By deftly fending off her son with a bamboo stick, Meenakshi belies Amma’s prowess in Kalari – believed to be India’s oldest martial art – belies her 78 years.
The great-grandmother in Kerala, South India, was a driving force in the revival of Kalarippayattu – as the ancient practice is also known – and in encouraging girls to get involved.
“I started with Kalari when I was seven. I am still practicing, learning and teaching,” said the matriarch of the Kadathanad Kalari Sangham School, founded by her late husband in 1949.
“If you open the papers, you only see news about violence against women. When women learn this martial art, they feel physically and mentally strong and it gives them confidence to work and travel alone.”
Kalari, which contains elements of dance and yoga, can contain weapons such as swords, shields and staves.
Said to be 3000 years old and mentioned in ancient Hindu scriptures, it remains steeped in religion to this day.
India’s British colonial rulers banned the practice in 1804, but it survived underground before a revival in the early 20th century and after independence in 1947.
Now it is recognized as a sport and practiced all over India.
In Meenakshi’s Kalari Hall, her bare-chested son Sanjeev Kumar, a lungi tied around his waist, barefooted students, both boys and girls, to walk on the ocher-red earthen floor.
“It’s a form of poetry,” said civil engineer Alaka S Kumar, 29, daughter of Sanjeev. “I am going to teach Kalari, together with my brother. We have to take over. Otherwise it’s gone.”