There is a sword with your name on it!
In quest of longevity,
a chekava swordsman seeks the weapon
that is destined to take his life!
Malayalam vern. 2005
copyright. Jose, Navodaya
(the english txt is from the international edition)
Based on the inputs from the author, a Screen Treatment for the film is given here.
The story is heard from the lips of a man condemned to be hung.
Our narrative device espouses 'how the ballads of Malabar have come down to us'.
Yes, we have the folk-songs today because of the efforts some individuals took in preserving them before they were lost to posterity.
The screen treatment here is the outcome of the informal discussions (minuted) between the participants (listed) who had contributed during a first round towards 'narrative possibles' presented by the author. This is by no means the final script. The final version, a reader is assured, may bear no resemblance to this. It is a tradition in the institution called navodayastudio to throw such ideas, and one purpose of the chronicling of this here is to inform students in cinema how the development of a film subject happens.
But first ... some history, facts and myths ...
Vadakkan Paattukal - The ballads of Malabar, are songs about chekava
swordsmen, their chivalry and exploits. Chekavars were kalarippayattu
warriors who waged ankam (duel to death) on the arena for championships.
The ballads composed from 11th to 18th century, were poems meant for the
illiterate masses and hence till the 20th were never committed to texts.
In oral tradition, sung by the Paanar clan members, they were
handed down from father to son.
This story of ours is dated
circa 13th century A.D.
The Agasthya Myth.
Agasthya Guru - the sage who designed the kalari principles
and the chevaka codes, is also believed to have authored into destiny
the specific weapon by which a swordsman’s life would be taken.
So, it was a belief that there exists somewhere
‘a sword for every chekavar with his name written on it’.
Only that destined weapon could take his life!
A literate upper class had dismissed these folk songs
of the peasants as ‘cacophony of the lower class’ and never
inscribed them on palm leaf parchments. However, there came
eminent foreigners who understood the collective native wisdom and had
these ballads written down. In the footsteps of Hermann Gundert and William Logan,
here we are showing Percy Macqueen I.C.S. taking down the Legend of Chandu Chekavar
as Naanu Paanar sings it.
ഉറുമി തേടിയ ചേകവർ - രചന ജോസ് പുന്നൂസ്. പകർപ്പവകാശം 2005
ചീരക്കാടൻ ചാത്തുണ്ണി- അന്ന് ആ പേര് കേട്ട ദിവസം ചന്തുച്ചേകവർ ഉറങ്ങിയില്ല. കവലയ്ക്കൽ വൈദ്യരുടെ തഴമ്പിച്ച വിരലുകളുടെ തലോടലും, കായകാതങ്ങൾ കണ്ട കാല്പാദങ്ങളുടെ ചവിട്ടു തിരുമ്മലും, ഞവരക്കിഴി പ്രയോഗവും, തക്രധാരയുടെ കുളിർമ്മയും. രാമച്ചജലധാരയുമെല്ലാം മാംസപേശികളെ ഉറക്കിയെങ്കിലും മനസ്സിനെ ഉറക്കിയില്ല. ഉറങ്ങാത്ത മനസ്സോ, മാംസപേശികളെ ഉണർത്തി, തളർത്തി.
പത്തുകൊല്ലം മുമ്പ് അതേ വീട്ടിലെ മറ്റൊരുപേര് ചീരക്കാടൻ കുഞ്ഞിക്കണ്ണൻ ചന്തുവിന്റെ ഉറക്കം കെടുത്തിയിരിന്നു. പക്ഷെ, അന്ന് അത് ആവേശം കൊണ്ടുള്ള ഉറക്ക നഷ്ടമായിരുന്നു. അങ്കപ്പുറപ്പാടിനുള്ള ആവേശം; കന്നിയങ്കത്തിന്റെ ആവേശം; ചീരക്കാട് ചോരക്കാടാക്കാനുള്ള അവേശം. ..........
..... ....... ചീരക്കാട്ടിലെ കുഞ്ഞിക്കണ്ണന്റെ തലവെട്ടിയായിരുന്നു ചന്തു കന്നിയങ്കം ജയിച്ചത്. ചേവായൂരെ ചേക്കുട്ടിയുടെ ചോര കാലവർഷത്തിന്റെ കന്നിമഴയിൽ അങ്കത്തട്ടിൽ അലിയിച്ചപ്പോൾ തുലാത്തിലെ മിന്നൽ പിണർപോലെ പ്രശസ്തി നാടെങ്ങും പരന്നു. ആ ഗർജ്ജനത്തിന് മാറ്റൊലിയല്ലാതെ മറുപടി ഒന്നും കേട്ടില്ല. ചാലപ്പുറത്തും മലപ്പുറത്തും, ചാരക്കുന്നിലും ചരൽക്കുണ്ടിലും, ആറ്റും മണമ്മേലും അരിങ്ങോരുടെയങ്ങേലും ആ മാറ്റൊലി കേട്ടു. തുടർന്ന് വിജയഭേരിയുടെ ഒരു ശീവേലിയായിരുന്നു. ചന്തുച്ചേകവർ അങ്കത്തട്ടിലെത്തുമ്പോൾ നാടുവാഴി പോലും എണീറ്റാചാരം ചെയ്തു. അങ്ങാടിയിലൂടെ ഉലാത്തുമ്പോൾ ഉറഞ്ഞ് തുള്ളിയ കോമരം പോലും ഉറച്ചശിലയായി. വാണിയപുരത്തെ ദേവദാസിത്തെരുവിലെത്തിയപ്പോൾ ചെമ്പഴുക്കാച്ചുണ്ടുകൾ, ചുംബിച്ച് പൂജിച്ച് അകത്തേയ്ക്കാനയിച്ചു. ചന്തുച്ചേകവരുടെ കളരിപ്പടിയ്ക്കൽ ദക്ഷിണയുമേന്തി ശിഷ്യരാകാനെക്കൊണ്ട് ഒരു നൂറ്കൂട്ടം!
(extracts. from the original malayalam text. written year 2005)
The Legend of Chandu Chekavar of 13th century A.D. is revealed in segments.
It happens when Naanu Paanar - a balladeer in the year 1930, is about to go to the gallows.
While Naanu sings it out, Percy Macqueen - then the jailor at Vellore, writes it down.
The segments do not come in their chronological order. Hence the narrative is non-linear.
Irishman Percy ICS is temporarily filling in as the jailor at the prison inside the Vellore Fort - where, a century ago, the British had imprisoned Tippu Sultan’s family.
Prologue - A.D. 1930.
In the dead of the night Percy hears somebody singing a lament in rustic Malayalam. He realises this to be a ballad from Malabar … one, which he had never heard before.
A prison guard comes to the jailor with a request.
A young man of the Paanar caste, who is about to be hung in a week’s time, pleads an audience with the jailer.
“What for?” asks Percy.
The guard answers -
“He has come to know that you were in Malabar and you are conversant in his native tongue Malayalam … and hence would like to speak to you ….
Please sir, it is his last wish …”.
Animated Illustrations by Baiju & Jiju
Percy sees in front of him the man condemned to the gallows.
The jailer by then had read from the prison records and understood that, as a balladeer the man during daytime scouted affluent houses, and resorted to burglary during the nights.
One of those attempts saw him committing a murder when getting apprehended.
Hence the judge had him sentenced to be hung.
Naanu Paanan, requests the white man …
“… Sire, given by my father, there is one ballad in my repertoire that is yet to be handed down to the next generation before I die. I have sent messages to my kith and kin to come and take it down from me before I am hung next week. None has come … apparently, due to disgrace.
Can you write it down … as I sing?
… If these segments are lost to posterity, … my father, my grandfather, his father … the souls of all of them in my lineage who passed the ballad to me, shall be cursed!
…. Please sir …”
He starts writing down as Naanu sings. Percy, familiar with the ballads on Aromal Chekavar and Othena Kurup, muses …
“Blimey O’Reilly! … Here comes another …
Another legendary hero of vadakkan-paattu …Chandu Chekavar! … unheard by Hermann or Logan. Wouldn’t Menon at the University be eager to lay his hands on this!”
It is a forbidden ballad. According to Paanar Dharma, it couldn’t be sung in public … so Percy Macqueen understands.
Yes! Another legendary hero of vadakkan-paattu …Chandu Chekavar!
At the peak of his unbeaten reign, he desires longevity and seeks out the weapon that is destined to take his life.
The exploits of Chandu Chekavar are more exhilarating, more audacious, more raunchy and amorous than the other known heroes in the Malabar chivalrous stories.
Emboldened, with destiny firmly in his hand, Chandu vanquishes his
opponents. He deploys the fabled ‘poozhikadakan’ - blinding dust-swirls.
And, then comes the crowning glory …
Chandu, now invincible, commits self-immolation … with the destined sword!
Thus Chandu becomes IMMORTAL !!
... the story, apparently, ends here
Here starts the story
The Legend of Chandu Chekavar
With the few remaining days of Naanu coming to an end, the jailer Percy just about manages to finish writing and hands it over to Hon. C. Achutha Menon, the Dean of Malayalam Dept., Madras University.
After a keen study of Percy’s transcriptions, Achutha Menon whispers hoarsely
“…. This cannot be true!!”
“Why? Too incredulous? … Those Chandu chivalries?”
The Dean, still trying to figure it out, mutters …
“No. Too neat. His end … it sounds too neat ! Also, where went the intimacies? … The love in his life?”
“Maybe, this was a different man”.
Menon purses his lips, in negation shakes his head, and says emphatically
“This has been structured so that the ballad on Chandu becomes an epic. … Remember, this is a forbidden ballad! … Because, the very subject - a Chekavar preempting his destined death, is itself a taboo according the Chekava Dharma”.
Menon looks Percy in the eye and says pensively
“Somebody has altered it … Probably Naanu’s ancestor. Wonder … whether Naanu knows the true version?”
Percy stares at him for a moment and rushes out frantically … Menon grabs the papers and follows with equal urgency.
Now it is a race against time.
Percy stalls the hangman’s noose to beseech Naanu
“Is there is a crucial forbidden segment …
you have not told me?”
Naanu sullenly admits
“The true ending … is not heroic … It is against dharma to propagate it”
Percy screams at the condemned man
“No! not the Chekava dharma … or your blasted balladeer dharma ...
The Real Dharma ... which means ... truth, truth, ... The Truth! Damn you, sing it out!! ...
I SAY, ... SING!!
In this version, a vacillating and distraught Chandu has to choose between immortality and his ladylove.
The first option shall make him a hero before the world.
The second, a hero in her eyes.
With noose around his neck, plank about to fall from below his feet, Naanu reluctantly starts singing an alternative ending.
There is an irony here!
The question ... how to ascertain whichever version - the earlier, the current … or even a subsequent one, is true?
(The answer ... it is up to the beholder).
With Percy goading, Naanu singing and Menon furiously writing to complete ... .. suddenly the plank falls!
Dear reader, you have guessed correctly.
Yes, we scribes are keeping open possibilities for sequels, prequels and reboots.
Screen treatment by Jijo, based on research inputs from the author.
Suggestions and contributions by B R Prasad, Josey Joseph, Geo Kuttappan, Suresh Kanthan, K.Sheker, Prakash Moorthy, Samhita Arni, C.V Sarathy, Althaf Hussein, Karun Josy, Dharani, Jayendra and P.C. Sriram.
Captions & Notes research papers, Jose Punnoose, 2001
Goaded by the home crowd, with wildcat manoeuvres not found in kalarippayattu* palm-leaf texts, our upstart denied the veteran opponent from unfolding the oathiram* moves elucidated in the ballads praising the champion.
Amidst the tumult, his esquire was not sure whether it was a ‘below the belt kick’ that caused the champion unexpectedly lose his footing.
A pounce, a slash and a fling … Chandu’s movements were just a blur. And suddenly Champion Chathunni saw everything go inaudible and …. invisible, as his chopped head flew like a rag ball into the rapturous crowd.
Some in the Chekavar Mahasabha scoffed at Chandu's first victory over the reigning champion.
But before flies descended to swarm over the caked blood on the tamarind planks,
Chandu had won his second ankam.
Chekavars were warriors trained in the kalaris of Malabar where kalarippayattu - the ancient Kerala martial arts, was taught. Disputes, in those times, were settled by duels. A Chekavar’s profession was to duel to death on the arena against another Chevakar - for a price. It was a Chekavar’s dharma to accept a sponsor’s commission and step onto the arena to use his prowess against another chekava clansman for winning his sponsor’s cause. By defeating the one opposing him, a victorious Chevakar affirmed the dispute in favour of his sponsor … and thrashed the one who endorsed his opponent. What were the disputes? Family feuds, sibling rivalry, inheritance brawls, … a slandered damsel asserting her chastity to her detractors, etc.
Ankam & Ankathattu (The Duel & the Stage)
Since the dawn of times, feuds leading to skirmishes leading to war, was the norm in all tribal settlements. As elsewhere in the world, this was true in Malabar also … till wisemen wanted to do something about it. When two mighty egos clash and the sword slashes spill-over onto the streets, it envelops not just the two prestige at stake … but also lives in a community as men rally towards the feuding camps … and a cycle of bloody wars of vendetta ensues. In hindsight, the wise saw a never ending trail of blood … some stretching over so many generations, that the combatants of a latter date became ignorant as to what the dispute is about!
So sometime during the turn of the first millennium, the wise village chieftains of Malabar found a practical way out. It was called the ankam (duel to death). If at all two individuals or clans had an issue to be settled, they could sponsor two swordsmen - as proxy. These swordsmen would fight a duel on an arena in front of the spectators (and the clan’s terraphims) till one was bloodied and fell down dead. Such clash of swords always happened on a stage erected in the temple courtyard - right under the eyes of the village deity to ensure that the outcome is divinely ordained and the righteous side emerge victorious.
That verdict would seal the dispute!
The pool of blood spilled on the stage, a few limbs strewn around the arena, a family orphaned … all these seemed to appease the gods! Well, if not gods, at least an audience cheering the bloodsport … also the gratified Paanan (bard) who composed a new ballad on one more heroic exploit of his Chekava champion … and then the hordes in the paddy fields for whom the Panan’s new ballad is a solace from the heat, dust and wariness. All it took was two trained swordsmen, who had nothing against each other, fighting somebody’s cause for a fee, while a horde out on festivity cheered and jeered. Crowds thronged to the event where peddler of goods, soothsayers and harlots opened shops around the arena. The ruler benefitted by taxing such services and sales.
This bloody sport of ankam was staged on a specially made elevated stage called ankathattu which was of a
prescribed size, made out of Tamarind planks and propped up on logs.
It was with the ankams that a professional clan of swordsmen of Chevakars evolved. As in the Indian caste system, Chevakar clan remained a family custom where the tradition was handed from the patriarch to his descendants. In the ancient lores there are stories of father vs son, uncle vs nephew pitted against each other on the ankathattu. For, it was against the dharma of the Chevakar to refuse a sponsor once he met the Chekavar’s market price.
Chevakar Mahasabha (Guild)
There evolved a Guild or Sabha which set code of conduct, standards, rules and practices. The chevaka apex body was Chekavar Mahasabha. They awarded the license ‘ankathali’ - a talisman, to those sword fighters - graduates from the Kalari schools, who qualified in the annual competitions. The Mahasabha had a mediation committee and even a panel of umpires to supervise the ankams.
Kalaris were not just martial schools, it way a way of life in ancient Kerala. The Kalari Guru or Aashaan was not just a teacher of self defence. The master was a go for person for anything, a spiritual counsellor, one who treated injuries or mended broken limbs, also prescribed herbs or potions for physical ailments.
The Kalari rules had evolved over centuries, they had a prescribed school calendar, specified size for the practice yard, well defined rules of initiation and graduation, etc. Kids of 7 years of age - both boys and girls, were enrolled in Kalari schools. The initial years were spend in training and toning the body with physical exercises, the movements and exercises were accompanied by the recitation of litanies.
Vadakkan Pattukal - Ballads of Northern Kerala (Malabar)
The Chevakars were the celebrities of the era. Ballads of Northern Kerala are folk songs or Veera Gathas of the Chevakars. The Malabar coast is awash with songs and stories of several such bloody battles which has soaked and suffused it’s soil. Even the lashing monsoon rains over centuries was not able to remove the blood stain from the laterite soil of Malabar.
A literate upper class had dismissed these folk songs of the peasants as ‘cacophony of the lower class’ and never took any effort to scribe it on palm-leaf. During the 18th century Hermann Gundert - a pastor turned linguist from Europe, and in the 19th century Mr Percy MacQueen I.C.S. who served in the Madras Presidency, both
understanding the collective native wisdom, had the ballads written down. The first publication of Ballads of North Malabar was done by Madras University in the year 1935 when Mr Percy Mac Queen was the Collector of Madras & Chingleput Districts and Chelanat Achutha Menon headed the Malayalam department in the Madras University.
Paanar - the balladeer
Mentioned in ancient Tamil literature, the Paanar or balladeer is a caste of professional singers found in South India. In the Malabar part of Northern Kerala, apart from serving their customary role of a minstrel in the countryside, Paanan also played as personal publicist of a Chevakar. The songs he sang about the brave Chevakars, were about their skills and exploits off and on the arena - at times chivalrous and at times amorous.
Modern day Kalaripayattu - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kalaripayattu
The widespread practice and prevalence of Kalaripayattu in Kerala began to decline in the 17th century, when the usage of guns and cannons became widespread. This also coincided with the European invasions into Kerala, after which, firearms began to surpass the usage of traditional weaponry such as swords and spears. In 1804, the British banned Kalaripayattu in Kerala in response to the Kottayathu War, a rebellion against British rule lead by the Keralite king Pazhassi Raja. The ban came into effect shortly after Pazhassi Raja's deathon November 30th, 1805, resulting in the closure of most of the major kalari training grounds in Kerala. Many Keralite gurukkals of Kalaripayattu resisted the ban and continued to teach Kalaripayattu to their students in secret and preserved the martial art for posterity. They were responsible for preserving Kalaripayattu into the beginning of the twentieth century, as well as sparking the revival of Kalaripayattu in Kerala in the 1920s.
It was the strangest of all nightmares.
Chandu finds himself once again there ... arriving late as a spectator, to that fabled ‘duel of the era’.
The angam had just got over.
Pushing through the cheering crowd to find who the combatants are, he could see in a flash a ‘leopard spotted white dog’ which had ripped out the loser’s private part, making off.
Pushing through the throng further, though he was unable to see the victor, he glimpses the face of the fallen loser. It is himself!
Payyanur Balakrishnan wrote several Kalari, Vadakkanpattu stories in various publications especially in the Sunday supplement of Malayala Manorama. Kadathanad is a small area which encompass modern day Vadakara and neighboring villages. Balakrishnan, who belonged to Payyanur several miles north of Kadathanad, had an old lady in his neighborhood who used to sing the ballads of Kadathanad. It was this oral tradition which attracted him. Quitting his job at Dhanalakshmi Bank, Palakkad, in his youth he went around the villages in Kadathanad to meet old timers and collect folk songs. He has published several books and stage plays. He died in 2011.
Mr. Balakrishnan has helped me
in my research on Vadakkanpaattukal.
Meanwhile, an apocalyptic warning!
This is tangential to the story plot, says the author, who has many other themes based on the
ഞാടിഞരമ്പു ശാസ്ത്രം on which the concept of 'The Sword with a Name Written on it' is based.
The sword with your name written on it.
എല്ലാ വാളിലും പേരുണ്ടല്ലാളേ!
കൽപ്പിച്ചോരാളുടൻ പേരുണ്ടല്ലാളേ ...
An arrow fired by a medieval archer has a name written on it.
A bullet fired by a quick draw gun has a name written on it.
A bullet fired by a supari hitman has a name written on it.
A missile fired across the globe has many names written on it …
… and, if it carries a nuclear weapon, armed, then it has the collective
names of every living person on earth - yours as well as mine.
ഒരു നാൾ വരും, ഒരു വാൾ വരും ...
ഒരേ ഒരു പേരെഴുതിയ വാളുവരും.
The Paanar-balladeer had seen this 8 centuries ago.
മാനവരാശിയിൻ ഊരും പേരും അത-
ത്രയും യേനതിൽ കാണുന്നല്ലാളേ!
This is an anti-war, anti-weapon statement.
Acrylic & Oil on canvas by Radhakrishnan (RK).
Title design by yellowtooths
Animated Illustrations by Baiju & Jiju.
Motion posters by Digital Turbo Media.
Additional graphics by Sethu Sivanandan, Narayana Murthy and Alice Cheevel.