Sunday, March 04, 2007

Friend Pavan, who can be caught deconstructing zaniness every now and then, is famous for his comparison of cyclohexane and the blues, a comparison that calls for deep and out-of-the-box thinking and/or a chillum of really good Manipuri to make sense. Seeing as how my belt exam's just done (I passed!!! I am now a green belt with blue tip!! Only like 7 exams before I'm a black belt!!) it occurred to me to make such a comparison of music and martial arts (something you'd have figured by clicking the Wikipedia links in the heading)

To those who may not know, I took classical music for a good deal longer than I should have. I started to learn to play the mridangam, and continued to learn to play, till Amma and Appa figured out why all neighbours in a mile's radius took simultaneous strolls and drives precisely when my teacher arrived. Class X pretty much wound up everything, what with JEE and whatnot. It didn't help that my guru seemed to come one step closer to a stroke with each class.

Anyway, whatever I didn't learn, there was one thing that he drilled into me. Each taalam (and there were a lot of them) was made of a set of notes (again, a lot of them) Now, when playing, the idea was to have what you were playing as a set. But, he said, do not memorize them at once. Nor try to play them at high speed. To do so would simply mean to remember a single
compositional word. The important thing was to remember each note, so as to fluidly transition from one to the other. And that came from slow practice. If you didn't practice slowly, aiming for continuity, you wouldn't see the bigger picture, and be stuck. Practice the notes slowly. Slowly increase speed, and for God's sake Arun, practice harder.

All good. Fast forward a half dozen years. Exit mridangam, turn through IIT and finally enter Purdue. More importantly, Purdue Taekwondo and Purdue Aikijujitsu club. And keep on till you reach a few days ago. When I had my Taekwondo green-blue tip exam.

I'd been chafing in class for a while. Prep for the exam seemed to consist of doing Inner-Outer, Upper and Chop-hand blocks continuously. What a bore. And the stances. It lacked a point. So, when my exam came up, I was excited and more than a little dismissive. I was a bit nervous, but mostly confident of doing very well. Right up to the point when I noticed that there were three students with me taking the exam, and a gang of parents watching. Ok, squiggly-wiggly's in the belly, but still OK.

It was when the examining instructor called out the first form to be demonstrated that things started not to go as planned "Inner outer, Upper
and Chop-hand blocks" she said. Whoa!! Three at once? Well that's OK, I figured. Right foot out first, Inner-outer, bring your other hand about and cross it and...."One" came the call. Hey, wait a minute, I wanted to say. I managed to do it though. "Two!!" Now with the left side, move and ... Oh shit the others have done it already. "Three!!" and "Four!!" and "Five!!" and so on. Three minutes and a cold sweat later, second form demonstration "Inner-Outer, and turning kick!!" Oh God, NOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!

It was at this point that I realized the whole point of my teacher's instructions. The stance and the position may come naturally to you when doing a single one, but when in a situation where you have to use several, how do you switch between them? You don't want to be stuck between two stances, wondering about whether it's your left foot that goes forward or your right. Not only does that flunk you an exam, but it also keeps you stuck in any situation that requires MA application. Not desirable in a street corner when there's a punk with brass knuckles and/or a bicycle chain. That's why you practice several, so as to be able to switch between them with ease.

The experience also brought to mind something that my Aikijutsu teacher mentioned in class. A key difference between Aikijutsu and Taekwondo is the latter's emphasis on grips and takedowns, as opposed to Taekwondo's strikes alone. As our teacher explained, a lock technique may be broken down into a block, a stance and position shift, a counter-strike and finally the lock or takedown, but try doing each separately, and you'll end up with frustration (in the dojo) or a broken nose (in the street). A lock or takedown technique is more than the sum of it's parts, and so you have to remember its components, but not to the point of it's being just a sequence. It's something more in itself, and is but one component in the whole range of techniques that exist. So to master the art, again do your techniques slowly, but make sure you're fluid throughout (Here "fluid" has a definite meaning - keep moving!!!). Practice them slowly and with patience, till remembering technique X is remembering X, and not X = A + B + C + D.

To those who think I'm getting overly abstruse and/or pretentious, here's like a summary. What all this really showed me, and will show anyone who does both, is the importance of rhythm in martial arts as well as music. Rhythm and flow (the new Terrence Howard sequel) is vital to both, and comes from detailed practice. Practicing to the point where as above X = X and not X =ΣA, is how you don't see, but eventually feel, the bigger picture. Instinctively. The point where an Ikkiyo takedown or a back-piercing kick is second nature, and you're not aware you're doing it. Rhythm and flow are the same when practicing music, martial arts, pottery, swimming, hell even room sweeping if you see art in it. There's like one rhythm in all of 'em, the feel one.

Fucking disappointing, isn't it?