The Tel Aviv Tango

Tehelka Magazine (India)
April 15, 2008
By Sanjeev Bery

The Israeli Defence Forces have a gift for the world. SANJEEV BERY takes a closer look at the spread of Krav Maga martial arts in India

ISRAEL’S ARMS sales may capture the headlines, but they aren’t the nation’s only export to India. In south Delhi’s upscale Saket neighbourhood, a small but growing number of residents are learning krav maga, the hand-to-hand combat system of the Israeli Defence Forces.

A big man with a gruff demeanor, Vicky Kapoor is the one responsible for bringing krav maga to India. He describes the martial art in clipped phrases: “Combat fighting — a system which is quick — easily retained.” Kapoor himself came to krav maga after decades of experience in karate, judo, and other martial arts. “What I saw was that krav maga is the most practical self-defence system,” he says.

Since krav maga’s arrival in 2004 in India, some 600 students have undergone Kapoor’s training. New programs have started in Gurgaon and Bangalore. And classes will soon begin in Mumbai, Kolkata, and other cities. “Krav maga makes you more aware of the threats around you,” says south Delhi resident, Nitin Bhasin, one of Kapoor’s students. “You are better prepared to handle situations that might arise.”

At Kapoor’s Delhi studio, a sign quotes krav maga’s founder Imi Lichtenfeld:  “If you want peace, prepare for war.” Another shows a stylised graphic of soldiers, presumably Israeli, descending from military helicopters. According to krav maga’s promoters, what sets it apart from other martial arts is its focus on immediate self-defence.  Absent are the yoga-like movements found in East Asian martial arts. Also missing are any rules against striking the groin, eyes, or other vulnerable parts of the body. In class, though, steps are taken to keep people safe.

Krav maga began in the 1930s, when Lichtenfeld organised European Jews to defend themselves against Nazi militias. Israeli military trainers further developed the martial art into something they could quickly teach new troops. In Hebrew, the name literally means “close combat.” It is definitely not a pursuit for the common man. In Bangalore, a two-and-a half week course with 10 hours of instruction costs Rs 2,800. In Delhi, the monthly fee is Rs 3,000, plus Rs 2,250 in startup costs. In the Delhi studio, the military images compete for attention with pop star Jennifer Lopez throwing a punch. Most women, however, attend the studio’s kickboxing cardio classes, not the martial arts sessions. “They are more concerned about weight loss than their safety,” Kapoor says.

The low turnout of women is true of the Bangalore studio as well. “Mr. Frank,” as the instructor calls himself, blames Indian gender roles. “Women are always told from childhood to be nice to men,” he says. “They should not talk back or fight back. Suddenly, they find themselves confronted by a sexual predator, and it is difficult to erase the years of training they have received.” But he points to a new attitude in his female students. “They can do something to protect themselves. They don’t have to rely on boyfriends or brothers to protect them all the time,” he says.

CURIOUSLY, CIVILIAN krav maga is still affected by Israeli military concerns. “We are restricted not to teach the Palestinians or the Iranians,” Kapoor says. No individual is turned away at the door, but krav maga does seem to have official friends and enemies. Even so, promoters are reticent to discuss krav maga’s potential role in the controversies of actual Israeli military practice. “We don’t mix those things with politics,” says Eli Ben-Ami, Co-Director of the International Krav Maga Federation, based in Israel. “It has nothing to do with the occupation or what is happening in the Occupied Territories.”

Ben-Ami, a former Israeli soldier, stressed that he was speaking as an individual. “Those soldiers who are dealing with the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories mostly don’t use hands,” he said, implying the use of a firearm. But they do use krav maga to “catch or bring someone into custody.” Kapoor himself studied under krav maga experts in Israel, and his sympathies are clear. “War is in Israeli blood. War is not in Indian blood,” he said. “We are more peace-loving. If we had war in our blood, no one could enter Parliament and do the shooting.” He later added, “Nobody dares to mess with Israel.”

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 5, Issue 13, Dated April 5, 2008

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