It was a very tough game. I participated in the World Silambam Championship, 2019, in Kuala Lampur in September in both the individual and group (with my team) categories. We won the gold in group performance. I won in the individual category, and was also declared the overall best player of the tournament. With over 30 teams participating from India (primarily Tamil Nadu), all states of Malaysia, Singapore, Sri Lanka, the competition included some very experienced artists.
I practice Silambattam, a form of martial arts. It is primarily a stick fight but ancient wartime weapons can also be used. However, my group and I, use only sticks, and the fight is typically demonstrated as a piece of performance at such tournaments. It is a very intense form of martial arts though.
Given that my group was in Madurai, where I grew up, and I was at Ashoka, we would send each other videos, improvise, and continue to fine-tune the performance on a daily basis. Performances have to be well-scripted and rehearsed to perfection.
I have been practicing martial arts for eleven-and-a-half years now. I have been trained at the Simashan Institute of Martial Arts in Madurai and under Dr M Shahul Hamid. It is thanks to his coaching I have reached where I have. When I started people thought I was just a soft spoken classical dancer who couldn’t handle martial arts, which requires bravery. My coach helped bring out the brave girl inside me. Even though he is very demanding, being a professor himself, he also has a very clear focus on academics for his students.
I chose the Young India Fellowship (YIF) as I thought it would really broaden my perspective. After completing my graduation from Lady Doak College and Mary Baldwin College (for six months) in the US, I had a quest to learn more, to upgrade myself in all ways possible. That is when I came across the YIF and after going through the course materials and approach, I knew this was the right next step for me.
After coming here, I am even more convinced – it is a very intense course but provides a range of opportunities. It is about the people and what we learn from each other beyond books, which makes it so unique. We get to know peers from various academic backgrounds, various performing arts backgrounds, who come together to collaborate, deliberate, and learn from each other. And everyone has a burning desire to contribute to society. If we allow this programme to transform us, it will prepare us for life.
Despite the intensity of the programme, I could continue with my martial arts. This is because of the faith Ashoka has in its students and the support it provides. The sports teacher was flexible enough to allow me to practice till 2 a.m. when required. I don’t know if all institutions would be so accommodative.
I am also a classical dancer and started learning Bharatnatyam as a child. I perform for academics at Ashoka every week as the curriculum allows for grades based on performance. I learn, internalise and demonstrate through performance. I never imagined I could have developed and performed dance pieces depicting Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore’s philosophies.
I am also a Tamil folk dancer. In fact, my choreography has been incorporated by Mary Baldwin University – if a student takes a World Rhythm Dance class at the University, he/she needs to take a test on my choreography.
Ashoka made me realise that martial arts is a way of life. Earlier, I thought martial arts had to be practiced only 2-3 hours a day. But now I incorporate the philosophy in my life here. In an intense course, it is very important to prioritise. Just as in martial arts, you decide about where to attack the opponent and where not to, similarly, I have learnt how to utilise my time well – what to go behind, and what to let go, which battles to pick, and which to avoid. The need to focus, which martial arts teaches, makes more sense to me after coming to Ashoka.
After completing the YIF, I want to focus on preparing for the civil service examination. As well as work more with my NGO. I currently run a small outfit in Madurai where we go to multiple schools and orphanages in rural Tamil Nadu, using the money won in martial arts competitions, to help students understand arts beyond their education and books. We conduct workshops and competitions to motivate them and, in particular, the girls to help them move beyond self-limiting ideas.
Sangeetha Nagarajan is a current Young India Fellow at Ashoka University.
Written by Richa Bansal