai, set up by Reza Massah, also known as Monitor Baba, in 2006. Massah, the mestre (master) of Cordao De Ouro India, learnt capoeira in Israel, and resolved to spread the unique martial art in his home country. His students now number 400, and include Bollywood’s Hrithik and Suzanne Roshan. “It’s not just a form of self-defence, but a lifestyle of self-discipline,” says Massah. “It’s supposed to affect every aspect of your life, whether it’s to help you climb into a bus faster or increase your confidence level.”

A capoeira session involves two “players” engaging in unarmed combat, while the rest of the practitioners form a circle around them known as the roda. The grace of the movements makes the combat resemble a dance, more than a fight, or as Massah describes it — movement meditation. Each bout is accompanied by the berimbau, or musical bow (which sets the pace of the combat), tabaki (big African drum), agogo (cow bells), tambourines, and singing and clapping by the rest of the members of the group. The emphasis is as much on constantly moving and evading the blows as on hitting your opponent.

Capoeira in Mumbai has attracted people for different reasons — from the desire to learn a cartwheel, to increasing flexibility and stamina, and to become part of a community. “I have students who have lost 12 kg in three months without them even realising it,” says Massah. But he adds that Indians tend to lack the will to push themselves and prefer the easier choices, while foreigners in his classes are willing to practise a move 10 times to make sure they get it right.

“With martial arts, we have got into the ‘belt’ mode, where it’s all about graduating from one belt to the other. But you have to remember that it is actually about self-discipline: physical, mental and spiritual,” says Massah. He charges Rs 2,000 a month for three classes a week. With the sport gaining popularity, it will hopefully not be long before it spreads to other cities.

Considered the mother of all martial arts, kalaripayat is said to have originated in the 4th century AD. Legend has it that sage Parasurama taught the art to inhabitants of certain villages in Kerala to defend themselves. The word is derived from kalari, meaning arena or gymnasium, and payat, meaning combat. “Since it’s the oldest, all the martial arts in the world have some element of kalaripayat. We could see this when we visited the Shaolin monks in China,” says Murugan Gurukkal (master), who established the Nithya Chaithanya Kalari in the Capital in 1993.

There are four basic levels in kalaripayat, before which you are advised to undergo an uzhichil. This is a massage therapy with special oils to prepare your body for the rigors ahead. You then begin with the melpayattu, or exercises to control movement and for flexibility, consisting of different sequences of body movements. This is followed by kolthari, or combat using sticks, after which you graduate to angathari, or combat using daggers, swords, spears and shields. In kalaripayat, unlike in other martial arts, unarmed combat is the final stage. Verumkai, meaning empty-handed, thus teaches you how to disarm your opponent as well as how to grab and throw him etc. “You can see the origins of judo, taekwondo and kick-boxing in verumkaiprayogam,” says Murugan. The final stage also includes marmachikitsa, or healing of the vital points, which makes it unique from other martial arts. A guru is expected to be able to heal the person he has injured with marmachikitsa.

To master kalaripayat, it would take you 15 to 20 years. But most schools offer shortened versions. At Nithya Chaithanya, which charges Rs 1,500 a month for thrice-a-week sessions, you usually practice one level for up to a year, before moving to the next. “People come to learn kalaripayat as a form of self-defence, to stay fit and to lose weight. We have students from 7- and 8-year-olds to 60-year-olds,” says Murugan. Many cities, including Kolkata, Bangalore and Mumbai, have kalaripayat centres offering classes, though Murugan says it is now becoming more popular as a performing art than a martial art.

First Published: Sat, March 12 2011. 00:39 IST