Meenakshi Raghavan ‘Gurukkhal’, 76, has been training the ancient South Indian martial art ‘Kalaripayattu’ since 69 years. In her school ‘Kadathanad Kalari Sangham’, located in the small village of Vatakara in Kerala, India, she teaches around 150 students of all ages and genders fighting techniques and weaponry.
In January 2017, Meenakshi received the ‘Padma Shri’ award, one of the highest civilian awards in the Republic of India, for her lifelong commitment to Kalaripayattu. Since then, she is celebrated as a national hero and is frequently invited to speak at events. She uses the exposure to encourage all females to practice Kalaripayattu, to be able to defend themselves. Her strength is an inspiration to many. Meenakshi applies her martial arts skills to challenge gender roles in her conservative culture and take on one of the biggest threats females face today: rape.
In India, 34,651 rapes were reported in 2015 – a 43 percent rise from 2011. Sexual assaults increased 67 percent over the same period. As victims are afraid to report cases, scared they will be blamed and shamed by their family and community, these figures are just the tip of the iceberg. Nowadays, an increasing number of parents allow their girls to train Kalaripayattu: one third of Meenakshi’s students are females aged between six and twenty-six.