Arifa Kodiyil, a four-time State champion, believes every woman should learn Kalaripayattu to defend herself
Arifa Kodiyil is unfazed by raised eyebrows when people see her wearing a hijab and wielding an urumi (coiled sword). Twenty years ago, at the age of six she became the centre of attraction on being the only female participating in a competition for Kalaripayattu practitioners.
For this modern-day Arackal Ayesha, a legendary Kalaripayyattu warrior, the martial art was a continuation of the family tradition. “My father, Haneef Gurukkal, was taught by his father, Hamsathali Gurukkal. In Malabar, where we hail from, there were a few families like ours, trained in the martial art of kalari,” she says.
Ballads celebrating the famous Kalaripayattu warriors of Malabar are popular even today. They sing of romance, valour, treachery and tragedy. Anita Nair’s novel Idris also has anecdotes about a young man learning kalari.
A four-time Kerala State champion, 26-year-old Arifa says that there are an equal number of men and women in Kalaripayattu competitions and events now.
“I believe every woman must learn kalari to defend herself. It also gives her confidence to face challenges. There are several women students at my father, Muhammed Haneef Gurukkal’s gurukul, Hamsathali Gurukkal Smaraka Kalari, in Edappal, Malappuram, named in memory of my paternal grandfather, a renowned Kalaripayattu practitioner and guru. They are learning Kalaripayattu from him, my brother Asif and younger sister Anshifa. A women-only batch has more than 60 students,” says Arifa.
Arifa’s father and guru Haneef Gurukkal laughs when he remembers the opposition from his acquaintances when he began training Arifa at the age of four. “They told me that it would be harmful for a woman’s body. But I knew that was not correct and continued training her. In those days, she used to train with her brother. Within two years, she began winning prizes and now even those sceptics have been sending their daughters to learn the martial art form,” he shares.
He asserts that Kalaripayattu is for everyone. “It is also a way of keeping the body flexible and healthy. We have a system called ‘kalari vandanam’ and a prayer. Kalaripayattu is meant for all Indians irrespective of religion. The foundation of it is respect for yourself and your opponent,” insists Haneef.
The Central Government’s decision to include Kalaripayattu in the Khelo India Youth Games to be held in Haryana this year has given it a huge boost, says Haneef, who is also joint secretary of the Kerala State Kalaripayattu Association.
Arifa now stays with her husband at Chekkannor, Palakkad. Although her husband, Shameer Palathingal, is not into the martial art, he is proud that his wife is a champion and instructor. “Whenever I go to Edappal, I take classes and recently one of my students won the first prize in her category,” she says, adding, “Before we begin the training, we pray. Each student says a prayer in his heart to the faith he believes in.”
Trained in the Thekkan Kalari (southern style), which gives importance to different kinds of weapons, Arifa can wield the kuntham (spear), kuruvadi (blunt wooden stick), neduvadi (long staff) urumi, sword and shield, kathi (knife), katara (dagger) and so on.
Her weapon of choice is the vaalum-parichayum (sword and shield). “Training in weapons is taught only after a student becomes proficient in the basic moves in Kalaripayattu. Only then are they initiated into the training with wooden sticks and then with weapons like daggers, spears etc,” shares Arifa.
All the weapons used in her father’s kalari are made by him in his smithy where there are people trained by him.
Arifa says that even everyday items of use like umbrella, pens and purses can be used as lethal weapons if a person knows how to use it to defend herself. “I tell my students that their self-confidence is their first line of defence. I also show them how to turn seemingly innocuous items into weapons.”