Meet the sword-fighting granny teaching Indian girls the art of self-defence

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Moya Crockett
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We all like to think that, when we reach our old age, we’ll still be pretty cool. We’ll be the kind of glamorously-dressed elderly women who attribute their good health and vitality to red wine, expensive face cream and lots of sex, and spend their time regaling their grandchildren with stories from a raucous past.

But now we think we may as well not bother. Because we’ve seen the coolest old woman in the world – and she’s a 73-year-old sword-fighter from southern India.  

Meenakshi Amma has been practicing the ancient martial art of kalaripayattu, or kalari, for 68 years. When a video of her fighting with sticks with a much younger man surfaced on Facebook, it went viral: Amma is seen whirling around the arena in a sari, her speed, strength and agility seemingly at odds with her advanced age. The story was picked up by news stations all over India, and Amma rapidly became a social media celebrity.

In another video made by BBC Trending, Amma can be seen locked in sword-to-sword combat with a younger man at her kalari school, beating off blows from his heavy blade with a circular metal shield.

However, like many of her generation, Amma is decidedly uninterested in internet fame. “I don’t see all these videos,” she told the BBC. “Others say they can see me everywhere – ‘You’re on TV!’ I don’t make an effort to watch them. The children come and watch me.”

Amma started learning kalaripayattu at the age of six, when her father took her to a local fighter. “There were only a handful of girls in our class. But my father wasn’t bothered,” she told The News Minute. “He was determined we learn kalaripayattu.” 

Now a kalari teacher or ‘gurukkal’ herself in her home village of Vadakara, Amma says that more girls than ever are coming to learn the ancient martial art.  

“After they became 10 or 12 their parents used to not let them come anymore,” she told the BBC. “But it’s different now. It’s a time when girls can’t go out alone. So it’s essential that everyone – children, older people, mothers – learn Kalari.”

Violence against women in India has been described as an “epidemic”, with crimes against women more than doubling between 2005 and 2014. According to the National Crime Records Bureau of India, a woman will be a victim of crime every two minutes in India; however, given that many such crimes will go unreported, that figure is likely much higher.

Shockingly high rates of sexual assaults, in particular, have been partly attributed to a culture in which women and girls are often marginalised.

However, Amma’s female students say they have been empowered by learning how to defend themselves. “Learning this has given me self-confidence,” one teenage student told the BBC. “I now have the confidence to go anywhere, and voice my opinion openly wherever I like.”

And Amma has no plans to stop fighting anytime soon. “I feel very, very happy that I am able to perform Kalari at my age,” she told the BBC. “I pray to God all the time that I can continue to perform Kalari in the future.”

Images: Ruptly TV/Youtube, Getty