You are greeted with a series of clangs, scuffling feet and rhythmic chants as you approach the dojo (training area) at the Tai Karate Centre – grand master Muhammad Ashraf Tai’s 14-year-old daughter Maham is locked in battle with another student. His wife Samina Shaw – a second dan (level) black belt – watches on as her daughter whirls a pair of lethal nunchucks at her opponent.
Maham lands a graceful somersault that earns her enough points to win the match that ends in a bow. All the techniques at Tai Karate Centre are based on animalistic martial arts technique known as bando that Maham and her opponent were demonstrating.
‘Grand Master’ Tai became the pioneer martial arts teacher in Pakistan when he brought the method here in 1970. He immigrated from Burma and began giving lessons at a small centre at Hill Park known as Mairaj Amusement Park. His luck changed one night while he was at the movies with his students.
The son of the Tai Centre’s owner was at the Capri Cinema when Tai jumped the queue outside – literally. Tai skipped across the line using one of his bando techniques and nabbed his tickets, leaving the rest of the people waiting enraged. When they tried to attack him, he refrained from fighting back initially. However, the disappointed looks on his students’ faces and the crowd’s abuses fired him into action. He took on 13 men and defeated them all with a series of back-hand shots to the temple. The owner’s son was so impressed that he offered him his father’s ground for training.
Bando is a skill that originated in Myanmar and is taught by 97% of the martial arts centres in Pakistan. Many of the moves are inspired by animals such as the panther sweep, the scorpion kick and the tiger-style punch. Though meant for self-defence, bando is categorised as an aggressive style of combat.
After Maham’s demonstration, the students fell into groups according to their kata levels. The 20 year olds towered over the tiny four year olds as they practiced in separate compartments. Interestingly, the girls outnumbered the boys – with 60 girls dutifully practising their steps in a crowd of 100.
Tai’s entire family – Samina, Maham and his 18-year-old son Ali – are now skilled trainers. His wife began learning the technique soon after they were married while their children began before they could even walk.
Despite the physically rigorous exercises, nobody gets hurt at the centre, as the students are trained well enough to protect themselves. They abide by the motto, “You never attack, always defend” that is part of Tai’s religious convictions. “In Islam, you never hurt anyone before an attack,” he explains.
Tai claims to have trained almost a million students, including military and security men. They have also expanded to two other centres. The family is at different dan levels, ranging from ten to one. Tai is a level ten dan black belt while his son Ali is at level three. Ali was busy putting his group through their paces doing stretches and back flips. “We teach bando because these days an aggressive style is necessary,” he said, hinting at the dangerous environment in the country.
The trainers have also merged gymnastics into their style of teaching. Ali says this adds flexibility, allowing you to dodge an opponent.
Iqbal Ghazanfar, a student and an instructor, told The Express Tribune that his skills have even helped him avoid being mugged. “I was held at gunpoint three times and I managed to protect myself – and save my cell phone – just by using my own body and without even harming my opponent,” he said triumphantly. Tai compares his art to Newton’s Third Law – every action has an equal and opposite reaction.
The techniques, if used carelessly, can lead to broken bones, cause dislocations and even unconsciousness. “That is why the first things a student learns are body balance, discipline and humility,” Tai explained. “No student steps into the training field without a uniform.”
Humility is a very important part of the training and cleaning the practice space is their responsibility. None of them can even sit down until the trainer allows them to.
“It may seem like unrelated work, but it breaks ego and makes sure that nobody misuses his or her skills.”
Hina Imran, whose four- and six-year-old children are regulars, believes the skill is not only for safety but also boosts confidence. “My son used to get bullied by his neighbourhood friends but now he can face them,” she said. The proud mother feels that the practice is good exercise as well.
“My brother is a blue belt and he grew to be six feet tall and while my son has just started I have noticed a marked increase in his appetite.”
With a 10th dan black belt, his name in the American Sports Hall of Fame and a Pakistan Pride of Performance awards, Tai’s legacy is a hard act to beat not only for Pakistanis but foreigners.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 7th, 2011.