82-year-old Meenakshi Amma recently went viral after a video of her mock combat with Emirati influencer Khalid Al Ameri was posted on social media.
“This is Meenakshi Amma; she is 80 years old and an expert [at[ the Indian martial art of ‘Kalari’", Ameri had posted, along with some emojis, during his visit to Kerala. "Here is a short video of her turning me into a shawarma.”
She, however, had no idea who Ameri was when he came to her Kalari school.
“I get a lot of people from all over the world,” Amma said. “So, I did not know that he was a famous person.” It was only when she came to Dubai and began getting stopped for selfies that she realised that she, too, had become famous.
In Dubai to inaugurate a new branch of the school VKM Kalari, Meenakshi Amma spoke to Khaleej Times about her childhood, life and passion.
Starting her Kalari studies at the age of 7, Amma was a diligent student of the martial art for over ten years, slowly going through the four stages in her own time.
At the age of 17, she got married to her gurunaathan (master). “My husband was a master of Kalari, becoming a teacher at just 14,” she said.
“He started a Kalari school in our hometown that has been running for over 73 years and has taught thousands of students.”
After her marriage, Amma gave birth to four children, but even during the busiest moments of her life, she always found time for Kalari. “It was my passion,” she said.
“Also, the Kalari school was in my backyard, so it was fairly easy for me to balance housework and the martial arts.”
Her son used to run a Kalari school in Dubai until 2009, when her husband died. “After my husband’s death, my son returned home to help me keep my husband’s school running,” she said.
“Today, we teach children all across Kerala. I have travelled to every state in India for Kalari and have also frequented Gulf countries like Oman, Bahrain and the UAE.”
Even at her age, Amma makes sure to maintain a healthy lifestyle, and starts practicing Kalari at 5am every day. “I reach the school early in the morning and I start teaching students,” she said.
“I watch my diet and I don’t eat unnecessarily. So far, by God’s grace I don’t have any illnesses or pains. I just hope it stays that way.”
The octogenarian was awarded the Padma Shri, India's fourth highest civilian award, in 2017.
The rise of Kalari
Believed to be the oldest of all martial arts, Kalari is divided into four stages: Meipayattu (training stances), Kolthari (practice with wooden weapons), Angathari (practice with metal weapons) and Verum kai prayogam (barehanded combat).
According to Amma, the popularity of Kalari has increased exponentially in the last few years. “We are getting more students in our school each day, with many coming from different parts of the worlds,” she said.
Amma is also of the opinion that all children, especially girls, should study Kalaripayattu.
“It helps their mental wellbeing and physical development", she explained. "In my school, I have girls, their mothers and grandmothers studying Kalari. It is better if you can learn the martial art when you are younger but there is no age that is ‘too old’ for Kalari.
If anyone tells you that you are too old to learn, don’t listen to them.”
Manikandan, the patron of VKM Kalari who has been teaching over 400 students in the UAE, conceded that he has more female students than male. “It is actually quite heartening that more women are learning the martial art than men,” he said.
“However, if you look at the history of Kerala, women warriors have been an integral part of our history. So I think it has always been in our culture to encourage women and their sense of combat.”
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