Silambam in sari

Silambam in sari

Meet Aishwarya Manivannan, the multifaceted young woman from Chennai who has opened the eyes of millions to the ancient martial art of Silambam. Wrapping martial arts in a timeless sari, she makes a powerful statement on feminism.

Does the distance between duel and duet get bridged anytime? Such is the intriguing case of martial arts, the ancient Silambam of Tamil Nadu in particular.

Swirling a bamboo stick, not missing a step, power and grace in tandem… Aishwarya Manivannan makes you understand why Silambam is called a martial 'art' - a choreographed physical foray that is about self-defence and warfare, and about coordinated choreography and grace.

For Aishwarya, Silambam is also about reconnecting with her roots and exploring the horizons of art and history. A bharatanatyam dancer and an art-and-design educator too, Aishwarya puts it this way, "Silambam is an aspect of where I come from; it springs from the root cause of all I do," she says.

Originating some 3,000 years back in ancient Tamil Nadu, documented by Rsi Agastya among others, with its earliest documentation discovered so far being Kambu Sootram in Silappadikaram and other Sangam literature, and patronised by Chola, Chera and Pandya kings, Silambam is the mother and the most ancient of the world's martial arts.

'Stick' to it

Obviously, the bamboo stick is key to this art, Silambam originating from the word 'silam'  meaning hill in Tamil, and 'perambu' meaning bamboo. The other weapons are the maan kombu maduvu  or deer horn, vel kambu or spear, vaal or sword, surul vaal or metal whip, sedi kuchi or short slender bamboo sticks used in pairs, and the like.

Silambam was a key part of ancient Tamil warriors' defence/warfare tactics. Somewhat known is the fact that Silambam was employed by the warrior queen Velu Nachiyar, who fought against the British long before the legendary Rani of Jhansi.

In time, forced by colonisation, Silambam was performed in temples to the beat of music, the urumi drum in particular, and the martial art morphed into a performing art.

In the last few decades, Silambam has emerged as a sports form, in combat and non-combat categories, and as individual and team events. There are world championships and federations dedicated to Silambam today, with contenders to the title from Uzbekistan and Taiwan to Portugal and the Philippines.

It is a registered sport, with a belt system like that of Karate. In the 2016 Asian Silambam Championship, Aishwarya had won five medals - four golds and a silver. And then, today, Silambam is seen as a powerful method of meditation and an activity for achieving whole-body fitness.

Five years back, Aishwarya took up Silambam to enhance her dance movements, as advised by her bharatanatyam teacher, who believed that traditional martial arts could improve the body language of dancers.

Aishwarya started training under Power Pandian Asan (a much-sought-after name in film stunts, who in turn learnt the art from Madakulam Ravi Asan, who had learnt the art from Alagar Sami, the stunt master and teacher, actor and former chief minister of Tamil Nadu M G Ramachandran.) There has been no looking back ever since.

Silambam became a passion, much more than a method to enhance body language. Then came a period of forced bed rest consequent to an injury. It gave Aishwarya time to muse on what she really wanted to pursue, and she chose Silambam over bharatanatyam. "Silambam is an ocean… The more I practised, the more I discovered that its depth is endless, and even a lifetime isn't enough to explore it," she says. "And it thrills me that I am learning the magnificent martial art my ancestors perfected ages ago in this very land.

"Silambam practice brings forth self-awareness, confidence, self-respect, and also awareness and respect for people and things around you. It is a complete mind-body activity. On the physical side, it brings fitness, muscle tone, strength, stability, flexibility, agility, footwork, balance, core strength, enhanced breath and cardio strength even as it conditions the mind into 100% focus and awareness.

"In today's world, with so much sensory and intellectual information coming in from all around, it is so difficult to focus on just one thing. When you practice Silambam, this focus happens spontaneously. And more, since Silambam calls for movements on the left and the right side of the body equally, it triggers optimum functioning of both, thereby enhancing one's logical skills and creativity, and lateral thinking, too.

"India has thousands of ancient martial art forms; Silambam is one such, and relevant and effective," she says, adding, "No martial art form instigates its practitioners to pick up a fight. The accent is on defence. Learning martial arts makes a person more stable, not violent."

V for viral  

And then, in August 2016, the video happened, throwing Aishwarya's life into another orbit. Wearing a simple handloom sari in the Nuari style of Maharashtra, the video has Aishwarya performing Silambam, shot without props in her terrace. Released on National Handloom Day, the video went viral and has registered over a million views by now. "I love handloom, I love wearing the sari, and I love Silambam. The three came together in this video," she shares. When she made it, all she hoped for was to be able to share through the video her passion for Silambam, the sari and handloom fabric. But what resulted was an avalanche of sorts. People from all over the world started emailing her, and many urban parents enrolled their children into Silambam training rather than kung fu or karate, and she has been invited to many workshops, demos and talks on Silambam.

Education is something Aishwarya is passionate about. "For me, the video was a way to bring about awareness and change, a way of educating. We are not aware of much of our glorious heritage. It is our duty to know and to pass it on," she says.

Silambam in a sari? That was to encourage people to notice the dynamism of sari and to understand the charm and value of handlooms. Recently, she performed Silambam to the music of kulintang, an instrument of the Marawi region of Philippines, at the Indo-Philippines lit fest. And now, Aishwarya is also planning to document the history and journey of Silambam. Her relation with Silambam is as much a journey into the past as into the future.

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