Meenakshi Amma – Kerala’s Iconic Sword-twirling GrannyJul 16, 2018
Kalarippayattu is a traditional form of martial arts that has its origin in Kerala, South India. This incredibly famous combative technique that is commonly performed in the northern parts of Kerala, since the medieval times, has garnered immense popularity progressively over the decades. The legend says that it was Lord Parashurama who conceived this martial art form. In modern times, this artistry is practised as a sports exhibition, to keep fit and learn self-defence.
Meenakshi Raghavan, aka Meenakshi Gurukkal aged 73 years, is the legendary high priestess of Kalarippayattu. The grand dame eludes her age and is renowned all over the world as perhaps the oldest female Kalari exponent and teacher in Kerala.
Ready for the rendezvous!
As she ventures into the arena, with only a trace of a grin, she brandishes an expression that is convivial and ominously articulated at the same time. She is ready for a duel and is not in the mood to let the onlookers miss her identity. Her choice of an ensemble—a sari, which she manages with the poise and aura of a tigress, is simply an extension of her personality. However, her adornments—a sword and shield instead of bangles—don’t leave a space for any ambiguity.
A moment to reckon with!
Seemingly, Meenakshi Raghavan is only becoming more formidable with the passage of time. Meenakshi Amma, as she is reverentially addressed like, aced this art of using sticks and swords in this nearly dance-like genre of self-protection.
She narrates, ‘I started to learn Kalarippayattu at the age of 7. Even today, I teach and learn Kalari. I used to dance, and on seeing me dance the teacher said to ‘teach her Kalarippayattu also. I like Kalari more so I continued doing it.’?
Today her school Kadathanadan Kalari Sangam in her locality in Vatakara boasts of 200 students learning the skill each season under her tutelage. The fiercely aggressive Meenakshi Raghavan has been devotedly practising the martial art for almost an impressive 68 years.
To be a doyen in Kalarippayattu, one needs to vanquish all the intimidating aspects of this artistic sport. Its first and foremost purpose is to idealise the metier of self-preservation and physical dexterity, through unarmed confrontation. Besides, Kalari has its very own therapeutic potency, likened to Ayurveda, however with individual claims to fame, particularly for healing skeletal and neuromuscular injuries.
‘I have been through all these levels, but I still consider myself a student in the process of learning. There is no ending in the process of learning Kalari,’ remarks the humble soul.
Meenakshi Amma was a unique homemaker who moonlighted not just as a sword-swishing Uma Thurman while battling her Kalari opponents, but also fought against the then age-old taboos and prejudices of being a woman and practising a heavy exercise that was being frowned upon. All this she did to reach her destiny to be a ‘Gurukkal’ to young boys and girls alike.
Because of her exemplary sword-wielding proficiency, Meenakshi propels fear inside her adversaries. She now passes on her abilities to help local girls in defending themselves.
Passing my sword on!
She explains, ’I say one single thing to every girl – learn Kalari. I’m self-sufficient, I don’t need any security, I go out at night all by myself ? with Kalari I don’t need any security.’?
It was her husband Raghavan master, who started Kadathanadan Kalari Sangam with an aim to make Kalarippayattu reachable to everyone. After her husband’s demise in 2009, Meenakshi assumed absolute control of the Kalari and rose to the occasion. She now feels elated and satisfied in achieving her late husband’s goal. She doesn’t charge any fees as a teacher. She is contented with whatever Gurudakshina her students offer her. Her classes have amassed a significant girl student base.
One female student says, ‘after seeing Amma’s Kalari we felt we should do Kalari, it helps us with self-protection and it’s also a healthy practice.’
She is now survived by her two sons and two daughters and grandchildren. They all practise Kalari, staying committed to its family-patronised traditional nature and context. Among her two sons, one is already a 'Gurukkal' now.
Alakha her granddaughter points out, ‘we have seen her performing at 73, because 73 years is a very old age for anyone’.
Meenakshi was awarded the Padma Shri on the Republic Day Padma Awards in 2017. She was felicitated with the award under the category of Others-Martial Arts.
A proud moment to cherish!
She is very optimistic in foreseeing the encouraging prospects of this distinctive sport in our country. Apart from being an admirable teacher, Meenakshi also extensively performs to huge crowds who throng in large numbers to watch her in action.
She concludes by saying ‘The audience say that I must keep on performing. I want to keep performing until I can’t anymore – that’s my wish.’