Kalaripayattu taught by Meenakshi Gurukkal

At 74, Meenakshi Is Breaking All Stereotypes Teaching Kalaripayattu

Elderly In Indian Society –  Upon sensation of these words, our brain paints a gloomy, greyish picture. It portrays the elderly as the helpless, work-deprived and charity-dependent people prone to a bunch of diseases and assaults.

Meenakshi Gurukkal crouched low, sword poised, donning Posta di Donna la Sinestra (Noblewoman’s guard) and her eyelids glued to her opponent as he prepares attack in the mud-paved kalari. She is breaking all stereotypes about the elderly in the society. Like a Pavlovian reflex, her skin crinkled like crepe silk tightens as she counters the attack, twirling her sword, metal clashing loudly as the practice grows fierce.

At 74, Guru Meenakshi is the oldest martial arts trainer in India. Icing on the cake, a woman. She has been practicing Kalaripayattu, the ancient martial arts from Kerala; for no less than sixty-eight years. Such strongly is she driven by her passion for Kalaripayattu that she refuses to let go of it until her last breathe.

Meenakshi’s school Kadathanadan Kalari Sangam – located in a small village named Vadakara, near Calicut, Kerala – runs for four months a year. June to September, classes are held thrice a day teaching the northern style of Kalaripayattu which includes training for massages for acne or pain. With 150 students, her school ingresses interested warriors-in-making from any community and age group. The rich cultural legacy is passed onto generations, written in a palm ‘booklet’, grey and delicate with age.

Gurukkal meenakshi teaching Kalaripayattu

Though, she warmly embraces students of any age, she believes that the earlier one starts, the more proficient one becomes. Empowering women, more than a third of her students are girls aged between 8 and 20. Generally, most of the girls are stopped after puberty but in Meenakshi’s school there is no such barrier. Firmly entrenched faith in keeping the cultural lineage alive, the Sangam follows the “no fee” principle. A gurudakshina, however can be made by the students at the end of the year, if they so desire. The dakshina is purely upon the will of the students.

Today, many of her students are Gurukkals or masters themselves. She recounts that when she had started learning Kalaripayattu at the age of six; less girls would step out but her father, though initially hesitant happily admitted both his daughters. She has got all the hail of technical experiences from her passion driven work for over 68 years.

“We were an academically- inclined family and it was the first time a girl went to learn Kalaripayattu from our family,” Meenakshi says.

But it was not as easy as it appeared. Within a few days of joining, she was asked to participate in a Kalaripayattu competition.

“All I could do was to nod dumbly,” Meenakshi chuckles.

Old women in Indian society are among the neglected beings. Taking advantages of their weakness younger family members, neighbours and relatives don’t even nurture them. Living under the shadows of males throughout their lives – father, husband, son or male relatives like nephew, brother, uncle; their own identity is lost. They are completely dependent on the male members of the family for fulfillment of all their basic needs.

Meenakshi, a rare God-gifted lady, refuses such life with elegance. Even at this age, she is firm and determined to break all stereotypes and set examples for women. She teaches the art form and when free, she in her words:

“Nowadays, apart from teaching, I practice only when I have a show.”

This, from an inspiration who gives over 60 performances a year. Her determination to never let this art form die and her strength for practicing comes from her husband, who has also been her trainer. Following her passion she married Raghavan at 18, a school teacher who shared her passion for Kalaripayattu. Most of the people resisted learning from the local kalari, as he was from the backward community. Marrying him would obviously have been quite a deal in itself. But to Meenakshi, Community has never been a taboo. Raghavan Gurukkal now has his own Kalaripayattu training school; a place where anyone and everyone who had a passion for the martial art could join.

Historically, Kalaripayattu finds mention in the ancient Sangam literature. According to Kerala historian Elamkulam Kunjan Pillai in his book, Studies in Kerala History; the Northern form of Kalaripayattu practiced today came into existence in the wake of 11th-century strife between the Tamil kingdoms of the Cheras and the Cholas .

Kalaripayattu was revived in the 1920s, but practitioners had to ask authorities for special licences to use weapons. Today, it stands in straight defiance of the taboo surrounding age, caste, creed, gender among others.

(The Story Was Originally Published Here.)

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