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As a young girl, Meenakshi Raghavan stood out in a cool, if not controversial, way: She could keep up with the boys.

Her father noticed she was gifted in the art of kalaripayattu, an ancient martial art that originated in southern India. It was frowned upon for a girl to be involved in such an activity in mid-20th century India, Raghavan understood, but she also didn't want to be left out.

"Doing what is good for you is often a challenging task for women," she told YourStory correspondent Binjal Shah last year. Fortunately, her father was supportive of going against the gender-norms grain at the time, too, and Raghavan was able to continue practicing.


Now in her 70s, Raghavan is still going strong perfecting the art form, and she's empowered countless young women to do the same.

Photo by Jimmy George/Barcroft Images.

Raghavan's devotion to the art form may not be quite as controversial as it was when she was a little girl. But it's still a rarity.

Since 2009, Raghavan has taught kalaripayattu classes to those interested in learning the practice, which focuses on self-defense. Many of them are girls.

More than six decades after the grandma first started honing her craft, she's teaching about 150 students in classes three times a day throughout the summer and early fall. About one-third of her students are girls and women, ages 6 to 26, according to The News Minute.

Photo by Jimmy George/Barcroft Images.

She expects the same from both her male and female students.

"Gender and community are totally irrelevant," said Raghavan, who is possibly the oldest female kalaripayattu practitioner in India.

"What matters is age. The earlier you start, the more proficient you are."

Photo by Jimmy George/Barcroft Images.

Kalaripayattu martial arts — an increasingly popular activity — has deep roots in Indian culture and is viewed as far more than a fighting technique.

First, students learn the ins and outs of mey payattu, or unarmed combat, which reflects kalaripayattu's emphasis on self-defense. But combat techniques using sticks, daggers, and swords are also infused into training, as well as extra attention to reparative physical healing — the consequences of battle.

Photo by Jimmy George/Barcroft Images.

For many of Raghavan's female students, kalaripayattu is far more than a culturally significant activity.

Physical and sexual assault and rape remain at crisis levels in India. 41% of women experience violence or harassment by the age of 19, new research by Action Aid found. Just as troubling, nearly three-fourths of women surveyed in the report say they were harassed or violated within the past month alone.

Photo by Jimmy George/Barcroft Images.

The skills that Raghavan's students learn may one day save their lives.

Photo by Jimmy George/Barcroft Images.

Raghavan is committed to empowering as many women as she can for as long as she can.

"Sword Granny," as Raghavan has lovingly been nicknamed, is as expert as they come. Yet her journey of discovery is far from complete.

I have been through all these levels," she said of her kalaripayattu training. "But I still consider myself a student in the process of learning. There is no ending in the process of learning kalari."

Photo by Jimmy George/Barcroft Images.

With her community and family behind her, Raghavan promises to take as many children as possible under her wing for as long as she can.

Her work is too important not to.

"I consider myself a strong woman and will move forward, facing whatever challenge comes my way," she said. "My children are all very supportive, and that’s my confidence. Health-wise, by God’s grace, I am good, and praying to God to keep me healthier so that I can train more students."

Photo by Jimmy George/Barcroft Images.

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