The 2017 Padma Shri awards list also included the ‘Unsung Hero’ of the country who worked hard to promote the traditional art and for the good of the public without thinking about the limelight. Among them is 76-year-old Meenakshi Amma, India’s oldest Kalaripayattu exponent, the ancient martial arts from Kerala. She has been practising Kalaripayattu for no less than sixty-eight years - training and teaching.
Meenakshi Raghavan is only getting more formidable as the years pass. Respectfully addressed as Meenakshi Gurukkal or Meenakshi Amma, she has mastered the art of using swords and sticks in this almost dance-like form of self-defence.
She started learning Kalaripayattu at the age of seven under the guru Raghavan master, who married her when she turned 17. Meenakshi Amma continued learning Kalaripayattu at a time when girls were not encouraged to learn this art. Today her Kalaripayattu school Kadathanadan Kalari Sangam, which is located in Vadakara near Calicut, Kerala, has 150 students and more than a third of them are girls. The age of the students range from six to twenty-six and there is not age or caste bar.
"Gender and community are totally irrelevant. What matters is age. The earlier you start, the more proficient you are," she explains.
However, an early start is recommended for learning Kalaripayattu. Her school runs on whatever dakshina it receives by the students at the end of each year. The classes are conducted from June to September every year and the Northern style of Kalaripayattu is taught at the school. If this sword wielding granny doesn’t inspire you to stay active, no one can.
The kalari walls display weapons - fist daggers, shields, spears, thick wooden rods, tusk-shaped 'ottas' and 'urumis' - long flexible blades used in combat. Among them is a shield, polished, but old with use - one that Meenakshi herself had trained with as a young girl.
She says “I was first taken to Kalari (meaning ‘arena’) by my father, Mr Damu, at the age of seven. I used to practise dance in those days and that was one of the reasons for me joining the Kalari as it increases flexibility in movements. Later on, my guru, Mr V P Raghavan Gurukkal started training me in Kalari.”
“Those days, girls were restricted from being a part of such sports, especially after marriage. Doing what is good for you is often a challenging task for women. But, since Kalari here was a family thing, I had full support from my family and the people in the locality to practise more. Luckily, today, there isn’t any discrimination to that extent.”
“But the true fact is that Kalari really moulds women to become much stronger in all aspects. It should not just be regarded as an exercise alone; it’s strengthening both your body and mind. In Kalari, so many self-defence techniques are taught which will definitely be useful for ladies in situations of danger.”
“Recently, I have observed a lot of media getting attracted to Kalari. Moreover, the name of the art Kalaripayattu is written in history and that cannot be erased. There just have to be a few people to spread it to the next generation to keep Kalari alive for the coming years.”