By Supriya Unni Nair
Meenakshi Gurukkal crouched low, sword poised; her eyes unblinking as she faced her opponent in the mud-paved 'kalari' or arena. From the tree tops, a mynah's call resonated in the silence. In a flash she moved to attack, twirling her sword; metal clashing loudly as it made contact with a shield.
At 74, she is possibly the oldest woman exponent of Kalaripayattu, the ancient martial arts from Kerala. She has been practising Kalaripayattu for no less than sixty-eight years - training and teaching.
Around 150 students learn Kalaripayattu in her school Kadathanadan Kalari Sangam, in a tiny hamlet in Vadakara, near Calicut, Kerala. From June to September every year, classes are held thrice a day teaching the Northern style of Kalaripayattu, including "uzhichil" or massages for aches and pains. Techniques have been passed down through generations, written in a palm ‘booklet’, grey and delicate with age. When school term is over, Meenakshi takes part in performances. “Nowadays, apart from teaching, I practise only when I have a show,” she says nonchalantly. This, from someone who on an average performs in 60 shows a year.
More than a third of the students are girls, aged between six and twenty six. Meenakshi’s school welcomes children from all walks of life. "Gender and community are totally irrelevant. What matters is age. The earlier you start, the more proficient you are," she explains.
The school runs on a 'no fees' principle. At the end of each year, students give her whatever guru dakshina they chose to. Today, some of her students are now Gurukkals or masters themselves.
The kalari walls display weapons - fist daggers, shields, spears, thick wooden rods, tusk-shaped 'ottas' and 'urumis' - long flexible blades used in combat. Among them is a shield, polished, but old with use - one that Meenakshi herself had trained with as a young girl.
She started learning Kalaripayattu at the age of six, when her father had taken her and her sister to a local kalari. "There were only a handful of girls in our class. But my father wasn't bothered. He was determined we learn Kalaripayattu," she says.
Meenakshi turned out to be naturally gifted, and her father encouraged her to continue training even past puberty, when girls normally stopped.
It was then that she met and married Raghavan Master, a school teacher with a passion for Kalaripayattu. Shunned from joining a local kalari because he was from the backward Thiyya/Ezhava community, Raghavan Master had built his own Kalaripayattu training school in defiance. Kadathanadan Kalari Sangam was set up in 1949; a place where anyone and everyone who had a passion for the martial art could join. "His goal was to make Kalaripayattu accessible to everyone. Today we have done that," explained Meenakshi, who started teaching Kalaripayattu at his training school at age 17.
Oral folklore in north Kerala, known as Vadakkan Pattu or Northern Ballads, is rich with tales of Kalaripayattu champions. Among them are the Thiyya/Ezhava warriors of Puthooram tharavad in North Malabar- heroes and heroines such as Aromal Chekavar, an expert in 'ankam' (duelling) and Unniarcha, a women skilled in 'urumi' combat who singlehandedly took on vagabonds to ensure safe passage for women in that area. Ironically, Raghavan Master, from the same Thiyya/Ezhava community, had to fight discrimination in the late 1940s and set up a separate kalari to train and teach.
Historians stress that Kalaripayattu was popular in medieval Kerala.
"Each 'desam' or locality had a kalari or gymnasium with a guru at its head and both boys and girls received physical training in it," noted historian Prof A Sreedhara Menon in his work 'A Survey of Kerala History'.
Portuguese traveller Duarte Barbosa, wrote of how he saw Kalaripayattu students in North Kerala in the early 1500s, who "...Learn twice a day as long as they are children... and they become so loose jointed and supple that they make them turn their bodies contrary to nature.." (exerpt from The Book of Duarte Barbosa, Volume II, Duarte Barbosa)
Mythology credits Parasurama being the father of Kalaripayattu having learnt in from Shiva himself. Historically, it finds mention in early Sangam literature. Kerala historian, Elamkulam Kunjan Pillai, in his book Studies in Kerala History, opined that the northern form Kalaripayattu practised today came into existence in 11 th century, in the wake of the strife between the Tamil Kingdoms of Cheras and Cholas. Later, colonial rulers were quick to ensure that locals did not pose a threat to them, and strongly discouraged Kalaripayattu. Their prudish sensibilities also prevented women from learning such skills. Prof Menon noted that after the 17 th century, interest in Kalaripayattu declined.
Restrictions on carrying arms ensured that most Kalaripayattu weapons were kept in cold storage.
Kalaripayattu was revived in the 1920s, but practitioners had to ask authorities for special licences to use weapons.
“It was well past Independence that things really picked up. Now it's a way of life for us," says Meenakshi. Her children, two sons and two daughters, also started training in Kalaripayattu at six, and today her son Sajeev is a Gurukkal. "I will practise Kalaripayattu for as long as I physically can," she adds.
This grand dame of Kalaripayattu is determined to prove the cliché that age is just a number.
In January 2014, about 25 people met on the terrace of Shaun D’Souza’s house in Bengaluru. Shaun and Tim Lo Surdo, an Australian citizen, had teamed up for a poetry slam which got cancelled. Deciding not the let their practice go in vain, they called their friends together with Shaun’s terrace as the venue. Two years later, that gathering of friends and friends of friends has mushroomed into a pan-India open-mic platform: Open Sky.
Shaun's first performance at the first Open Sky event held at his terrace.
Open Sky is a platform where slam poets, musicians, comedians and dancers register and assemble once a month to perform for an appreciative audience.
Shruthi Mohan, a 22-year-old journalist in Bengaluru, says that for a long time, Open Sky was just a group of friends meeting every month to showcase their creativity. “I noticed how the group had so much potential and convinced them to use social media to make this platform more consolidated and popular. And it did work!” she says. A classical dancer and musician who became a part of the Open Sky community at the third event in Bengaluru.
Since those baby steps, Open Sky has found home at cafes and co-working spaces in Chennai, Delhi, Mumbai, Calicut, Bengaluru, Pune, Hyderabad and even Australia. Different chapters have their own rules on registration fee and can depend on specific events. Shruthi head the India chapter as a whole, while Shaun heads it in Australia.
Most performers are slam poets and budding musicians in their late teens or working professionals in their early 20s. “But we’ve had a few older persons performing too. At one event, a 59-year-old woman approached us right at the end and said she wanted to perform. She read out some mesmerizing Tamil poetry,” says 19-year-old Prem Sylvester, who coordinates the Chennai chapter.
This happens often at their events. “Many people are shy or nervous the first time, even if they’ve registered. But once they’ve watched the first event, they often come back more confident.”
A glimpse of the events Open Sky organises
Things are a little different at the Australian chapter. Shaun, who’s studying Masters in Criminology at a Bond University in Queensland, says that Australian performers touch more upon romance and politics than their Indian counterparts, but a chunk of their concerns remain the same. “Like drugs, sex and teenage mental health. But they are more diverse in terms of style and writing, maybe because in English is a first language here and poetry is more 'explored' as an art form in Australia,” he says.
Prem says they use social media to attract both performers and audience. Two weeks before the event, they create an event page inviting performers.
“Performers touch on anything from child sex abuse to feminism: things that are talked about in hushed tones,” Prem says. But depression, anxiety and even suicide were a recurring theme among many poets and performers. So, the current edition of the multi-city event will be on mental health, to encourage people to speak up about it.
For this event held through in September and October, performers will be charged a fee of Rs 100 and proceeds will go to their partner NGO LonePack, which works on spreading awareness about mental health issues.
At the heart of Open Sky is “letting people express themselves in an environment that’s conducive and an audience that’s appreciative,” Prem says.
“Our first event on Shaun’s terrace was right under the open sky, with no boundaries for who could perform and how. Since then that name sort of stuck and now stands for what we want to do,” smiles Shruti.
By Aradhya Kurup
Who says that diamonds are a girl’s best friend? There’s no one better than a female friend when a woman needs advice, a patient ear, or just someone to have lots of fun with. Women form close friendships and seldom hold back secrets from their girl pals. There’s no such thing as Too Much Information (TMI) or ‘oversharing’ when it comes to female friendships.
Curiously though, there haven’t been too many Indian films that have represented enduring female friendships. Here’s a look at a few Malayalam films that have done so:
Shalini and Ammu (Shalini Ente Kootukari, 1980): A perfectly balanced friendship with one complementing the other. The impish Shalini (Shobha) and the shy, level-headed Ammu (Jalaja). Only Ammu knows that her friend’s boisterousness is just a decoy to hide her loneliness. Be it her dad’s indifference to her or her stepmom’s animosity, it’s Ammu who patiently hears out Shalini. When Shalini finally meets with her death, Ammu realises that her friend’s absence is a vacuum that can never be fulfilled.
Sally and Nimmy (Deshadanakkili Karayarilla, 1986): They are soul sisters. Both hail from dysfunctional families — their friendship is born out of a need to feel wanted and loved. Loneliness forces them to create a tiny world of their own. It’s clear that Sally (Shaari) is the leader between the two. She is a tomboy (tellingly sports a boy cut later on). When they hatch a plan to run away from school, it’s Sally who bravely routes the escape plan. Once out of school, they get more drawn towards each other — living in a youth hostel, pursuing their hobbies, and learning to support each other. Though unexplored during the time of its release, there are subtle hints about the relationship being lesbian. When Nimmy (Karthika) falls for Harikrishnan (Mohanlal), Sally makes her displeasure known. Even in death, they are together.
Kochu Thresia and Kunju Maria (Manasinakkare, 2003): Together they are adorable — a bond that has stood the test of time. The hair on their temples has turned grey, but the humour is still intact. At church, the two women giggle like teenagers and are reprimanded by the priest. Kunju Maria (KPAC Lalitha), knowing her friend’s weakness for homemade delicacies, lovingly packs unniyappam, achappam, and ada whenever she visits her. When Kochi Thresia (Sheela) is required to visit her sons to look after her grandchildren, they have a teary-eyed final reunion — “Naley velupinu njan pokum. Nee aa vashathekkenganum vannekkaruthu” (“I will leave early tomorrow. Don’t you dare come see me off”).
Raziya and Ganga (Perumazhakaalam, 2004): Raziya’s (Meera Jasmine) husband kills his friend unintentionally in a scuffle. The punishment he faces in the Gulf country they live in, is the death penalty. The only way he will be pardoned is if the dead man’s widow, Ganga (Kavya Madhavan), is willing to forgive him. Despite the rawness of her grief, Ganga is able to understand Raziya’s pain and the two women develop a bond that others cannot understand. Risking her ostracism from the community, Ganga decides to sign the letter of pardon for Raziya’s sake.
(This article first appeared in Fullpicture.in. You can read the original article here. The News Minute has syndicated the content.)