Sword-wielding Indian granny keeps ancient martial art alive
'Kalari' Fighting Skills Attract A New Generation Over Social Media
VADAKARA, Kerala -- Seated in her mud and tiled-roof training center filled with swords, shields, daggers and spears hanging on the walls, Meenakshi Amma, a grandmother and master swordswoman, is a picture of poise and equanimity. In a corner of the spacious, high-ceilinged room with slit windows, a few students -- mainly young women -- are practicing martial art moves with wooden staffs.
"Please continue and I'll be with you shortly," Amma instructs the group in Malayalam, the language of India's southern state of Kerala, as we squat on the ochre mud floor. At first glance, it is hard to believe that this elegant, sari-clad 79-year-old woman has been a feisty proponent and practitioner of Kalaripayattu (also known as Kalari), an ancient martial art that originated in Kerela, for four decades.
Not for the fainthearted, Kalari is a high-wire act involving rigorous jumping, twirling in the air and crouching, all while wielding a sword. Mostly practiced in Kerala and the adjoining southern states of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka as well as some parts of Sri Lanka, Kalari is so old that it is mentioned in 13th-century Indian literature.
"It was taught to ancient warriors to help them become fearless fighters and was mainly practiced by Kerala's warrior caste called the Nairs," Amma explained. The practice witnessed a decline in the 1980s and 1990s, but is now being revived thanks to Amma and her students, some of who are opening their own schools while also popularizing it on social media.
"All my four children are trained in Kalaripayattu and so are my eight grandchildren," Amma stated proudly. "In fact, Kalaripayattu has become a way of life in the villages around here," she added as she instructed the students at her school, Kadathanadan Kalari Sangam.
Located in the picturesque town of Vadakara, about 400 km from Kerala's capital city Thiruvananthapuram, the school is nestled amid towering willows and dense tropical foliage. A steady stream of students greet Amma with folded hands, some even bending down to touch her feet.
Amma rose to social media stardom in June 2016 when a video of the sari-clad septuagenarian warrior wielding a wooden staff showed her parrying blows from a young man, cheered on by hundreds of spectators. Her agility, fitness and deft moves had millions mesmerized, proving that Kalari was not just meant for brawny youths.
But few knew that Amma's skill was the result of decades of training, hard work and dedication. Her introduction to Kalari began when she was barely 5 years old. "My father took me to watch a local performance in the 1950s and I was hooked. Subsequently, I was enrolled at Kadathanad Kalari Sangham because dad was keen that my sister I learn it," she recalled. She has since been conferred with the Padma Shree, India's fourth-highest civilian award, for her work.
Amma's mission to focus on young women in her teaching stems from the widespread security concerns about violence against women across the south Asian country of 1.3 billion people. A survey by the Thomson Reuters Foundation in 2019 ranked India as the world's most dangerous country for women, ahead of Afghanistan, Syria and Saudi Arabia. Crimes against women in the capital city of Delhi surged by 63.3% in the first six months of 2021 as compared with 2020, according to the city's police data.
"You pick up any newspaper, it is full of crimes against women -- rape and sexual assault among them. It is time Indian girls fought back," said Amma.
At the school, Amma learned from the legendary owner V.V. Raghavan, her late husband, whom she married at the age of 17. She helped him manage the institute that was established in 1949 and accompanied him when he traveled to stage exhibits. "It is an honor to be known as a Kalaripayattu guru like my late husband and mentor. I feel so blessed," she said.
When Raghavan died in 2009, Amma took over the school's training programs. "My husband wanted to have a lavish celebration when we completed 60 years of our school. But alas that was not to be. He passed just a few days before the event. I fulfilled his wish after 43 days of mourning," she recalled.
Amma's training center now has 150 students enrolled from 20 countries, aged between 6 and 27 years old. One of her sons helps run the school while her grandchildren occasionally chip in with social media promotions. Adhering to an inclusive policy, the school welcomes all -- rich and poor as well as both genders. They pay no formal fee, although they are expected to make a donation for the school's maintenance. "We don't take any money for teaching because we're not a commercial enterprise," Amma explained. "But we do charge the cost of the oil that should be applied before each training session. We also use some of this money for our school's operations."
Training sessions are conducted every year from July to October during the monsoons, considered the best season to learn Kalari as the body is more receptive during this period. Her classes, with include about 40 foreigners each year, begin with a two-hour morning session at 5:30.
Kalaripayattu is firmly established in Kerala with a smattering of schools across the state, some opened by Amma's students. The Indian Kalaripayattu Federation, a Kerala-based private organization, is also trying to promote the martial arts through interstate competitions. However, none of the gurus in these institutes are as old or as well known as Amma.
"I was totally in awe of her aura and energy," said Shalini Iyer, 26, an eager student who traveled from Thiruvananthapuram for her course. "She'd be at the school before any of us at around 4 a.m. and go through each class with patience, addressing all our queries calmly. I've fallen in love with Kalari mainly because of her."
According to Amma, Kalari is not only a martial art form but also a powerful self-defense technique. "When women learn it, they feel physically and mentally empowered to go out to work and travel alone. In the 1950s, girls weren't allowed to participate in such activities on attaining puberty. In fact, after marriage, I only practiced it behind closed doors as some relatives didn't approve of it."
Times have changed. Now girls overwhelmingly outnumber the boys at the school, by about 80%. Amma is confident that her legacy will continue. "My disciples are my biggest strength. Many run their own kalaris (schools) and follow our philosophy of teaching the art form in a dedicated manner to one and all. That's why I am now planning to retire."
The long years she has devoted to Kalari have left their mark, quite literally, in the form of injuries. "It is quite common for a Kalari performer to get injured," Amma said as she showed a deep scar below her right eye. "Just like any contact defense sport, students are vulnerable to injuries."
To deal with the injuries, Kalari relies on traditional healing methods such as a special ayurvedic herbal body oil made by the students as well as certain types of healing massages to relax the muscles and augment the practitioner's flexibility.
"My husband's wish was to make Kalari accessible to all, irrespective of their caste, class or gender. He faced lots of obstacles in learning it as a young boy, and so had vowed to master its techniques and teach it free to anyone who was willing to learn it. I want to continue his tradition till the day I die," said Amma.