For some reason, I can't seem to easily move my photos around in this blog posting. They're all out of order. I blame the computer I'm using. So: photos first, stories after. You might better appreciate the pictures if you read the incredible tales first, then come back up and take in the eye candy. At any rate, enjoy!--and thanks for reading.
My business-savvy barber at Brigade Street Hairdressers in Bangalore.
The path to the kalari (training center).
My Carnatic music teacher at her house in Bangalore.
The program ended and I moved from the rural haven of Visthar into downtown Bangalore for a week. Arvind, a friend I met at the gay pride parade, generously gave me his spare bedroom. He and his pal Nanju were my tour guides for the week in Bangalore--which meant I spent a whole lot of time at Koshy's coffee house, a hip old hang-out in town, and various locations of Corner House Ice Cream store, Nanju's (and now my) favorite Bangalore fare. Arvind is a founding lawyer for the Alternative Law Forum here, which was a key player in the Delhi High Court case which decided to decriminalize homosexuality in India's colonial-era Section 377. It was really interesting to get to learn from Arvind more about the ins and outs of the case. Last Monday, there was more good news: the India Supreme Court heard an appeal of the Delhi court's decision, and decided not to stay the Delhi decision. In other words, the Delhi decision stands as the law of the land at the moment. The Supreme Court has set an 8-week timeline to make its own final decision, but it's good news (and a good sign) that they're allowing the decision to stand as it is in the meantime.
After a full week in Bangalore, I bade adieu to Nanju, Arvind, and the boys I'd met there and hopped a rickshaw to the Bangalore City Train Station.
The trip was a fog of sweaty sleep...some conversation with two nice brothers, Nuresh and Haresh, who let me share their dad's homemade parota (flatbread) breakfast with onion chutney...a rather annoying spaced-out Canadian who happened to have reserved the bunk above mine, visiting India to stay at an ashram (read: spiritual retreat OR freeloaders' commune, depending on the ashram and the visitor), who unfortunately everyone naturally thought was my traveling partner... and beautiful countryside with jungle, rice paddies, palm trees, and occasional cathedrals popping up among the Hindu temples. Kerala is home to a large chunk of India's Catholic population. After Jesus died, the apostles got together, and the apostle Thomas apparently drew the short straw (or the long one, depending how you look at it!) and came to Kerala. To me, it's interesting to consider that this means that Christianity has roots in southwest India that go back earlier than in most of Europe. ...Kerala is also home to cashews, rubber plantations, teak, more coffee and tea, and Kalaripayattu.
And so I arrived in Kollam, home of Shivakumar Gurukkal and Swapna Chechy, his wife, to pursue some more training in Indian martial arts. (I didn't see this one coming when I started this whole trip!) They were both our teachers in the Theatre Mitu intensive--he for Kalaripayattu (which is actually practiced only by men), and she for Mohiniattam dance (which is actually practiced only by women). 'Gurukkal' is the moniker given to all gurus of this martial art form; 'Chechy,' as I understand it, is like saying 'teacher' or 'miss' or maybe 'auntie.'
I have been staying with them for one week now, and they've been so generous, to the point that I think we're all very tired of me saying 'thank you.' I really connected with them during our time together at the program in Bangalore, and so I was happy when we all seemed to be mutually interested in my coming here to see their world and do some more training. As I've gone through this week, I have to say that my respect for Gurukkal grows and grows as I see his generosity with people, his humor and love with his family, and as I feel his acceptance of me into this ancient form that's been passed down to him through his family. Kalaripayattu is very acrobatic but also very graceful (except when I do it), and a lot of the 'combat' moves are sort of hidden in the choreography. It's also bound up with Hinduism and includes movement sequences that are intended as worship and praise rather than combat. There are 7 stations for guardian deities in the large rectangular mud-floor kalari, and every time you enter and exit you must go through a series of ritual gestures at each station. It becomes a really nice way of preparing yourself and your space, to begin and to end. The art form is also accompanied by codified massage training and traditional ayurvedic medicine--so Gurukkal is a health practitioner as well as a teacher, and much of his day is spent providing treatment to patients for a variety of ailments.
One more person in the mix is a British guy named Stephen, 26 years old, who's here on his 4th visit in 4 years for training. He's a yoga teacher studying osteopathy in the UK, so his ultimate hope is to be welcomed into Gurukkal's inner sanctum of learning the medicinal practices of Kalaripayattu. It's really fortuitous that Stephen is here right now, because it's a great opportunity for me to see what another westerner has accomplished in this training. A lot of the Indian men who are practicing are small-framed, lean, and uber flexible. Stephen is about my size though, and is very very good at kalaripayattu. If it weren't for him showing the way, I might be tempted to chock up my apparent inabilities to genetics. I also get Stephen's explanations of what's going on when I might not otherwise get such a detailed English-language answer to my questions. He's a really warm-spirited guy. Best of all, his fiancee Menna is coming next week from England--along with members of both families--and Gurukkal is marrying them in the kalari! I'm looking forward to meeting Menna, and I'm strongly considering staying here for the wedding.
After one week of training now, I feel like I'm making slow progress with my balance, but not much headway with my shameful flexibility. After talking with Gurukkal about my increasingly painful hamstrings, he started me on a 7-day massage treatment. Monichan is the one giving me the massage--it's a traditional kalaripayattu foot massage, which means I lie on the floor and Monichan stands on me while holding onto two ropes, using his arms to negotiate how much weight he puts on me. The first session on Saturday was incredible and painful, seeing as it's aimed at increasing flexibility. It's a serious workout for Monichan, too.
It was quiet in the treatment center for most of the hour-long massage--just the sound of Monichan's feet in the pan of oil, then slapping against my skin. A rooster outside, and an Indian Railway train further off. A Muslim mosque's call to prayer a long, long way off. My own breath.
Monichan stepped aside and asked me to turn over onto my back. I could hear him clicking around by the TV and sound system. When he grabbed the ropes again and continued the massage, the stereo started playing Michael Jackson's crooning ballad 'Earth Song.' ...The rest of the treatment session was accompanied by--was a tribute to?--the King of Pop.