At 52, Ancient Martial Art Brings This Singapore Citizen Closer To Indian Roots
Sunita Menon was another fitness freak concerned about her increasing body weight during the pandemic lockdown. She had little idea that her quest to health will get her closer to her Indian ancestry. Over two years after becoming a Kalaripayattu practitioner, Sunita is now prepared to introduce the ancient martial art to women of Singapore. At 52, she has decided to make it a mission to popularise the "mother of all martial arts".
Born in Malaysia and now a citizen of Singapore, Sunita Menon believes Indian martial arts can help middle-aged women remain fit.
Alappuzha: Covid dull hit people differently. Sitting at her apartment in Red Hills in Singapore, Sunita Menon was growing jumpy over her increasing body weight. Being a fitness freak and dance enthusiast, losing grip over her own body was her biggest concern during the "masked" period. Dancing alone was not helping, she realised, and the pandemic restrictions limited her options. The mother of two spent hours on the internet looking for effective ways to burn calories. Having mastered several dance forms over the decades, she knew what exactly was needed. It had to be brutally demanding yet easily accessible. She had no idea back then that the quest for fitness was gonna link her back to her roots in months to come.
Sunita Menon was not fully convinced when she came across an online ad offering online classes in Kalaripayattu -- the ancient martial art form of Kerala. Can the tough warcraft from the land of her ancestors be possibly learnt virtually?
"I was sceptical. But my son Rohan was very encouraging. He promised to take the lessons with me and helped me understand the tough moves. Thus I gave Hari Aasaan (Master) a call. A brief conversation with him over the phone and I knew, this was what I was looking for," the 52-year-old said.
Three years and countless online sessions later, the Singapore citizen is in southern India's Alappuzha today, mastering a final few lessons directly from her master before taking the ancient martial art form across the sea. Sunita became so attached to Kalaripayattu that she dream of becoming Singapore's Unniyarcha -- the 16th-century woman warrior from North Kerala folklore.
Malaysian citizen born to Indian parents
Born and brought up in Malaysia to a Keralite couple who migrated in the 1950s, Sunita's parents ensured she was no stranger to the Indian culture. She grew up well-versed in Malayalam and started learning Bharatanatyam dance at 6. However, she couldn't often to Kerala where her cousins live to date.
"After schooling, my father P Sachidandan reached Malaysia in 1952 from Wadakkanchery near Thrissur. This was before the country's independence. He was introduced to the plantation sector along with his brother in Malaysia by a relative who arrived in the 40s. Later, he got married and brought my mother to Malaysia as well," Sunita said about getting uprooted from India.
"My elder brother and I were born in West Malaysia. I visit Kerala once in five years or so when there is a marriage in the family or so." she added.
A gym freak and Bharatanatyam expert who never turned pro, Sunita always remained fit despite switching careers after finishing college in Kuala Lumpur. However, the dance lessons stopped post-marriage as her husband used to travel a lot.
"I quit working after 2000 because his work demanded travelling. This made me a homemaker and life was focused around my two boys. Dancing gradually stopped and gym sessions remained my sole mean to fitness."
The family relocated to Singapore in 2010 after Sunita's husband Dr Raveendran Nair found a new job. In 2020, the family received the country's citizenship. With a strong Indian diaspora that keep their native culture close, she was at ease and managed to roll back the years as she resumed dancing.
"The kids were not little anymore and I had the time. Along with Bharatanatyam, I also started learning Mohiniyattam, Odissi, Salsa and Flamenco. "
Despite mastering multiple dance genres, she was unhappy with how her body weight was increasing over the years. Luckily, she came across Kalaripayattu during her explorations to become stronger.
Google introduces 'Ekaveera'
"I have been dancing since childhood. So I wanted to try something different. We decided to give online lessons a go after talking with Hari 'Gurukkal'. Right away, I had a feeling that I was gonna get stronger. There were some difficulties first but my son helped a lot. He would learn fast and then teach me. The results were magical. I was really heavy in 2018 despite dancing, but that changed after Kalari. From 85 kg, I came down to 58 kg," she said.
Back to the roots - courtesy Kalaripayattu
The impact of martial art reflected on the dance floor as well for Sunita. "The Spanish flamenco dancing has a special place in my heart. Certain tough postures and body bends in flamenco became easier due to Kalari. People started wondering during workshops how quickly I was catching up," she said.
Covid had further delayed Sunita's trip to her ancestral land. But she used the lockdown period to learn the martial art form which got her closer to her culture. Having learnt everything that the online course had to offer, the mother-son duo decided it was time to get serious and attend physical lessons.
Her mastery over the long stick gets better with each passing day and people appreciate her tireless effort on social media. Having seen her mastery over the fighting technique, a fashion group in Singapore has requested Sunita to be their model for a women empowerment programme. This helped her confirm that she was on the right path.
Bigger mission ahead
Sunita, having experienced what Kalaripayattu can do to a middle-aged woman, decided that she should do her part to popularise the ancient art. The very thought made her elated -- a kick that she thought only a dance floor could give.
"As a mother, I had a responsibility to my children when they were young. But now that they have grown up, I could afford to go back to things that make me happy. If I can do it, others like me can as well."
Elaborating further on her plan, she said, "Once I head back, I want to collaborate yoga and Kalaripayattu in my own way for women -- particularly for those over 40 years of age. This can help them to fight hormonal changes and lifestyle diseases. People don't have to fight like warriors, but the stretches and workouts can be incorporated in my own way so that they can remain fit."
Like teacher, like student!
Sunita and Rohan signed up for the online lessons offered by Ekaveera Kalaripayattu Academy based out of the Alappuzha district of Kerala. In Guinness Harikrishnan Gurukkal, who sacrificed a profession in nursing to propagate Kalaripayattu worldwide, Sunita had the best mentor to pursue her dream of taking the mother of all martial arts to Singapore.
Having had the experience of tutoring students across the world including Bolivia, Ukraine, Thailand and Russia, Harikrishnan offered her all support to run Ekaveera Academy's operations in Singapore. The expert said Sunita has her plan well paved out and people can approach her without fear.
"We have our own concept here and even septuagenarians are learning Kalari today without injuring themselves. Likewise, she was handed special classes. It was not the same as that is taught to children. I prepared a special syllabus considering her age and requirements. She can reciprocate the same and can pass it on to more women," Harikrishnan Gurukkal said.
"Unniyarcha whipped the longsword in Nadapuram because back in her days, that was the order of life. But Modern Unniyarchas can walk a different path, our fights are different. And being fit helps," Sunita concluded.