Meenakshyamma is the oldest among Kerala’s women kalari gurukkal. A dedication that began at the tender age of seven blossomed into an expertise in martial arts which not many women at the age of 74 are still adept in. Her moves never falter. The verve and perfection with which her aging body moves is as sinewy as it was when she stepped into the late V.P. Raghavan gurukkal’s kalari more than six decades ago.
The seven-year-old who clung to her father’s hand as she stood facing the austere Puthuppanam Karimbanapalath Raghavan gurukkal, went on to be not only a brilliant pupil but also wife to the famous kalari exponent.
The widowed Meenakshyamma kept her husband’s tradition alive and imparted his skills and deft moves to hundreds of children for whom kalari was next only to devotion. Small wonder then, that the Padmashree which she was awarded this year, came as a fitting tribute to this lone woman’s extraordinary tenacity and skill in kalaripayattu.
Meenakshyamma can put a youngster to shame with a twirl of her sword. This accomplishment has been the result of a life dedicated to kalaripayattu, one of the oldest martial arts in the world.
The gurukkal takes a look back at her childhood. She was born at a time when physical exercises were a must and kalari practice was a daily routine for the local people. An hour or two in a kalari was an unwritten rule. Most traditional and affluent families had their own kalari. It was to the kalari that people turned to for their immediate medical needs as well as first hand learning. By the age of seven, children, irrespective of gender, were sent compulsorily to the kalaris. But the girls’ expertise was seldom allowed to blossom beyond the age of 13 when most of them attained puberty. That was the end of their dreams and aspirations. They were then groomed for domesticity and childbirth. The lucky few who were allowed to continue were sent to distant kalaris. But this bonus would end the day they were promised in marriage.
The young Meenakshy was a fine dancer. Her father wanted her to perfect her moves. So he thought the kalari would be the best place for her where one learns to twist, bend and acquire eel-like agility. Raghavan Gurukkal’s kalari happened to be the best in the neighborhood and was close to little Meenakshy’s house. The gurukkal was a man of few words, serious and austere. The little girl grew up practising kalari and perfecting her dance moves simultaneously. But there came a juncture when she had to give up one for the other. Meenakshy unhesitatingly gave up dance. From then on, it was kalari and nothing else.
The defining moment of her life came when she married Raghavan Gurukkal when she was 16.
Meenakshyamma’s kalaripayattu school, Kadathanadan Kalari Sangham, is one of the oldest kalari schools in the state. The kalari was “dug” in 1949. Not a penny was charged by way of fees. Raghavan Gurukkal had a reason for this. Those were the days when the course of one’s life was decided by caste. Raghavan who belonged to the Theeya community was denied entry into a kalari run by upper caste Hindus. Refusing to be beaten, the young man and his brother set up the Kadathanadan Kalari overnight in a superb act of defiance. This came as a blow to the upper castes.
A dream and a mission was born. Anybody could walk in irrespective of caste, creed or religion. And of course, training was for free. The tradition lives on.
The huge kalari was constructed by digging a hollow in the ground 4 ft in depth, with a length of 64 ft and breadth of 32 ft. The “kuzhikalari” (kalari inside a pit) is scientifically built inside so that it maintains the atmospheric temperature. Besides, the top soil which induces allergies and skin ailments gets removed when the huge pit is dug.
The years have brought in changes. While the old kalari had its sides covered with mud, it’s now been replaced with stone. Tiles cover what was once a thatched roof and a small verandah runs in front. The rest has been retained.
The training is in the old kalari Malabar style. Once the four components … Vaythari, kolthari, angathari and verumkaiye are mastered, you are ready for payattu (fight).
Vaythari is a set of exercises kids have to follow to a “T” as per the oral instructions of the gurukkal. The “kaikuthipayattu”, a component of vaythari, helps the learner to store a lot of energy.
Meyarrakkam helps in allowing the body to bend, twist and turn with ease. Students learn to jump and deftly maneuver their movements in air.
Pakarchakal helps in maintaining body balance. Students are taught to be on one leg and fight. All these are various components of vaythari.
Once the basics are mastered, the student moves on to the next steps – kolthari, a fight with wooden weapons, ankathari, a combat with metal weapons and verumkaiye, self defence with one’s bare hands. The students learn how to fight an armed man, disarm him and lock him. The marmasasthram comes only after all the moves are mastered.
People who have well-toned and pliable bodies can master kalaripayattu in a year. In the good old days, it used to take up to decade to master the complete art of payattu.
Meenakshyamma is very particular that girls be instructed in kalarippayattu, especially in these unsafe times when they are assaulted and battered. Training in Kalari will charge up girls with confidence and help them in self-defence. Her students are afraid on nothing and none and come and go by night. Kalari teaches you the art of dodging, says the gurukkal. A lot of attacks can be stalled with presence of mind and confidence if you know your kalari moves. Besides, it’s a wonderful healer. Once the body is toned and can be twisted and turned with ease, women can enjoy painless and relatively easy childbirth and say bye to menstrual cramps and pain. Kalaripayattu builds up resistance and can hold illness at bay. The refreshing drink offered after kalari, a glass of water mixed with pepper, is as good as an elixir.
Meenakshyamma pauses on being asked whether she has had cause to try out her moves against anyone. “Not once,” she laughs. “I’m recognized wherever I go. I’ve had hundreds of students who respect me. My age too is a big factor. There have been instances when a few of my girls had to come out with their moves. Kalari should never be used to unleash an attack. Kalari is not meant to cause harm. Respect your body as you would that of others. This is the cardinal principle of kalari. Hence, you opponent’s physical strength becomes a decisive factor before you engage in an attack.”
She’s been living kalari ever since she stepped in from the age of seven. Her four children, Sajeev Kumar, Pradeep Kumar, Chandra Prabha and Ruby are all kalari experts. Her eight grandkids are also into kalari. The gurukkal’s day begins at 5 in the morning when she steps into her kalari. By 10 am, the morning sessions are over. The next session begins at 4.30 pm when the kalari gets active again till it’s time to wind up at 9 pm.
It’s dedication and discipline that keeps this kalari gurukkal going despite her seventy-plus-four-years.
Meenakshyamma is beautiful and abundantly endowed with the disarming charm and innocence of Malabar. She’s a warrior too with the Kadathandan blood of valiant heroes coursing through her veins.