For most people, the dearest wish for their old age is to be healthy, happy and live out their days surrounded by family. But for a lucky few, age really is just a number. For 74 year old Meenakshi Gurukkal, growing older wasn’t going to stand in the way of her lifelong passion for the South Indian Martial Art, Kalaripayattu. Though the sight of an old lady swinging a sword and shield can be a but perplexing, she could probably take on martial artists across the world since for almost 7 decades she’s trained and taught the ancient practice in the small village of Vadakara, near Calicut, Kerala.
Considered to be one of the oldest fighting traditions in the world, Kalaripayattu has been recorded as early as 300 BCE. It was originally practiced in northern and central parts of Kerala and southern parts of Tamil Nadu. Buddhist texts even show records of it in the 5th century AD when it was taken back by the monks and travellers to China and beyond where it grew and transformed into what we know today as karate and judo.
Meenakshi began her training at the age of 6 when she and her sister were introduced to the local kalari (battlefield and combat arena) by their father. Though there weren’t many girls in her class, Meenakshi soon showed a rare natural ability for the sport and was encouraged to continue her training past puberty, when most girls were told to stop. She later married Raghavan Master, a schoolteacher who has a passion for the art but was shunned from the local kalari because of he was considered lower caste.
In retaliation he set up the Kadathanadan Kalari Sangam in 1949 with the dream that it could be a a safe space where people from all walks of life could study the martial art. Children of all ages, genders and abilities are welcome and today over a third of her students are female. They also waive the concept of fees with students paying whatever they can afford at the end of the year as guru dakshina.
Though Kalaripayattu is fairly well known throughout Kerala, it has never been considered a competitive sport and hence has been sidelined many times over. Today the government is pushing to solidify its status and set up official federations. This January when she was chosen as a Padma Shri awardee, it became clear that Kalaripayattu was truly on the rise again. Even though its a small community, the Kalaripayattu fighters continue to endure, this ancient art is slowly gaining more momentum and hopefully thanks to people like Meenakshi and Raghavan, it will be around for generations to come.