Sunday, 10 January 2016
Sarla Gaikwad, 21, is a mild-mannered college student in Kolhapur. But, when she picks up a sword, she transforms into a powerhouse of speed and agility. The steel blade in her hands becomes a blur as she whirls it swiftly.
Gaikwad is an expert in mardani khel, a martial art indigenous to Kolhapur region of Maharashtra. "I can wield swords, dand patta (long swords) and kathi (bamboo stick) with ease. I don't remember if I was ever scared of venturing out in the dark or walking alone on the streets at night as I have grown up learning mardani khel," she says.
Mardani khel (manly sport), which traces its history to Maratha warriors, includes 14 ways to wield a sword, sticks and other weapons. Like all good martial arts, it also teaches you the weaknesses of the human anatomy in attack mode.
Mardani khel has found itself a global audience after British rapper of MIA, a British rapper of Sri Lankan Tamil origin (her real name is Mathangi Arulpragasam), released her new video 'Matadatah Scroll 01 Broader than a Border' on July 13. The video shot, in Maharashtra and Cote d'Ivoire, opens with the clash of swords that blends into a musical arrangement. There are girls in black displaying their skills in mardani khel on the ghats of the Panchganga river in Kolhapur. There's even a shot of the signature move of a master slicing a vegetable placed on a student's neck with a sword.
"Three years ago, I got a call from a person who was familiar with my work. They wanted to shoot a group of us performing at Panchganga. We played for an hour and a half without a break," says khel expert Snehal Murkute, 27, who appears in the video. The former Kolhapur resident is now a school teacher in Kopar Khairane in Navi Mumbai and teaches the khel to youngsters.
Senior trainers, known as vastads, in older parts of Kolhapur are equally generous about teaching enthusiastic youngsters. Babasaheb Tibile, Anandrao Thombare and Pandit Powar are all mardani khel masters but do other jobs to earn a livelihood.
Thombare, 71, who worked as a security guard at Shivaji University for 33 years, says he has practised mardani khel every day since he was a child. "I learnt it from my grandfather," says Thombare who has travelled across the country to demonstrate his art. A YouTube video of his performance has brought him many disciples in the last couple of years.
The Kolhapur civic body started a programme to train girls and women in this art for self-defence in the aftermath of the Nirbhaya incident. Says Gaikwad: "My friends who have started learning say they feel more confident. They're no longer afraid of roadside romeos or stalkers who hang out near schools and colleges."
Kolhapur used to be the centre of the Maratha kingdom which spread over southern and western pockets of Maharashtra. The city and the villages around it had talims (training centres) where skilled elders prepared youngsters for war. After the revolt of 1857, the British banned the use of weapons and the talims were forced to turn mardani khel into a folk game to ensure its survival. The use of weapons such as swords, katyar (dagger), lathi-kathi (bamboo sticks), veeta (darts), bhala (javelin) and dand and patta (long-bladed swords) continued but the moves were made more stylish and less lethal.
"The weapons and tactics were commonly used during Shivaji's time," says Indrajeet Sawant, a Kolhapur-based researcher. "The tradition was revived in 1900 by Shahu Maharaj who asked the vastads to start talims for wrestling and mardani khel."
Today, there are more than 12 organizations and talims in Kolhapur where vastads and new-age physical trainers teach mardani khel. At least 1,500 youngsters train at these centres every year.
Powar, 53, another vastad, who holds a day job in Kolhapur corporation, runs Anandrao Powar Prachin Uddhakala Prashikshan Kendra, a centre for traditional warfare training. "There is science behind every movement," maintains Powar, who runs a permanent exhibition of ancient weapons in Shivaji Peth. "Every year, there are more people learning mardani khel despite the popularity of other martial arts."
Murkute says she's glad MIA's music video is taking mardani khel to the world. "The art deserves to be preserved," she says.