2 – Cosmologies & holistic references



The contributors will frame the martial practice groups’ art cosmologies and the holistic reference sets constructed by artistic performance collectives. Martial techniques often interconnect with a range of practices, from dance to theatre and therapeutics. The transmission processes can take initiation form and transpose into micro-social organisation and hierarchies. Several presenters will discuss the apprenticeship conditions and their contemporary transformation. Others will describe the incorporation of martial techniques and values in the process of artistic creation.

  • Discussants: Virginie Johan (Paris-8 University) & Kathy Foley (University of California)


* Due to technical issues, the video discussion of the panels 1, 2, and 8 have a strong echo. We apologies for the inconvenience. We are trying to fix it. Thank you for your understanding.


  • Carole Drouelle ( Paris 8-Vincennes University) – Martial Arts Servicing a Spiritual Theatre; Two Cross Examples: Anatoly Vasiliev and Claude Régy


What can martial arts, as bodily and spiritual practices, bring to a theatre which aims at the embodiment of an invisible onstage? In this presentation, the example of a traditional Asian theatre, kathakali, highlights the role of a martial practice, kalarippayat, in the construction of the extra-daily body of the actor-dancer that transcends human nature to represent Hindu cosmogony. In the context of contemporary Western theatre, following Antonin Artaud, Asian inspiration joins the search for a metaphysical theatre, a theatre of the spiritual that does not fit into a defined religious thought. A cross analysis of the approaches of Anatoli Vassiliev and Claude Régy shows that internal and external martial practices are both spiritual and physical tools through which the actors transform their acting and open themselves to the embodiment of the spirit onstage.

A note on the vocabulary: In this communication, “body-spirit” is preferred to the more usual expression “body-mind” in order to underline that we are not talking about the cognition but about the spiritual dimension of the being incarnated by the body.

Key words: theatricality; metaphysical theatre; body-mind; ritualization; transculturality.

Bio & Contact

Carole Drouelle is a stage director and a history professor dealing with drama training in the university. She presently makes a research on the connections between martial arts and contemporary acting in an transcultural approach, for a theatre PhD supervised by JF Dusigne – EA 1573 « Scènes du monde », EDESTA, Paris 8 University. Besides she develops drama trainings and coachings for playwrights and works with different institutions – Théâtre de l’Acacia, Collectif A Mots Découverts, Harmoniques, Profilculture). She practiced Taiji for a long time. Then, 15 years ago, she discovered Aikido and she now teaches this martial art in her dojo in Paris.


Video Presentation 

  • Heidi Rasmussen (Independent Researcher) – Kalaripayat, Kalari Massage, and the Relationship with Ayurveda


Kalaripayat has much in common with other arts and disciplines such as ayurveda and yoga; at the same time it is a martial and therapeutic system with its own logic. It is difficult to determine with certainty which discipline influenced the other, as these traditions have complicated ‘histories’ that freely incorporate myth and folk stories expressive of nationalistic and caste agendas along with factual information and dates. The masters of the so-called ‘Northern’ and ‘Central’ styles traditionally claim to base their knowledge on Ayurvedic medicine, while the teachers of the ‘Southern’ style claim Siddha medicine as the origin of their knowledge. In practice, however, these several traditions have merged to varying degrees in the different schools, with kalari masters often also being trained in the art of Ayurvedic medicine. Whereas the ayurvedic doctor does not observe or touch the body of the patient, the kalari master has the vocation to heal his students himself; the spectrum of ayurveda is wide whereas that of kalari focuses on orthopaedics; the remedies of ayurveda are numerous whereas those of the gurukkal are sometimes limited to a single liniment, the mukkot thailam. Ayurveda, which is treated as a medical science, has particular massage techniques which share common elements with the therapeutic aspects of kalaripayat, especially in reference to nadis (energy lines) and marmas (vital points). Without going into the complicated histories of which form influenced the other, my paper will discuss aspects of their relationship, looking at commonalities such as a view of the body that includes prana and chakras, and distinguishing aspects such as specific massages that only a kalaripayat practitioner mastering the martial technique will be able to perform.

Key words: Kalaripayat, kalari massage, and the relationship with Ayurveda.

Bio & Contact

I have been practicing kalarippayatt since 2006, and over the years I have learned different types of kalari massage from several kalaris in Kerala. I am currently working as a massage therapist, art-therapist and I am also a cultural mediator in the Swiss National Museum. I give weekly kalari classes in Geneva within the association of Ateliers d’Ethnomusicologie, and occasionnally longer workshops. In 2013 I started studying different western approaches in the field of massage. Besides, I also have an education in history of art at Copenhagen University and Geneva University (2001-2004). The paper I am going to present is based partly on a workshop introducing kalarippayatt, kalari massage and ayurveda, which I gave together with an ayurvedic doctor last year in Ecole de Yoga d’Evian (France).


Video Presentation 

  • Kolanad Gitanjali (Independent Researcher, IMPACT, Toronto) – How Movement Means: The Ritual Salutation of Kalaripayat


Vanakkam is the ritual salutation performed at different stages during the learning and practice of kalaripayat, the martial arts system of Kerala. All vanakkams are united by their devotional character despite using expressly martial movements such as kicks and blocks to evoke religious rituals within this tight context. At the same time, there are differences in style, structure, and the interpretation of symbolism and significance even among Hindu kalaris, with considerably greater variation in the vanakkams used in Muslim and Christian kalaris. Moreover, each weapon of the kalaripayat form has its particular and specific vanakkam.  In my paper I will use the framework outlined by N. Carroll and S. Banes in “Dance, Imitation and Representation” to decode the process of representation as it applies to the kalaripayat vanakkam. I will analyze 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? The vanakkam form is also the aspect of kalaripayat that regularly shows up in theatrical performances, for example in bharata natyam choreographer Chandralekha’s production for the stage, Angika. I will discuss some of the choreographic principles that vanakkam shares with Indian dance forms, and use it as a vehicle to speculate about the relationship between the martial arts and dance forms such as theyyam, kathakali and kudiattam in Kerala. If there is room in the conference space, I could provide demonstrations of a couple of variations of the vanakkams: one from a Hindu kalari, one from a Muslim kalari, and one for a weapon like dagger, for example. Each one takes between one to three minutes. Otherwise I will illustrate my presentation with videos.

Bio & Contact

Gitanjali Kolanad has been involved in the practice, performance, and teaching of bharata natyam and kalaripayat for over thirty years. She performed and taught in major cities in Europe, America and India, including London, New York, Paris, Vienna, Berlin, Toronto, Tokyo, New Delhi, Bombay, and Madras. She has written numerous articles on aspects of Indian dance and martial arts for well-known Indian publications. She co-founded IMPACT – Indian Martial and Performing Arts Collective of Toronto, which teaches and promotes Indian martial art forms in Canada. She developed a performing arts program at Shiv Nadar University, India. She was the 2016 Singapore International Writer-in-Residence with University Scholars Program and The Arts House.


Video Presentation 

  • S. Gowtham (KU Leuven) – Apprenticeships and Guru-Sishya Relationships in South Indian Martial Systems


In South Indian martial art systems, the teachers are the gatekeepers of knowledge. Much of this martial and medical knowledge is attributed to Siddhars or other Yogis, who are quasi-historical, or mythological figures, believed to possess magical powers. In the absence of a single fundamental text and the presence of a plethora of non-standardized texts for these knowledge systems, the teacher then becomes the ultimate authority who judges/evaluates the value of a text or practice. After the initiation ritual, the teacher takes responsibility for the wellbeing of the student on many levels: physical, mental, moral, and spiritual. The teacher alone decides whether, and when, the student ‘deserves’ a particular knowledge or skill. The student is also expected to remain in continual contact with the teacher, and follow certain moral codes and rules of conduct, some explicit, some implicit. On the other hand, most practitioners/students are not ‘serious’, in the sense that they do not take up martial arts full time or on a regular basis. So their inclusion and position in the group varies according to the rigor with which they approach apprenticeship. Hence, these practices not only create hierarchies among the students, which structure their social interactions both inside and outside the kalari (place of practice), but also offer solidarity to the group by providing a secular identity that appears to transcend caste and religion. Because caste is such a fraught issue in South India, the ways in which martial arts practice and teaching affects, and is affected by it is a sensitive area that hasn’t been extensively studied. From the perspective of a native ethnographer, in this paper I explore how age, gender, socio-economic status, religion, and caste affect the student-teacher relationship, thereby influencing the modes of transmission of knowledge.

Key words: India, Kalaripayat, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Europe.

Bio & Contact

I have been learning, researching, and teaching Indian martial arts since 2014. Presently, I am a student in the MA program, Anthropology at KU Leuven, Belgium. My research interests are phenomenology, visual and public anthropology, and anthropology of the body. I make short video documentaries on everyday lives of ordinary people. As a native speaker of Tamil from Tamil Nadu, India, I use my access to keepers of knowledge within my community to include their voices in academic discourse. This paper is based on my fieldwork in India during 2017-18, and ongoing fieldwork to be conducted in India and Europe in 2019.


Video Presentation 

  • George Jennings (Cardiff Metropolitan University, Wales) – “We are the Gods!”: From Mesoamerican Religion to Embodied Philosophy in Mexican Xilam


This presentation offers a historical and semiotical perspective on the transformation and return of the Mesoamerican religion – from pyramids to the living flesh of martial arts practitioners. Mesoamerica has a plethora of cultures and peoples who formed part of a similar civilisation tied to a common way of life. Religion was most certainly part of this in pre-Hispanic times, with temples dedicated to gods such as Huitzilopochtli (the Aztec god of war and the sun) and Quetzalcoatl (feathered serpent). During the colonial period, this religion was banned through the Spanish Inquisition and other measures. However, following the nationalist uprisings of independence and revolution, many Mexicans became increasingly interested in their ancestral religion, customs and ideologies. The Mexicoyotl religion, sometimes referred to as Mexicanidad (Mexicanness) developed as a postcolonial, anti-dualist and sometimes pro-feminist alternative to the imposed Catholic faith, and it is tied to physical cultures such as the ritualistic Conchero dances inspired by the Aztec cosmology. Ideologically stemming from Conchero dancer Andrés Segura was his disciple, Marisela Ugalde, the founder of the Mexican martial art of XIlam. In this paper, I reveal how Xilam is based around the Aztec metaphysical worldview that their leaders regard as a scientific philosophy. Furthermore, I show how Xilam practitioners do not regard figures such as Quetzalcoatl as actual deities, but as qualities that we human can cultivate as part of a long-term human development project. As one Xilam instructor corrected me when I asked if they believed in the numerous deities: “No, we are the gods!”

Key words:

Bio & Contact

Dr. George Jennings is a lecturer in sport sociology / physical culture at Cardiff Metropolitan University, where he is Programme Director of the BSc(Hons) Sport Studies degree. An interdisciplinary social scientist and qualitative researcher, George’s research centres around the reconstruction of martial arts systems tied to reimagined ideals of the warrior. He is currently conducting two ethnographies of historical European martial arts (HEMA) and Taijiquan and Neigong in Wales. His previous research examined the traditionalist Chinese martial arts as transformative practices as well as the invention of the Mexican martial art in Mexico City, where he lived and worked from 2011 to 2016. A new action research project is emerging with fightingandspirit, which merges martial arts training with psychotherapy. To tie these projects together, George  is currently working on his first monograph on the reconstruction of martial arts for different purposes such as therapy, self-help and national pride.


Video Presentation 

  • David A. Palmer & Martin Tse (Hong Kong University) – The Civil-Martial structure in Chinese Communal Religion: A Buddho-Daoist Jiao ritual in northern Guangdong


The ritual traditions of communal religion in Southern China are often characterized by a dual structure of “civil” (wen) and “martial” (wu) components, each of which is often performed by different lineages of ritual masters. In this paper, we present an ethnographic case from the Yingde region of Guangdong province, in which two distinct religious systems operate simultaneously — one known as the Civil Altar 文壇  which claims a Buddhist lineage and is conducted for the salvation of the dead ; the other known as the Martial Altar 武壇  which claims a Lüshan Daoist lineage and is conducted for the exorcistic protection and well-being of the living. A structural analysis of the ritual actions and texts reveals a rhythmic contrast and correspondence between civil and martial characteristics at each stage of the ritual programme, as well as between the wen-wu polarity and the general categories of Chinese cosmology and politics. This case offers insights and raises questions on the structure of Chinese communal ritual, the significance of the wen-wu polarity in Chinese history, religion and politics, and the interface between the state, universal religion, and local power in Asia more generally.

Bio & contact 

David A. Palmer is Professor at Hong Kong Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences, Department of Sociology of the University of Hong Kong.

Martin Tse is an MPhil student (starting in Jan. 2020) in the Institute under the supervision of Dr. David A. Palmer. He has been working as a Research Assistant and Assistant Lecturer in the Institute for a few years, and is now assisting Dr. Palmer in the research on one particular ritual tradition in Yingde, northern Guangdong.



Video presentation