Based on twelve years of research and training in kalarippayattu, Zarrilli lived in Kerala for seven years between 1976-1993 while training in this martial art, immersing himself in Kerala culture and modes of embodied practice, and writing this in-depth ethnographic account of this tradition.
When the Body Becomes All Eyes: Paradigms, Pratices, and Discourses of Power in Kalarippayattu, a South Indian Martial Art
(New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2000 [paperback edition], originally published, 1998).
“One among several recent scholarly works on the arts of Kerala … this book provides a noteworthy discussion of the process of ‘cultivating’ the body in the tradition of Kerala’s martial and medical art known as kalarippayattu. Except Joseph Alter’s work on wrestlers in northern India … this is one of the first major contributions to the study of the martial arts of South Asia … [W]hat sets Zarrilli’s work apart is that it does not merely approach kalarippayattu as a ‘martial art.’ Zarrilli opens up the discursive fields of ritual, medicine, and psycho-spiritual experience around which kalarippayattu situates itself. One of the current motifs in Zarrilli’s work is that of the ‘bodymind’ … Zarrilli’s use of the term moves the focused practice of ‘making the body all eyes’ away from the bifurcation of psyche and physique. By positing kalarippayattu as simultaneously rooted in psychic and corporeal space, Zarrilli’s work redefines the rather reductionist characterizations of kalarippayattu as either ‘martial exercise’ or ‘martial yoga’.
Zarrilli images kalarippayattu through several interpretive ‘paradigms,’ around which the book is organized. The first part relates to histories, ‘real’ and ‘imagined,’ It is an exhaustive study … The following chapter discusses the ritual layout of the kalari…and the transformative processes of construction, inauguration, installation, and daily worship, which actualize the powers of the deities who reside along the outsider perimeter of the space. The next two chapters focus on ‘outer forms’ and ‘inner secrets’. The former takes the reader through the complex physical rigor of the movements and sequences of the kalarippayattu, while the latter is a nuanced discussion of the esoteric Sakta ritual elements involving inner and outer worship … The sixth chapter … is perhaps the first in-depth analysis of the vital spots or junctures … of the subtle body …
Zarrilli’s work also addresses the issue of change and shifting contexts of kalarippayattu from its roots in twelfth-century Nayar communities to its present transnational representation … Chapter 8, dealing with transformations in indigenous practice, is particularly interesting … I see few limitations in this work … [It] is an invaluable contribution to the conscious revisioning of the meanings and implications of the body-in-practice and its multifarious transformations in South Asia.”
Devesh Soneji, McGill University. Journal of Asian Studies, February, 2001:283-4.