When Aishwarya Manivannan wanted to learn silambam a decade or so ago, she struggled to find a class in the city. “At that point, not many people knew about it,” says the Chennai-based artist and educator. She finally joined a class at the YMCA College of Physical Education in Nandanam, one run by “Power” Pandian Aasan, a city-based stunt master and silambam practitioner. She ended up falling in love with the traditional martial art form practised with a bamboo staff and other weapons, techniques and formats.
“Our lives are so hectic, and there is so much happening. When I practised silambam in the morning, my mind managed to shut down and stay in the moment,” recalls Manivannan. This is what kept her driving across town at the crack of dawn, the only woman in that class for many years.
Things have changed considerably since. Silambam, pigeonholed during the colonial era as a folk performance art popular in rural Tamil Nadu, is reclaiming its place in the sun as a martial art form. “In the last decade that I have been a part of this community and dived into this art form, the changes we have witnessed have been remarkable,” Manivannan says. “People are beginning to understand the value of this art form in a contemporary context.”
Today, silambam classes have mushroomed across the state—in schools, in public spaces like beaches and parks, and at martial art institutes that teach karate, taekwondo and judo. There are more silambam tournaments and sporting events at the state, national and international levels, the outcome of silambam being recognised as a sport by the Sports Authority of India in 2014. The gender ratio, too, has changed, at least in urban settings, with girls said to outnumber boys in many classes.
Some of the credit for this revival must be given to the movies that played a vital role in keeping the art alive and kicking from the 1930s. A noted proponent of the form was the actor and politician M.G. Ramachandran (MGR), the founder of the Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) party and three-time chief minister of Tamil Nadu.
Today, its proponents are debating the pros and cons of inevitable modern trappings. For while the traditional form may continue to be practised in smaller towns in Tamil Nadu, things are very different when it comes to Chennai. There, the form is seeing a mix of elements from other martial art forms and the introduction of the “belt” system for grading proficiency.
Governments have started paying closer attention to this martial art form that finds mention in Tamil Sangam literature. In September 2021, the Union government included it in the “Promotion of Inclusiveness through Sports” initiative, part of the Khelo India programme of its ministry of youth affairs and sports. According to a 29 October policy note issued by the Tamil Nadu youth welfare and sports development department, silambam practitioners are now eligible for the 3% sports quota that will make it easier for the meritorious to get government jobs. In a statement, the minister of state for youth welfare and sports development, Siva V. Meyyanathan, added that Tamil Nadu would be investing ₹1.6 crore to set up a silambam training centre.
“We all feel like we have drunk an energy drink of sorts,” says Manivannan. “This is something we have been fighting for and wanting for a long time to help us move to the next level.”
Perhaps one of the biggest challenges that remain is silambam’s disorganised ecosystem. A number of associations have come up, but there doesn’t appear to be any central governing body just yet. Practitioners are hopeful, however, that these are just the first steps to silambam’s emergence as a serious sport, recognised beyond Tamil Nadu—one that can, like karate, travel and entrench itself in every corner of the world.
“Incentives such as job quotas will be a great motivation for practitioners to push themselves and work harder to represent the country at a higher level,” says Manivannan. Silambam, she believes, has got everything required to become a popular global sport. “We are riding the wave right now.”
A PEEK INTO THE PAST
The word silambam is believed to be a portmanteau of “silam”, meaning hills, and “kambu”, or bamboo stick, a nod to the staff that was shaped from the bamboo found in the Kurinji Hills in present-day Kerala. Another explanation is that the name comes from the sound of this stick cutting through the air during combat.
Legend has it that silambam was created by the sage Agasthya Munivar somewhere around 1000 BCE. Some sources even claim divine intervention—Shiva’s son Murugan is believed to have taught the sage this martial art. It’s more likely, though, that as the Palaeolithic hunter-gatherers became settlers, clustering together, they would have needed more sophisticated defence systems. Silambam may have been one of them.
Silambam is closely linked to kalarippayattu, an age-old martial art system that uses a variety of weapons, including the stick, as well as hand movements. “Both silambam and kalari have the same origin and are part of the same Dravidian culture,” says Chennai-based Ganapathy Murugesan, an exponent of both silambam and kalari. Murugesan points out that thekkan kalari, the more rugged and combative form of kalarippayattu popular in southern Kerala, bears a startling similarity to silambam.
Whatever the origin, there are clear indications that silambam was very much a part of warfare in the Sangam period between 600 BCE-300 CE. “There are many descriptions of warriors using sticks to fight in Sangam literature,” points out Chennai-based historian Meenakshi Devaraj. For instance, Silappathikaram, a Tamil epic written by the poet Ilango Adigal in the fifth or sixth century, contains references to a shopping centre in Madurai that sold these silambam staves.
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There are historical references to silambam flourishing in the age of the Polygars, the warrior chieftains who ruled Tamil Nadu from the 14th-18th centuries, adds Devaraj. Records indicate that the armies of kings like Puli Thevar, Veerapandiya Kattabomman and Maruthu Pandiyar were trained in silambam.
By the end of the 18th century, though, silambam, along with other weapons and martial arts, had been banned by the British, says Devaraj
The British ban forced silambam to transmogrify into a performative art form. “People started performing silambam with musical instruments,” points out Manivannan. “As this style developed, newer techniques came in.” Alangaram silambam, as this more performative form, is called, almost seems like a dance, with techniques that look beautiful but aren’t effective in a fight. “It is purely for performance,” she adds. Today, a silambam practitioner ideally learns both alangaram silambam, a vital part of ceremonial displays, and por silambam, the martial technique.
When the British left India, silambam began to see a revival. The success of the Dravidian movement in Tamil Nadu in the 1960s focused on the preservation of Tamil culture and heritage, played a role. “Around 60-odd years back, there was a sort of renaissance of Tamil culture and tradition,” says Bengaluru-based film historian Theodore Baskaran.
Films, quite naturally, had a significant influence in a state where the movie business has played a pivotal role in shaping its politics and ideology. One of the earliest users of silambam on-screen was P.U. Chinnappa, a famous actor of the 1930s and a trained practitioner who began using silambam in choreographed fight sequences. Tamil cinema back then had to have certain things—songs, a chase, dance, romance, and yes, a fight sequence that was considered one of the entertainment elements, says Baskaran. Silambam, he adds, often made its way into these fights.
Perhaps the best-known practitioner on the silver screen was MGR. “Even today, many silambam gurus look at MGR videos to learn his techniques,” says Manivannan. Over the years, many other actors, including Jyothika, Samantha and Dhanshika, would undergo silambam training as part of their preparation for films. Though he disapproves of the way cinema often diluted the art form, Murugesan doesn’t deny the benefits. “Because of cinema, the name silambam still resonates in Tamil Nadu.”
BETWEEN THE OLD AND THE NEW
Manikandan Nella, a folklore artist and silambam teacher who grew up in Tamil Nadu’s Thoothukudi district, began learning the form at the age of six. “My father taught me silambam; it is in my blood,” says the 46-year-old, who began teaching at the age of 21. He remembers learning it the traditional way, in the guru-shishya parampara. In towns like Thanjavur, Thoothukudi, Kanyakumari, Nagercoil, Salem and Coimbatore, he says, the martial art form is still practised the traditional way.
However, things change when it comes to Chennai—something Nella, who now teaches in a school there—is clearly not a fan of. “They mix too many things into the silambam taught in Chennai—elements of karate, kung-fu, boxing,” he says, a sort of amused horror colouring his voice. “They have even introduced a belt system. Who wears a belt when they play silambam?”
Manivannan’s attitude, however, is pragmatic. When she started learning silambam, her own teacher was opposed to the idea of a belt. Eventually, he did introduce them. Belts—borrowed from karate and similar forms—keep students motivated and engaged, create structure and help chart progression. “I think you need that format for the sport to develop,” she says, adding that the age-old guru-shishya system may be challenging to sustain in the times we live in. “This way, there is something for a student to work towards, to feel encouraged.”
The question of authenticity is not new in traditional martial arts, or, indeed, any art form or practice that shapes myth, history and cultural identity. “In the discourse of traditional martial arts, the term authentic or authenticity has connotations that can easily be taken to imply a kind of unchanging monocultural purity,” writes Paul Bowman, who teaches cultural studies at Cardiff University, UK, in a paper titled The Art Of Invention: On Authenticity In Traditional Asian Martial Arts.
In the same paper, though, he points out that this is a fantasy. “A tradition is always fractured, multiple, heterogeneous, inventive, transforming, partial, changing.” He admits, however, that the philosophical or ideological advocation of the value of change and adaptability is not without its problems. “How does one negotiate change when trying to stick to a certain principle, project, path or way?”
Jayachandran Palazhy, founder and artistic director of the Attakkalari Centre for Movement Arts, Bengaluru, offers some answers. “The beauty of these things is that they touch the core of a civilisation,” he points out, adding that ancient physical forms, including traditional martial arts, classical dance, even yoga, are the materialisation of a set of ideas about body and movement in a particular time and place. ‘These become a part of our collective history and memory,” he says.
For them to evolve, while retaining that authenticity, involves concerted, sustained effort. “You have to find new authenticities,” he says, adding that one needs to first identify the core concept of this idea of the body, then deconstruct, dissect and understand the core. Silambam, or any ancient art form really, requires stronger institutions and more material, human, intellectual and cultural resources to get to a stage where it can retain its core strength and build on it. Hopefully, government recognition will take the sport in the right direction. “When a tradition is infused with new energy and wisdom, it becomes stronger,” says Palazhy, who has directed an exhaustive research and documentation project on the movement principles of Indian physical traditions. “It comes from the collective effort of many people; the totality of collective efforts is how physical cultures grow.”
Class IX student Akshaya Krithi Somasundaram is happy. “I have been learning silambam for three years,” she says, adding that she loves the discipline and focus, physical and mental strength it gives her. “I want to pursue it and become a teacher someday.”