NEW DELHI: As she wiped off the beads of sweat from her forehead with the tail of her crisp cotton saree before wrapping it around her waist and tucking it back in, Meenakshi Raghavan signaled Neha D. to launch her next move.
Both were barefoot in a muddy pit, their bodies hunched and eyes locked, ready to fight, only Raghavan had one advantage over her 13-year-old opponent.
At 78 years old, and India’s first woman grandmaster of Kalaripayattu — a near 3,000-year-old martial arts technique — she has been training in the craft from the age of seven.
But her tutor’s experience did not faze teenager Neha, who has trained with Amma (mother) at her school in Kerala, in southern India, for more than a year.
“Amma inspired my family and me to train in Kalaripayattu,” Neha told Arab News from Vadakara village in a district of Kerala where Raghavan’s late husband founded the Kadathanad Kalari Sangham martial arts school in 1949.
“For me, Kalaripayattu is a lifestyle. It not only helps me gain physical strength and confidence but makes my body supple and flexible for dance,” she added.
From 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. every day, Raghavan trains hundreds of students similar to Neha in Kalaripayattu (also known as Kalari and which means, art of the battlefield), reviving the practice and empowering her community by teaching self-defense techniques.
The first written reference to Kalari dates back to the third century B.C. It originated in Kerala and is a mix of dance and yoga based on speed, rhythm, balance, sharpness, and other factors, but can include weapons such as swords, shields, and staffs.
British colonial rulers had banned the practice in 1804 to limit potential resistance fighters trained in Kalari, but it continued to be taught in secret before becoming a mainstay after India’s independence in 1947.
There are now Kalaripayattu schools throughout India and around the world, with Raghavan being credited with reviving the craft and earning a national award for her role in 2017.
The mom-of-four and grandmother of eight, told Arab News: “I started Kalari at seven when my father inspired me to take up this art form. Then, at the age of 17, I married a man who was the practitioner of Kalari. Now I’m 78 and still practicing, learning, and teaching it.
Neha noted that her tutor “transformed into a warrior” the moment she stepped into the sandpit, wielding swords, shields, and staffs, the skill and suppleness of her body defying her age.
“Kalari is a mix of dance and yoga, and the practice makes you adept in wielding the sword but also keeps your body flexible and healthy,” Raghavan said.
She began teaching Kalari in 2009 after the death of her husband, Raghavan Gurukkal.
“Until then, I had played a supportive role and avoided the center stage with him keeping the tradition alive. The tradition needs to be preserved, and legacy needs to continue,” she added.
She trains between 150 and 200 local and foreign students every year but since March last year has been forced to limit classes due to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic and subsequent lockdowns.
“Some foreigners visit to train now, and people in India are taking a keen interest in the art too, that’s why you have Kalari schools in other parts of the country. More and more women are learning Kalari to defend themselves in these times.”
India was ranked as the world’s most dangerous country for women in a 2018 global survey, with a rape taking place every 15 minutes in the country of 1.36 billion people.
About one-third of Indian women have suffered domestic violence, the Oxfam India report said, citing government data.
Raghavan’s son, Sajeevan Gurukkal, also teaches Kalari at the school, which functions as an ayurvedic massage center and trains students for free.
“This is an ancient practice, and we want to keep it alive,” she said, adding that her entire family, including her grandchildren, were trained in the martial art.
One of them, Jaimi R. J., 27, a business professional, said: “Amma has trained me well, and my heart is in the art. I want to keep the legacy alive.”