Don’t get carried away by his size. Even with his 3.8 feet height, he can be deadly; such is his proficiency in Kalari Payattu — Kerala’s ancient martial art form.
Even at 78, Othenan Gurukkal, one of the most revered Kalari Payattu exponents of north Malabar, is still going strong. An expert in marma chikitsa (a traditional treatment of nervous system), this septuagenarian can take on four opponents absolutely unarmed.
Ask him about his disciples, he has lost count. Even today, 22 students are undergoing training of Kalari Payattu, considered to be the predecessor of Japanese martial art such as Karate. He has churned out six gurukkals (a practitioner needs at least 16 years to become a guru).
“I started practicing it at the age of nine. My first guru was my uncle, Kunhambhu Gurukkal. Due to my size, initially all thought that I would be a misfit. But my physical shortcomings emboldened me further,” Gurukkal recalled his initial days.
In 1974, Gurukkal had set up his maiden kalari (it is a specially constructed practicing area that comprises a Poothara, a seven-tiered platform) near Kuttiyadi in Kozhikode district. There has been no looking back for the master ever since.
A classical exponent, Gurukkal strictly follows the rulebook and refuses to change the original style and form to suit the modern-day lifestyle. When a few foreigners came to learn, they were bluntly told to undergo a strict regimen. “We believe that sage Parshuram started this martial art form,” he said.
“Kalari incorporates kicks, strikes, martial dance, weaponry and healing techniques. Ironically, it has been reduced from an art form to merely a technique for maintaining fitness level. Commercialization is ok, but it should not destroy the sanctity of the ancient art form,” Gurukkal said.