‘The kambu is an extension of my body’, says Aishwarya Manivannan, silambam warrior in a saree

Aishwarya tells TNM about why she took to Silambam, and her hopes for the ancient martial art.
‘The kambu is an extension of my body’, says Aishwarya Manivannan, silambam warrior in a saree
‘The kambu is an extension of my body’, says Aishwarya Manivannan, silambam warrior in a saree
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Think martial arts, and the qualities you probably think of are masculinity, aggression and power. But there’s also the beauty and grace displayed by the trained body that has an undeniable mystique of its own.  That’s where Aishwarya Manivannan comes in.

Since her video hit YouTube on National Handloom Day last year, Aishwarya has suddenly emerged as the new face of the martial art form called silambam, dispelling the aura of rustic machismo that Tamil cinema had long cast on the sport.

Most recently showcasing the martial form at the Hyderabad Literature Festival last week, Aishwarya is a clear favourite with spectators. Clad in gorgeous handloom sarees, she wields the kambu or other weapons like large vaal veechu swords with lithe grace and inspiring confidence.

Aishwarya is an artist, designer and educator, and has been learning the art of Silambam for over four-and-a-half years. The 28-year-old resident of Chennai calls Silambam her daily meditation.

“The kambu has become an extension of my body. I see the weapon as a thing of beauty, not of aggression. For me, Silambam is a form of meditation; it needs complete focus and concentration. I did not learn it for self defence but for the beauty and grace of this art. I start my day by meditating, meditating as in with Silambam,” she says.

But when she first started learning Silambam, Aishwarya had a different perspective.

“I thought it would help me with my Bharatanatyam – the postures, strength, footwork – and make me more active. So I decided to learn this martial art form. However, I fell in love with it. As Bharatanatyam and Silambam both are like big oceans, I thought I am not doing justice to both art forms,” she says.

Although it wasn’t an easy choice to make, Aishwarya chose Silambam over Bharatanatyam.

“I miss Bharatanatyam, but then I realise, no one can take the dancer out of me. And there are several similarities between both the art forms and I thought people need to be more aware of Silambam,” she adds.

Aishwarya considers her Bharatanatyam teacher Kavitha Ramu, as her role model. “She is an IAS officer, and the way she follows her passion, and the way she balances her work and passion, are remarkable. She is a strong woman. I adore her,” she says.

After that follows her Silambam master – Power Pandian Aasan.

“He is a hard task master but also a fatherly figure for me. He pushes us to train hard but he also makes sure that we take care of our health,” she adds.

She recalls the 2016 Asian Silambam Championship she participated in, where she bagged four gold medals and one silver medal. While her fight was going on, she fractured a toe.

“He (her Silambam master) twisted that toe back in place. It was painful, but the organisers refused to let me fight because of the injury. I was so upset, I had practised so much for that tournament. He just asked me one thing ‘Are you sure?’ and then I got that confidence seeing his trust on me. It was a booster,” she says.

Her love for Silambam has always made things easy for her. She says that while people take up gym and medicine, and modern ways for physical fitness, Silambam being a traditional art form, is the solution for everything.

Silambam has helped her strengthen her leg muscles and increase her stamina. It keeps her fit from head to toe, she says.

And it is now more than just a fitness regime – it’s an integral part of her life. “I love travelling to new places. Recently, I went to Italy for 40 days. I thought it was impossible to stay without practising for 40 days, so I carried my  kambu with me. Whenever I got time I practised for at least an hour or two everyday. I realised that it has become an important part of my life,” she explains.

While Aishwarya usually practices for nearly three hours a day, there are some ‘crazy days’ when she’s had to practice for nearly 12 hours.

“There is no discrimination in this art form. Men and women work out together and practice together. Instead I’ll say, my master is sometimes more strict with girls, he makes sure we practice well,” she says.

Silambam, explains Aishwarya, is a 3000-year-old traditional martial art form which originated in South India. Silambam is so ancient that it has been mentioned even in Sangam literature such as the ‘Silapathikaram’ and others, dating its origins to as far back as the 2nd century BC.

‘Silambam’ comes from the Tamil words ‘silam’ which means hill and ‘perambu’ meaning bamboo.

Historically, it was practised as a fighting technique for war by royalty. However, it has evolved over time into a sport. The kambu or staff is the primary weapon of the martial art, but the practitioners also use weapons like deer horns, spears, swords and small knives.

The Sports Development Authority of Tamil Nadu has recognized Silambam as a sport and has introduced it in school education. But the sport has also received a good deal of international recognition, something that gives a thrill to Aishwarya.

“While I was in Malaysia for the Asian Silambam Championship last year, I saw people from different parts of the world. It is our culture which people from all over the world are learning. I felt so proud,” says Aishwarya.

On her viral video that drew all the attention, Aishwarya says, “Women wear sarees only on special occasions, and they consider the saree difficult to handle. So I combined my first love Silambam and my other love for handloom and posted a video. The video shows that beauty and strength can exist together. When I wear a saree I feel I am wearing a piece of art.”

As for future plans, Aishwarya says she wants to see Silambam reach the Olympics. “Other than that, I want to explore many more tangents of Silambam. I want to combine it with other arts,” she says.

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