Meenakshi Amma’s face lights up when someone calls her Unniyarcha, the brave warrior heroine from the famous ballads of North Kerala, Vadakkan Pattukal. The comparison is frequent, since Meenakshi Amma’s tryst with Kalaripayattu began early: she enrolled at the kalari school, Kadathanadan Kalari Sangham, at the age of five.
Even then, VV Raghavan (or Raghavan master as he was called), the founder and teacher at the school, sensed the innate talent of his young student. Despite his reputation as a tough task master, he was impressed by her nimble footwork, rhythmic movements, agility and dedication. When Meenakshi turned 17, Raghavan proposed to marry her.
At 76, Meenakshi found that she was still surrounded by besotted fans. On Wednesday, a day before Republic Day, the Indian government decided to award her with a Padma Shri, India’s fourth highest civilian award.
“It is an honour to be known as a Kalaripayattu expert and exponent in wielding the urumi,” she said, referring to the flexible sword used in the martial art. “I dedicate all of this to my mentor and husband VV Raghavan, who took me into the world of kalaripayattu.”
Kalaripayattu is a martial art which originated in Kerala during the 13th century. To master it, students must toil for many years. Along with her own practice, Meenakshi supported her husband in running the school after their marriage. “I used to accompany him to the arena every day and work as his assistant, except when I was pregnant,” she said.
When Raghavan died in 2009, Meenkashi had to take the lead trainer’s role at the school and raise four children. “He wanted to celebrate the 60th anniversary of our school in a big way, but he breathed his last a few days before it,” she said of her husband’s death. “I took over the reins and organised the event after 43 days of mourning.”
Meenakshi Amma became a social media sensation last June, when a video of the sari-clad septuagenarian emerged. In it, she fought off a young man armed with a wooden staff, egged on by hundreds of spectators.
Her agility, fitness, offensive and defensive skills generated millions of fans all over the world. The performance also shattered the myth of Kalaripayattu – almost always depicted by sinewy and bare-chested men – as a male domain.
Meenakshi Amma’s school trains around 200 people from different parts of the world every year. A majority of her students prefer to enrol during the monsoon in June, until September.
“Monsoon is the best season to learn the martial arts as the body is more receptive during that time,” she said. “We train around 30 to 40 foreigners every year.”
The school also holds two-hour morning sessions every day throughout the year which begin at 5.30 am, apart from weekend sessions on Sundays. When asked how she manages to keep up with all of this, Meenakshi Amma smiled and said “Kalaripayattu”.
While there is a huge demand for lessons, the school does not charge trainees for enrolment or classes. “We provide training free of cost,” Meenakshi Amma explained. “But we charge the cost of the oil that should be applied before each training session. We depend on the dakshina or donation from the students after the completion of the course.”
“Raghavan had launched the school by spending money from his pocket,” she added over the phone, from Vadakara, the coastal town that lies 45 kilometres north of the district headquarter of Kozhikode. “He trained poor boys in the locality free of cost. We are just following his footsteps.”
Artists in training
It comes as no surprise that those who learnt the martial art here hold Meenakshi Amma in high esteem. Her presence has inspired many women to learn Kalaripayattu.
Sajini Sahadevan, a journalist who underwent the four-month monsoon training last year, is one of Meenakshi’s many admirers. “I was keen on learning a martial art that had flow like Tai Chi,” she said. “Then I thought, why not go for something from my own state under a talented woman teacher.”
Sahadevan felt that dedication was the key to Meenakshi Amma’s success: “The fact that come what may, she would be at the Kalari thrice a day – early morning, evening and night.”
Sahadevan also said that despite her age, Meenakshi Amma was not just physically but also mentally very agile. “She is very childlike and fun, she will tease you till you get the moves right,” she said.
Meenakshi Amma’s granddaughter, Alaka S Kumar, a civil engineer who has been learning Kalaripayattu for the last 18 years, also felt that her grandmother’s commitment to the martial art above all else, had earned her the award.
Meenakshi Amma, meanwhile, is neither euphoric nor triumphant at her victory. She confessed that the award caught her off guard, even though little else does.
“When I got a call from New Delhi on Wednesday, I thought someone was trying to fool me,” she said. “I realised it was true when I began to get calls from journalists. I never had such a big shock in my life.”
So which title does she prefer now – Unniyarcha or Padma Shri Meenakshi?
“Unniyarcha is part of our local history, and Padma Shri is one of the highest civilian awards,” she said, deftly ducking the question.