Sugumar John Ratnam is almost 60 years old, but if you dare to pick a fight with him you will instantly regret it. He is a 4th Dan in the martial art of Aikido and is known to his students at his Aikido club as O Sensei – the great teacher. Hareth Al Bustani reports
The art of peace in a world at war
“We are samurais: we have to face any situation. There’s nothing I can say more than that.”
Sugumar John Ratnam, just shy of 60, can overpower men half his age with ease and grace. He may not be Japanese, but he is the closest thing to a samurai you are likely to find in Dubai.
As the chief instructor and founder of the UAE’s first Aikido school. Mr Ratnam, known to his students as John Sensei, is an ardent pacifist – despite living in a region rife with conflict. In the heart of Dubai, he and his students are on a mission to bring peace and harmony to the world – starting with themselves.
“This current situation, where people are killing everywhere, is not right. That is the what people did before we had civilisation and education. In those days, they killed each other,” he pauses, “like animals.”
Despite the technological advances in his lifetime, the Sri Lankan sensei believes people have not changed in thousands of years. “The world is going backwards these days because there is no care; there is no authentic way of life.”
To some, it might seem odd for a martial arts instructor to denounce fighting so strongly. However, Aikido is a martial art unlike any other. Mixed-martial-arts (MMA) fighters scoff at its lack of competition, as they aim to dominate – by submission or knockout. They seek the most practical way to deal with threats in a reality riddled with competition and conflict.
Aikido sets itself in a utopian context. Though it can be used for self-defence, it is not practised for self-defence. This is the philosophy that akidoka – Aikido practitioners – aims to manifest into real life.
“We are practising for good health, for good mind, for good spirit, good friendship and a good life. We don’t want to hurt and we don’t want to get beaten up by someone else,” stresses Mr Ratnam.
Aikido is not, strictly-speaking, a martial art but a form of budo – the Japanese term for a martial arts dedicated to self-development, as opposed to bujutsu – martial arts dedicated to defeating an enemy. Its techniques focus on joint locks and manipulations, as well as physics, to unbalance the attacker, redirect their energy, throw and pin them.
“When you come across MMA, everybody is young. I’m almost 60-years-old and I’m still training and I think I’ve got years left. But I don’t think anyone can do MMA at 60 years – they have to break their bones.” The founder of Aikido, Morihei Ueshiba, lived until 85 – leading training sessions up to the month before his death in 1969. A much-revered figure, he is referred to as O Sensei (great teacher) or Kaiso (the founder). Although different branches of Aikido vary, the budo, steeped in discipline and ritual, has changed very little since his death.
Entering and leaving, students bow to the dojo itself. Before training begins, they sit in silence – adopting the Japanese seiza sitting position, with their heels beneath their rumps – in hierarchical order. There is then a series of bows exchanged between the students and their sensei, as well as towards the shomen – the front wall, where a photograph of Ueshiba hangs.
Before becoming a martial arts instructor, Mr Ratnam worked as a film choreographer, billboard painter, stuntman and magician. He also founded an accountancy firm. Along the way he has mastered, or dabbled in, wrestling, karate, kung fu, judo, Aikido, and the weapons martial arts kendo, iaido and jodo. After more than 30 years of Aikido he is today a 4th Dan grade. In theory, the highest level is 10th Dan, although few have achieved this.
His mission has seen him set up dojos in Sri Lanka, Kuwait, Mauritius and South Africa. He established the UAE’s first Aikido dojo, the Dubai Aikido Club – now known as Zanshinkan – in 1995. The dojo is a member of the Aikido Association International, set up by the legendary Aikido expert – or Shihan – Fumio Toyoda.
Mr Ratnam earned his own Shihan in England in 1994, after which he trained with Moriteru Ueshiba, the grandson of the budo’s founder, in the Aikikai Aikido World Headquarters, the original Aikido school, in Hombu, Japan.
There are seven initial grades in Aikido, called kyu grades. Following this, students reach the black belt Dan grades. However, this is “just the beginning”, says Mr Ratnam, to an “international membership to the Hombu dojo”.
“If you want a teaching licence from Hombu dojo, you must have a 4th Dan – and for that you must have at least 15 to 16 years of experience.” The Dan grades also involve essay-writing on topics such as the history, principles and techniques of Aikido.
“At some of the schools here, you can buy belts in a very short time but we have certain years that they have to complete, because I’m responsible for my association. I’m very loyal to my senseis – we don’t have any hanky-panky here.”
Zanshinkan has trained almost 32 black belters since it began. The dojo’s highest graded student is an Australian, 3rd Dan Cathy Darnell, who Mr Ratnam honorifically refers to as Cathy-san. Ms Darnell has trained under Mr Ratnam for almost 15 years and says he is the best teacher in the Middle East for beginners.
“In Dubai there’s so much materialism, but for people who have this yearning that something’s missing within them, I think John is the best one. Especially for blokes. He has a spiritual aspect and he’s also got the martial; so, you can see that he could put you down quick but he’s also got the softness, the yin and the yang.”
Though she began Aikido to help her better connect with people, she found it taught her how to connect with herself. For her, Aikido is not just the martial art of the 21st century, but the “number one martial art for the Middle East”.
Another female student, the 2nd Kyu Susan Joehri, started Aikido after finding Kung Fu a bit too “macho man”. The Swiss akidoka says: “It was really different and it attracted me immediately. I think it’s everything: it’s the philosophy, it’s the physical aspect and [working with] all of your emotions and your energy.”
Committing to the budo, she says, has been an exercise in discipline, but discipline is key to success, according to Mr Ratnam. Aikido, he admits, is very confusing for beginners. But that is a good thing, he adds, because it allows you to enter the state of mushin, no-mindedness. “Empty your cup, so you can fill it with knowledge.”
Mr Ratnam says while Aikido has been the most important, all of the martial art forms he has practised have built his character. “In wrestling, there was always a competition: we always think we need to beat somebody to get a medal. It encourages destroying somebody, which is very bad. You start telling yourself you’re some kind of hero, you take the medal and the next day you get beaten up; there’s another man smiling and you’re in pain. It also happened in karate. I had many injuries, and I injured many people too.”
He is also an expert in iaido, a form of weapons training that complements Aikido. Just as the finest samurai’s sword takes much time, patience and effort to forge, so too does the finest warrior, he says.
He continues: “When sensei says ‘you are the sword’, then I know if I am a sword, I can do anything: I can kill at any time. So, the real, well-trained samurai’s sword never comes out. He will control the threat. Because when you draw the sword, somebody has to die.”
Many people, he says, give into the allure of violence – road rage being an example. “Everybody has an ego, sometimes, the egos rises up. If somebody yelling at you, or showing you the finger in your car, it is not worth it.”
Amid such disharmony, akidoka are trying to live by Ueshiba’s teachings, insists Mr Ratnam. “The way of sitting, the way of listening – this is an art. It is very difficult to get that part right.”
Even the name of the dojo, Zanshinkan, symbolises the respect and care that Aikidoku should pay to their budo and its traditions.
The different pleats of the hakuma skirt represent the virtues of the samurai – kindness, etiquette and morality, manners, knowledge and awareness, faith and belief. “Then there are two other pleats, sincerity and loyalty. But these biggest pleats are hidden – because today I don’t think a lot of places have loyalty or sincerity.”
Loyalty is Mr Ratnam’s biggest priority – it is samurai etiquette after all.
“Going for battle as a warrior, you don’t know if you’re coming back or if you’ll die. But you’re not going to live forever … every day is a new day and we are born again, that way we can do the best all day, with a lot of energy and enthusiasm. But for that, we need discipline and we need etiquette.”
As the room falls completely silent, save the concentrated breathing of his students, he concludes: “Nobody in Aikido will ever say they learnt for five years. I attended a seminar in Japan with Kanazawa-sensei, the karate sensei. At that time, Kanazawa-sensei was already about 72-years-old.
“He said ‘I’ve been practising karate for 60 years, but I’m not good enough’. And with everybody in shock, he said ‘one day my karate will be good – if I see that I am a good human being, then I can proudly say my karate is good’.”
For information on Aikido classes, visit www.aikido.ae.