Monday, July 27, 2009

Kathakali; Koshy's; Karnataka Coffee; Kerala; Kalaripayattu

More ramblings from India adventures, below!

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.

Ruben Polendo (artistic director of Theatre Mitu) and me, gnawing a coconut.

From inside an auto rickshaw, a Bangalore family on a motorbike.

During the Theatre Mitu workshop, we took a day trip to the palace in Mysore. It was a very solemn occasion.

Our teachers: Ruben Polendo; Shivakumar Gurukkal (teacher of kalaripayattu); Swapna Shivakumar (teacher of Mohiniattam dance); and Robin, one of Gurukkal's top students who also came to teach/demo for us. I'm now staying with Gurukkal and 'Chechy' (Swapna) in Kerala.

In Kerala, a fun day-long visit with Stephen to the beach town of Varkala on the Arabian Sea.

At the Kalaripayattu training center in Kerala, Stephen and Sunoj preparing plants to be cooked into ayurvedic medicines.

Gurukkal and Chechy's son Ambu's 10th birthday! On the right is Chechy's mom, visiting from the northern part of the state.

The path to the kalari (training center).

Gurukkal's kalari.

The 'diksha,' or traditional offering, I gave to Gurukkal to become his student.

The elephant that scared the daylights out of me.

Back in Bangalore now (I told you these were out of order)--Arvind and his cousin Sidey (Siddarth), both lawyers at the Alternative Law Forum.

Nanju and me in a rickshaw.

At Koshy's in Bangalore, with my sideburn.

Some guy with some watermelons.

My Carnatic music teacher at her house in Bangalore.


The intensive with Theatre Mitu at the Visthar campus ended two long weeks ago--the last week was an onslaught of new ideas, plus trying to process and make sense of what we'd learned, and finally a whole new class in Kathakali performance (a form of dance-drama from southern India). I found this class to be frustrating overall. Interesting to learn another traditional performance form, but it felt like only long enough to realize how terrible we all were at it. Our teacher, whom we called Ashan (which I believe means 'teacher'), was a different sort of traditional guru than we'd encountered before: rather aloof; spoke very quietly; spoke very very little English. So I often felt in the dark about what was happening moment-to-moment in the class sessions. He'd start us out on a very difficult sequence of steps, then change the tempo without any apparent notice. Having missed the tempo change, I was a lost cause and had to really pick myself up by my own bootstraps to get back into the game. The best moments of all were the handful of occasions when Ashan's cell phone would ring and he would step out of the Aala--the thatch-roof rehearsal space--to take the call, leaving us all in the midst of a repetitive, fast-moving, exhausting sequence. One time he was talking away for over 5 minutes, as we marched on. It was all a real lesson in our cultural norms for education models. That kind of instructor behavior just wouldn't fly in most western settings, I think.

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.

Being in the city gave me more opportunity to appreciate the impressive exchange rate from Indian rupees to US dollars. One morning, I had a private Carnatic music (voice) lesson arranged with my teacher from the Mitu workshop. Before the lesson I took an early class in Kalaripayattu, the Indian martial art form we learned with Mitu.
Hour and a half martial arts class: 250 rupees. $5 US.
After the class, one of the really nice students bought me breakfast at a diner on his way to work. We ate iddly (round rice patties) with chutney and drank the super yummy Karnataka coffee (Karnataka is the state that Bangalore is in, and it's known for good coffee.)
Iddly and coffee breakfast: 16 rupees. $0.30 US.
Then I went for a haircut at Brigade Street Hair Dressers, a little hole-in-the-wall barbershop. I asked the barber how much it would cost. 30 rupees--about 70 American cents. I waited, and then I plopped down in the barber chair. He was a short wrinkly old man with a red sinthoor on his forehead from having been to temple that morning. He gave me quite a diligent little trim, aside from the fact that I asked him not to shave my stubble, and he went ahead and put an odd cleanshaven space at the bottom of my sideburns anyway. (I went home later and shaved--after daring to go to Koshy's with my weird sideburns for all to see.) As he finished the cut, he dumped gobs of oil on my head and proceeded to give me a very vigorous head massage. Nice! Then he moved down to my neck. Even nicer. I've certainly never been massaged like that in an American haircutting situation. Then he flipped my shirt up and gave my entire back--then my arms--a full treatment as well. This was all starting to seem odd, and I didn't know quite when it was going to end. It was 10am at this point--time for the music lesson to begin, and I was still 45 minutes from the music teacher's house. After the barber finished my arms, he asked if I wanted him to do my face as well. Sure I did, but I really needed to go. I gave him 100 rupees and asked for change; he got upset. Oh, I see--this was not a package deal. He'd just decided on the fly that I was a good candidate for purchasing an upgrade. I let him keep the 100 rupees.

Haircut and full upper body massage (in a barber chair, covered with hair clippings): 100 rupees. $2 US.

"This is India"--that was our shorthand phrase during the Mitu workshop. It meant, 'Most everything around here doesn't seem to happen like you expect it will. Go with the flow, be prepared to be unprepared, but also be wary of getting ripped off.' It's amazing to hear Nanju talk about the simplest things--like getting a driver's license--and say how the whole process was expedited by his parents bribing the officials.

So I caught an auto-rickshaw to the music teacher's house, and I called her with the cell phone I bought here: 1000 rupees. $20 US.

The rickshaw ride was about 45 minutes and cost me 100 rupees--$2 US.

I like the thrill of riding in the little yellow 3-wheeled auto-rickshaws. It feels like a video game, and the drivers are invariably extremely daring and brazen as they dodge between trucks and SUVs and motorbikes and the occasional wagon drawn by 2 bulls. Traffic in Bangalore--and I suspect in the whole of India--is absolutely insane. I don't think there's much other way to put it. There are a few signs around the city that read "Follow Lane Restrictions." This comes off as a very lame effort at establishing any order, since not only does no one obey lane restrictions, they often don't seem to care to obey traffic flow restrictions--anyone will happily veer around a stopped or slow car, careen into oncoming traffic, and not bat an eye. I got lifts from Arvind and his cousin Siddharth occasionally on their scooters last week, and a few times I had to literally pull in my knee to avoid having it bump a car that we were zipping past or that was zipping past us. If you're a pedestrian? Good luck. I've actually come to really enjoy the event of crossing a 4- or 6-lane road in the city, because there's really no good way to do it except to decide that you are more powerful than everyone and everything around you, and then just GO. It's a mental game. I'm amazed that I've seen only 2 accidents, I think, since I've been here. Somehow the mayhem works as its own system. 'This is India.'

As a counterpoint to the agressive traffic, the car horns here are more flamboyant than any I've heard before. I don't know why we've decided in the West that car horns have to be one loud annoying blare. Here, you get all kinds of fanciful arpeggios and snippets of song and surprising rhythms. Some motorbike horns apparently decrescendo slowly over the duration of the honk. Horns are used quite liberally, too--more to say 'heads-up, I'm coming' than 'watch out.' A rickshaw driver rounding a gentle curve will honk his horn just in case someone happens to be on the other side. Finally, I love that when trucks go in reverse here, they don't beep obnoxiously; instead, they play a tinkly song that conjures summertime ice cream in America.

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.

16-hour sleeper bunk on a train to Kerala (the southwestern-most state in India): 240 rupees. A little under $5 US.

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.

Chechy, meanwhile, is mothering me with all kinds of amazing Indian foods from Chechy's Kitchen (which is a name I think we should syndicate for the Food Network!). Add in their son Ambu, who's 10 and is a serious live wire, and Chechy's mom, who's mostly deaf and can't really speak, and the whole household is like a comedy show. Chechy's mother really is a comedian in her own right, with all her gesticulating and facial expressions and well-timed takes to Gurukkal, who knows just how to play her. A lot of the comedy happens around the dinner table, with Chechy laughing at my attempts at eating with my hand--Ambu being reprimanded for smacking his food--and everyone trying to force-feed everyone else.

Ambu turned 10 last weekend, and they saved the small celebration for after my train arrived. I then got to go see a group of elephants--captive elephants used for temple ceremonies--and even got to touch one. This was just after one of the elephant keepers said, "That elephant has killed four people. Very dangerous." (Not referring to the particular elephant I was approaching.) It was definitely humbling to stand next to that massive creature and touch one of the heavy, solid tusks. Then, its keeper--who I was keeping close to--swatted it on the leg for some reason, and the elephant let out a roar-slash-wail that literally shook my bones. It felt comparable to the feeling I had last May during a close encounter with an Alaska bear. As soon as the elephant got quiet and appeared to be not killing me, I moved away from him to relative safety.

On Monday, Gurukkal welcomed me into the kalari--the name for the training center--officially. One of his senior students, Monichan, bought for me the traditional gift that a new student gives to a guru to begin training: 3 paan leaves and a nut from the paan tree. I added in one rupee coin, also traditional. I entered the kalari and gave the gift to Gurukkal on one knee--he gave me a blessing, and my training began.

One to two hours every morning (7ish to 9ish) and about 2 hours every evening (6ish to 8ish) equals a lot of hard physical work. A nap is always in order in the sweltering afternoons--and Gurukkal's house is just a 10-minute walk down the (treacherous traffic!) road from the kalari. As I said, the kalari has a mud floor, and it has a thatch roof and is partially open to the elements. It's a beautiful space. All you wear for training is a lingati--basically a loin cloth--and before you start, you lather your whole body with gingilly (sesame) oil to increase flexibility. I am by far the sweatiest student in every session, so that means by the end of training I am a complete mess of sweat and dirt and grit and mosquito bites and oil. Sit and rest until the sweating stops (so that you're naturally cooled down). Usually watch Indian news on TV with Gurukkal in the nearby office/kitchen/bath/treatment center complex. Lots of news about coastal flooding due to monsoons, and about Michael Jackson's death. Get served chai or snacks by Monichan, who seems to be the sort of team mother of the place (and who's a big Michael Jackson fan). Then, finally, a cold shower (cold is the only option). Wash the muddy lingati in a bucket with every shower. Hang it to dry on the line between two coconut trees. It's a really delightful community to be welcomed into.

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.
This is India.


  1. Ryan - love your two posts so far. I can certainly relate to the This is India! I can't wait to see you again to talk and share stories of India - I would say mine are a bit more on the pampered side for sure since work was paying for everything ... but I certainly can relate to your statement of just wanting some silence and downtime to just BE in India. It sounds like you are having a wonderful adventure!

  2. absolutely amazing. can't wait to hear and read more, and hopefully one day in the future, sit and share the stories in person. keep learning and growing, and please send my love to gurukal and chechy!


  3. ry-sorry to read you're have such an utterly miserable time, it's too bad you are so bored and lonely. you probably should just give up and come home.