My exposure to mardani khel was from a surprising and sudden turn of events. I was strolling near the Congress Bhawan in Pune and in the dim yellow evening streetlight I saw men, women and children practising with bamboo staffs at a tiny school ground. There I met Vijay Aiwale from Kolhapur who was teaching this assorted group the performance art of Mardani Khel – Maharshtra's very own warrior martial art form.
It is surprising for a state which prides itself over honouring Maratha culture to let this custom slide into anonymity. It is now a dying tradition; only few places have akhadas, or training grounds, with Kolhapur being the central hub of it.
"In 2000, I started learning mardani khel in Kolhapur and have now been a practitioner of it for almost 18 years. I came to Pune in 2007 to pursue a job in corporate sector which I continue to hold till date. But for the past nine years, since 2009, I have been teaching mardani khel as well. Although I make little money from it, I continue to hold classes after my regular work hours because I believe that true knowledge increases only when it is imparted generously," says Aiwale.
Students at his class come from varied backgrounds – students, office-goers, young girls – for various reasons like physical exercise after desk work, relieve stress or even as self defense, specially for women. Yet, there are very few who show an interest, and students are difficult to come by.
In case of Karate or Taekwondo, the institutions receive funds from their own respective international governments. Not only is it encouraged at the national and international level, but these have now entered schools as sports, with kids being exposed to it from a very young age.
Most importantly, there is no viable future in pursuing Maharashtra's oldest martial arts. Mardani khel has no recognition or any certification, unlike other Indian indigenous martial arts like Kalaripayattu or Silambam. When a young athlete wants to build a career by pursuing a particular sport, mardani khel is not even on the list. Today, it has been relegated to being just a ceremonial performance art and as a crowd-pleaser.
"Till our previous generations, competitions and local events would be held across towns and villages, which would include some monetary compensation. But today, it is no longer a certified competitive sport, and events are only about teams showing off their skills," says Aiwale.
Going back in history, Mardani khel was a war format, a martial technique and not a dance or performance. It was developed by the Maratha warriors themselves who were skilled at light infantry and horse-riding, involving its special weapons and light armour specially made for their short builds. If they had to train at night at their forts, the warriors would hold flaming coals on both hands and practise. Later, when the British invaded with their guns, such a skill became outdated.
The freedom fighters used to be all trained in mardani khel, and the foreign invaders would face a resounding beating in non-weapon combat. Since they were no match, the British came down hard on such practitioners, with bans on local akhadas to carrying arms. Although it is a heavily-weaponised form of martial arts, today students mostly practise with bamboo staff, unsheathing the swords only during ceremonial shows.