At the age of 19 I went to Acting school in London, to pursue what I thought would be a preparation to Act on the London stage. I had never considered myself good enough to be an Actor, however at school received very high marks for a monologue and duologue I performed at the completion of my A-level studies and my Director said to me ‘You didn’t surprise me, you amazed me. You should go to Drama school’. It seemed I should not refuse such a recommendation and so cancelled my plans to read Geography at UCL and instead began my training as an Actor.
Now there are two very distinct approaches to Acting. The first is the traditional Stanislavskian method, essentially to ‘think’ your way into being another person. This is the way of Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, Robert De Niro and other members of the Strasbourg method school. To place yourself in the position of the role and to think how they would think. The idea of this is that this thinking soon transforms into feeling and then into action – so in the end you stand, move and interact physically as the role.
There is another way however and in fact this is also Stanislavski, yet most failed to take it seriously. At the end of his life Stanislavski explored the possibility of beginning the transformation process from the opposite end i.e. to find the physical actions of the role and to fully realise these. For example let us consider the different ways a business worker in a big city may behave physically, with that of a man working the fields on a Chinese rice plantation. Very different physical actions. Very different patterns of tension. If we then try to realise these physical actions, Stanislavski said, would the feelings and thoughts of those physical actions not permeate through. Essentially, do we not have a storehouse of all our emotions and thoughts, buried inside our physical bodies.
Now, recent research on the Neuromyofascial web (a 3D spiders web of connective tissue that exists inside all humans and supports and nourishes all the structures of our body ) is now confirming this view taken 100 years ago by Stanislavski. That is, that we store patterns of tension inside our bodies and these patterns affect the flow not only of tension and fluids inside us but also electricity and even light. So in a very real sense, our physical actions (or patterns of tension) affect our feelings and our thoughts.
Whilst at East 15 Acting school I was lucky to have a have a teacher who shared with me this approach of Stanislavski and also of Grotowski, a polish theatre director who took on this character research and developed it in the 1960s. In fact Grotowski’s influence on modern avant-garde theatre is perhaps second to none. He created the foundations of a completely new approach to transformation based around these ideas of Stanislavki and his work in Poland remains almost incomparable with anything modern theatre laboratories are able to create. Indeed it was Grotowski who first used the term laboratory in relation to acting and perhaps even art, a term used extensively today. He took the term from the Bohr Institute as he considered his work to be a similar research, a scrutinising analysis or the psycho-physical processes of acting.
In the 1960s and 70s Grotowski looked around the world for different training systems that sought to bring about a transformation of the emotional and mental through a physical practice. He examined numerous disciplines and was particularly interested in Asia: The Peking Opera, Balinese dance drama and Kathakali dance of south India. Whilst investigating Kathakali, he came across Kalarippayattu, the southern Indian martial art, which was used to condition and treat the Kathakali dancers. Eugenio Barba, Grotowski’s main disciple (and yes they referred to each other as Lama and Kim), took from the Kalari tradition, exercises and technique and bought them back to Grotowski’s Laboratory theatre, then in Opole, Poland. His actors then broke these exercises down and found a ‘play’ within them. An opportunity for the give and take of impulse, for the birth of conflict and therefore drama. For Grotowski believed that this give and take was the essence of theatre and that conflict was the most crucial component in Drama.
So my discovery of Kalari came first in reading about the history of Grotowski. In a book of letters written from his Kim (Eugenio Barba) and in subsequent exercises created in his theatre laboratory. In 2000 I left Acting school as I realised I did not want to be prepared to work in commercial theatre but instead wanted to refine my craft as an Actor and not to simply be another number chasing after advert jobs and relying on my agent. My first stop was to find a way to train Kalari !
In London at the time John Cassie was teaching. John was perhaps the first westerner to dedicate himself to the art of Kalari. Else perhaps it was Philip Zarelli, the writer of the esteemed book ‘When the body becomes all eyes’, which remains the most useful text on Kalarippayattu. John had been a student of Gurukkal CM Sherif since the late 1980s and had spent many years in India. I attended John’s classes with a thirst I had not known since my first days as an Actor. The training was precise and powerful. The devotion and fluidity within the movements mesmerising to a 20 year old fresh out of Acting school, with all its pretences.
I attended as many classes as I could, which was 3 a week and soon began to find a oneness with the forms. I knew this was significant to me and could feel the transformative effect the movements were having not only on my body but also on my mind. I was becoming grounded, focused and confident. Within months I decided to go to India and to become a student of John’s Gurukkal in Kerala.
First however I was to have a Northern India adventure or rather crude awakening ! I spent several months travelling through the northern states, becoming sicker and sicker and more and more unsettled in myself. I got angry with people who did nothing wrong other than disagree with me. I got verbally violent and ugly. I lost weight and health daily. I was a mess. I arrived at the door of my soon to be Gurukkal dressed in bright Indian clothes and adorned with jewels. Years later he would say to me ‘You know Adam, I think when you arrived, you thought you were a Demigod!’ It was true! I had a very disturbed and unhealthy view of reality at age 20 and I thank my Gurukkal and Kalari greatly for remedying that but that is all still to come, let us return to the story.
So I was began training and on my first days was limited to 15 minutes a day, a limitation my youthful self was not very happy with. I wanted more. I wanted to train harder, go further, deeper. I was not patient. I continued like this for some time and it was perhaps after only a month that my training increased to the point that I finished my mornings in the Kalari exhausted. I realised the reasons I had been held back in the first days. The most important quality a martial artist can possess, is patience. Focus is crucial yes but that will come with patience. Without patience we are never really where we are and in martial arts, we must be exactly where we are, 100% present all of the time. Slowly I came to see this.
After 2 months training I left the Kalari and returned to the UK. Equipped with a practice that I could do independently and in my own way I did, though I did not yet fully appreciate what I had learnt and it took another year and another trip to Kerala, this time for 3 months for me to truly see what it was I had discovered.
Another old student of my Gurukkal was Sian Lemmons, a grandmaster in Karate form Germany who had sent his 2 sons to Sherifka for training in their late teens. Both returned to Germany and within a very short time became world champion level kick-boxers. Kalari had given them the edge! One day at the Kalari Sian Lemmons turned to me and said “I have been studying martial arts my whole life Adam and this (Kalari) is it! Don’t go anywhere. You have found it”. His words took a long time to fully sink in and for me to see the truth in what he said but he was right and now, 18 years later I see that for what it was. A man who had spent years in search of the essence of MAs and who wanted to save another from unnecessary searching. For yes we all like to search for something but surely finding it is better!
Abhyasi – lit: ‘the repeating one’ the name given to anyone who practices Kalari.
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From Demigod to Abhyasi – my encounter with Kalari.