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Kalarippayattu: A Few Preliminary Caveats and Thoughts

     The emphasis that only some traditional masters (like Drona and Arjuna) foreground yoga in their practice of kalarippayattu should alert the reader to the fact that this connection is only one of several paradigms that shape practice of the martial art. Other masters not discussed here follow other paradigms of teaching and practice, like Bhima mentioned above. In an increasingly heteronomous society in which traditional practitioners must vie for students with karate teachers who often emphasize immediate "street wise" results, the paradigms, beliefs, and/or practices discussed in this essay are in a constant process of negotiation with competing paradigms and practices, and, therefore, are only more or less observed by teachers today.

     Some of the concepts and phenomena discussed here, such as "meditation," "the sacred," "oneself," "power," or "purity" are neither transparent nor self-evident. What is considered "sacred," "the self," "power," "pure" or "meditation" is particular to each interpretive community, history, context, i.e., what is "sacred" or "pure" to a brahmin male Malayali born in 1924 will be different from what is "sacred" or "pure" to a male Nayar kalarippayattu fighter of the thirteenth century, a male Sufi Muslim of Kannur born in 1965, an American male born in 1947 who has never been to Kerala or India, or a European woman born on the continent who has practiced yoga since her youth and eventually turns to a study of kalarippayattu. Historical, social, religious, gender, and ideological positions constitute quite different frames of reference and interpretative categories through which the "sacred," "self," or "pure" will be read and understood.

     Under the influence of "new age" religious assumptions or other potentially reductionist ways of thinking,[3] too often in the United States there is a humanist tendency to erase cultural difference, disregard history, participate and/or be involved in romantically projecting onto South Asia an Orientalist essentialism (Said, 1976; Inden, 1986).[4] Too often accounts reify the self and the "spiritual" as if all experiences that might be appropriately discussed as in some way "spiritual" were singular and universal. Most problematic is our Western tendency to project our hegemonic notion of the self as unitary and individual onto "selves" in other cultures. As anthropologist Clifford Geertz notes:

     The Western concept of the person as a bounded, unique, more or less integrated motivational and cognitive universea dynamic center of awareness, emotion, judgment and action organized into a distinctive whole and set contrastively both against other such wholes and against a social and natural background is, however incorrigible it may seem to us, a rather peculiar idea within the context of the world's cultures. . . [We need to] set that concept aside and view their experience within the framework of their own idea of what selfhood is.[5] - Geertz, 1983:59

     As cultural theorist Richard Johnson asserts, "subjectivities are produced, not given, and are therefore the objects of inquiry, not the premises or starting points" (Johnson, 1986:44). Following both Johnson and anthropologist Dorrine Kondo's thoughtful ethnographic study of the "crafting" of selves in Japan (Kondo, 1990), I assume here that "self" as well as the "agency" and "power" which might accrue from the practice of a martial art like kalarippayattu are context and paradigm specific, i.e., that they are variable and provisional. In this view, self, agency, and power are never "absolute," but rather are "nodal points repositioned in different contexts. Selves [agency and power], in this view, can be seen as rhetorical figures and performative assertions enacted in specific situations within fields of power, history, and culture" (Kondo, 1990:304). Kalarippayattu is a set of tech n iques of bodymind practice through which particular "selves" are understood or assumed to gain particular kinds of agency and/or power within specific contexts. Consequently, a martial practice like kalarippayattu becomes one means of "crafting" a particular self and, therefore, is a "culturally, historically specific pathway . . . to self-realization . . . [and/or] domination" (Kondo, 1990:305). The particular self crafted and realized in a Sufi Muslim kalari in northern Kerala will be different from the self crafted in a militantly radical Hindu kalari or the self crafted by learning kalarippayattu in the United States from an American teacher who might emphasize a "self-actualized self."

     With these caveats in mind, I turn to a brief historical overview of kalarippayattu and the nature of power for the martial artist(s) of the past and then to a more specific examination of some of the ways in which some of today's kalarippayattu masters understand yoga, Ayurvedic, and power in interpreting their practice and, therefore, in crafting their "selves."

Also Read: Kalarippayattu - A Study, Some Preliminary Thoughts, The Source of Kalari, The Circumstances & Alliance, Dhanurvadic Tradition, Power in Antiquity, System & Techniques, The Concept of Sakti, Conclusion

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