The Kalaripayattu Salutation: Movement Makes Meaning
Independent Researcher, Toronto, Canada, CA
Gitanjali Kolanad was involved in the practice, performance, and teaching of bharata natyam for close to forty years and has written numerous articles on aspects of Indian dance. She co-founded IMPACT, which teaches and promotes Indian martial art forms in Toronto. As professor at Shiv Nadar University, she developed their performing arts program. Her first novel, Girl Made of Gold, set in Tanjore in the 1920s was short-listed for Tata Live Novel of the Year.
Vanakkam is the ritual salutation performed at different stages during the learning and practice of kalaripayattu, the martial arts system of Kerala. All vanakkams are united by their devotional character despite using expressly martial movements such as kicks and blocks. At the same time, there are differences in style, structure, and the interpretation of symbolism and significance even among Hindu kalaris, with even further greater variation in the vanakkams used in Muslim and Christian kalaris. Moreover, each weapon of the kalaripayattu form has its particular and specific vanakkam. This article uses the conceptual terms in the Natya Shastra, natya dharmi (what is suitable for the stage) and loka dharmi (what is suitable for daily life), introducing a very early binary of categories as separate, not interchangeable, classifications of movement. It looks to Maxine Sheets-Johnstone’s ‘From Movement to Dance’ as she examines ‘how meaning emerges in dance’ to decode the process of representation as it applies to the kalaripayattu vanakkam. It then goes on to analyse vanakkams through their shared choreographic structure in order to show how context affects the way movement vocabularies are read. How does a kick transcend its ordinary signification and take on ritual meaning, and how is this meaning influenced by Islam, Hinduism and Christianity?