Meenakshi Raghavan Gurukkal is arguably the oldest female practitioner of the ancient Indian martial art form Kalaripayattu. The way she walks into the arena, wielding a convivial yet ominous expression, is only an extension of her incredible persona. For every duel, she adorns a sari with a shield and a sword as her choice of ornaments — a pose that is reminiscent to that of a tigress — leaving no room for ambiguity.
Meenakshi was first introduced to the sport, which originated in south-west Kerala, at an early age of seven by her father. With age, however, she has only gotten deadlier and is respectfully addressed as “Meenakshi Amma” by her disciples. Over the years she has become more formidable by mastering the art of using a sword and a shield for self-defence.
On the Kalari (arena), she sways as if she is performing a well-rehearsed dance move as she swallows a man, half her age and twice her stature. For 67 years, Meenakshi has devoted herself to this martial art form and today 150 students learn under her watchful eyes at her school Kadathanadan Kalari Sangam in her locality in Vatakara IN Kerala.
She initially took to the sport to increase her flexibility while dancing, but under the wings of Mr. V P Raghavan Gurukkal, Meenakshi Amma started flourishing. Later on,when she was 17 she married her ‘guru’ but strictly maintains that it was not a love marriage.
It was because of this union that she was able to continue her training in the art of Kalari, something that was frowned upon by the society, as a recreational exercise for women in the bygone days. The antiquity of the art was, however, always unquestioned, and many believe that judo and karate flourished from this ancient sport.
The housewife, who moonlighted as a sword yielding female cult hero for nearly six decades, still believes that there is no end to the learning process of the ancient martial art form. After her husband’s unfortunate demise in 2009, she had to take up the reigns as the teacher of the school, a role she adores fulfilling.
Still going strong at 74, she has even performed in cities like Bengaluru and Chennai. The ‘Samurai Amma’ is survived by four children and grandchildren, all of whom have taken up the family tradition. Meenakshi Amma is optimistic about the future of the sport in the country and wants to pass the cradle on to the future generations.