Dubai: Eighty-year-old Meenakshi Amma is the oldest female exponent of ancient Indian martial art ‘kalaripayattu’ or ‘kalari’ and received India’s fourth highest civilian award Padma Shri in 2017.
The sari-clad expert in the heavily male-dominated and physically demanding art form from the state of Kerala has been featured by international media many times. There is even a movie based on her life titled Look Back, that is waiting for the release.
Yet, she became an instant Internet sensation only earlier this week when Emirati influencer Khalid Al Ameri shared a video of her turning him “into a shawarma”, as he captioned it, during a mock kalari fight with sword and shield at her kalari school in Kerala.
The Instagram video, in which Al Ameri is seen literally getting cornered by the sword-wielding Amma’s deft movements defying her age, has received over 1.4million views.
Interestingly, it was only during her Dubai visit this week that Amma realised her newfound fame and who Al Ameri actually is.
In town for opening the third branch of VKM Kalari Dubai, Amma spoke to Gulf News on Wednesday. She said she had not known Al Ameri was a famous person and had considered him as just one of the many foreigners who visit her from across the world.
“I have also taught kalari to many foreigners, both men and women,” said the octogenarian great-grandmother of two who has presented high-octane performances at umpteen venues.
Amma said she had been to the UAE five times as her daughter and grandchildren live here and she had been honoured by Malayali community groups here. But it is the first time that she was getting so much attention through the virtual world, she conceded. It was only coincidental that Al Ameri shot the video with Amma just a day before she flew into Dubai, said her daughter Chandraprabha Divakaran who lives here.
‘Kalari a must for girls’
Though she has taught thousands of people, Amma is particularly happy to teach kalari to girls and women for self-defence and strength. “I want all girls and women of all ages to learn kalari. They may find it a little uneasy or difficult in the beginning. But, they can master it if they put their minds to it and it will give them physical and mental strength and energy.”
A group of 60 girls back home in Madappally, who had learnt kalari from Amma for two years, had shown marked differences in their overall health, behaviour and energy, Amma said, quoting the school teachers who reported this.
“The teachers said they had started seeing the difference in just one month,” said Amma, who had won the Nari Shakti Puraskar, an annual award given by the Ministry of Women and Child Development of the Government of India in recognition of exceptional work for women empowerment, in 2016.
She also vouches for the fact that kalari can help reduce stress and prevent lifestyle diseases, irrespective of gender. “Just a half-an-hour’s kalari a day will help with all that. As it reduces tension, it helps with sleep also.”
Said to have originated 3,500 years ago, kalari is known as the “mother of all martial arts” as it integrates yoga, dance, combat techniques and healing elements of Ayurveda.
Attributing her physical and mental fitness to kalari, Amma said she had started learning kalari at the age of seven. She has mastered all four forms of kalaripayattu— Meipayattu (training stances), followed by Kolthari (practice with wooden weapons), Angathari (practice with metal weapons) and Verum kai (barehanded combat).
Her guru was VP Raghavan Master, who she married when she was 17. “My husband had mastered kalari at a very young age and he started teaching kalari when he was 14. Later on, he also became a school teacher. But, kalari was our passion and lifestyle. I used to help him in kalari classes and treatment sessions. Because of my presence, some girls started to come to kalari those days,” she recollected.
Over the decades, kalari became more popular and Kadathanad Kalari Sangham, the kalari school in Vatakara, that was founded in 1949 by master, received hundreds of students every year.
After master’s passing in 2009, Amma took over the charge with the support of her sons Sajeev Kumar, who previously used to teach kalari in Dubai, and Pradeep Kumar.
No fees charged
Amma, who has taught kalari to her four children, including another daughter Ruby Jayan, and some of her eight grandchildren, said she had been continuing her husband’s practice of not charging fees from any disciple. “We just accept what the students give us as guru dakshina,”
Even at this age, she wakes up at 5am and takes kalari classes with her sons and senior disciples from 5.30am till 9.30am. Again in the evening, she teaches kalari from 5pm till 10pm. “There are different batches of students—school students, working professionals, mothers etc. We had to stop the classes due to COVID-19. We are slowly resuming the classes,” said Amma, who is scheduled to return home later this month.
Though kalari was taught only during the Monsoon season decades ago, Amma said in modern times it is taught all over the year. “Earlier, it was a main stream of healing and wellness. It was during the rainy season that people needed the massage therapies in kalari chikitsa (treatment).”
Wooden weapons here
In the UAE, only wooden weapons are used to teach kalaripayattu, according to Manikandan Gurukkal, who runs VKM Kalari. He said kalari had been gaining popularity here, especially among girls and women. “Since 2013, we have taught over 1,800 students across our branches. Just a couple of months ago, we had organised a ladies-only kalari event in which 38 ladies and girls performed,” he added.
Amma, who vouches to continue teaching kalari as long as her body permits it, said that her biggest wish is to see kalari being practiced by all school students and the “mother of all martial arts” getting better international recognition.