Shah Rukh Khan's six-pack abdomen muscles have overnight become the muscles of the nation. Since those days in September, when the superstar bared his torso for the promotional ads for his new film Om Shanti Om, the media has gone into wild frenzy over the high fashion quotient of well-shaped and toned abdominal ripples.
The hype and hoopla around this controlled diet and gymnasium-induced body condition of the likes of SRK [Images], Hrithik Roshan [Images], John Abraham [Images] or Salman Khan [Images] link us to a particular reality of our times -- the contradiction of a fitness craze divorced from any significant fitness philosophy.
The cult of the 'body beautiful' itself strongly indicates the absence of a more holistic philosophy of the body. The more the body is objectified in an instrumental manner, with each limb being treated as a distinct component or attachment unrelated to the other, the more one finds oneself in the midst of a unique crisis.
The wires cross at several levels. On the one hand is the sheer vulgarity of the conspicuous, shirt-baring celebration of mutton parts developed at high expense in a country, 40 percent of whose population is on starvation diet. If these hulks tear off their shirts to show off shapely folds, there are enough shirtless people here who make gratuitous display of their bare ribs.
On the other hand, there are enough places in this country, Kerala [Images] being a case in point, where the working class population largely possesses similar bronzed bodies with biceps, abs and pectorals toned and conditioned by labour, not by the artificial pumping of iron.
However, a philosophy of the body is crucial. Ironically, no other culture in the world perhaps, including ancient Greece, has more elaborate and more evolved philosophies of the body linked to health, well-being and aesthetics than India. The range is vast -- systems of healing, of nerve circuitry, of pulse and breath flow, of food chemistry; systems of attack/ defence, of inhalation and exhalation, of prana vayu, yoga, marma, ayurveda, siddha, silambam, kalarippayattu, thang-tha and paika.
The conceptual core of the South Indian form, kalarippayattu, with its concern for the totality of body and mind, inner and outer, is that 'if you know how to hurt, you also need to know how to heal'. It is one of the most profound ideas of our times. Any discipline of the body built upon such principles is bound to have an indelible impact on its practice.
Vasu Gurukkal, an outstanding kalari guru and practitioner of marma from Kaduthuruthy (near Kottayam), says the most consistent treatment he is called upon to provide in his village is to heal ordinary people who have been bashed and beaten by cops during interrogations at police stations. It takes us to two ends of the spectrum of the body concept -- one which assaults and violates and another which salves and restores.
Forms like kalari or the Manipuri thang-tha confront us with the question of whether fitness is about flaunting a conspicuous set of display muscles or whether it is about a larger co-ordination and unity in the body. The over three decades I have spent observing these forms, including Tamil Nadu's silambam and Orissa's paika, have led me to investigate their internal differences as well as the equally elaborate training methods for body-building and competitive sports. Having been in competitive athletics for some time myself, I am impressed by a few distinct differences.
An athlete, for example, at any level of the sport, needs to prepare his or her body for an event with at least a half hour of limbering and warm-up exercises. Failure to do this could prove lethal, leading to muscle or ligament pulls, tears and severe cramps and joint locks. You may be an explosive sprinter like Tommie Smith or a dream vaulter like Yelena Isinbayeva, but if you shirk on your warm-up, you could end up injuring yourself.
However, no kalari or thang-tha practitioner I know has needed even a split second of time or preparation to swing into action. I have known people who have stopped practicing kalari after training for a decade and then, years later, forced into a situation where they had to display their skill, slide into it seamlessly as if they had never taken a break. That, for me, is the paramount mark and quality of fitness.
The six-pack mania generated by all the media blitz of glossy cover stories on abdominal folds can possibly push many young people to killing physical regimens in pursuit of this Holy Grail, which is also marketed as a new sex symbol. It is important, therefore, to issue the caution that even a year or two of training in kalari or similar (erroneously nomenclatured) 'martial arts', can provide better fitness delivery.
Fitness is a factor of understanding your body as a fascinating system of interconnected energies, not a set of muscular bulges here or there.