Meenakshi Raghavan Gurukkal walks out into the arena with just a spreading smile across her face yielding ominous expression. She may be in character for the duel, but it is almost as if she does not want the onlookers to swipe off their mind who she is and hence, what it has taken for her to get there. Her choices of the costume is none other than a sari, which she handles with the look of a tigress — is an extension of that. Her ornaments are a shield and sword in place of bangles. As she swallows whole a man half her age and in the prime of his life, the context has been set for this revelatory rendezvous. She is the sword lady of our country.
She is arguably the oldest female practitioner of Kalaripayattu, an ancient martial art form that originated in southwest Kerala. Meenakshi Raghavan is only getting more skilled as the years passed. Respectfully addressed as Meenakshi Gurukkal or Meenakshi Amma, she has mastered the art of using swords and sticks in this almost dance-like form of self-defence.
Kalaripayattu has seen its share of timely flickers in interest levels from its patrons — who are mainly spread across South India but Meenakshi Amma has sworn by it devotedly for a staggering 68 years.
Meenakshi Amma studied till the 10th grade in a school in her hometown Vatakara and went on to study a course on stitching, even as her legs kept dancing. She later married Raghavan Gurukkal, her guru and founder of the same Kalari, at the age of 17.
She feels the strong need to clarify that it wasn’t a love marriage as if to preserve the sanctity of the student-teacher relationship. Because of this union and because of her own father’s observation that she was naturally gifted, she was able to stay in touch with the art of Kalari, in spite of it being frowned upon as a recreational choice for girls, in the olden days.
“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,” says the humble lady.
“Until the invention of gunpowder and other sophisticated weapons that revolutionized warfare, Kalarippayattu had an important role in enabling the warriors of those days,” Meenakshi Amma said. It was even part of education systems of the land up to the 17th century. “In that society where might was right, the mighty were right. And the mighty were worshiped. The disputes between the local rulers or feudal lords were determined by the ‘ankam’ (fight) between the hired ‘chekavar’ (kalarippayattu warriors), and their superb skill was honored everywhere,” she mentioned.
Meenakshi Amma is very optimistic about the future of this sport in our country.
She further said, “Recently, I have observed a lot of media getting attracted to Kalari. Moreover, the name of the art Kalaripayattu is written in history and that cannot be erased. There just have to be a few people to spread it to the next generation to keep Kalari alive for the coming years”.