Gladiatrices of the east
A 23-year-old woman forms the first all-women Paika Akhada Dal of Odisha to train them in self-defence
Every Sunday, Sunita Behera gets up a little earlier than usual. As the clock strikes 7, she takes out her bicycle and pedals for four km to reach the venue where school and college-going girls wait for her daily. The next two hours, the girls are imparted Paika (warrior) training. “For the past three years, this has been my routine. Apart from the usual training sessions, I tour nearby schools and colleges in leisure time to train girls in martial arts and self-defence,” says Behera, who has formed the first all-women Paika Akhada Dal (warriors group) in Odisha.
It is no coincidence that the 23-year-old hails from Ratanpur village in Khurda where the famous Paika Bidroh (rebellion by the peasant militia) took place against the British East India Company in 1817—four decades before the first war for independence in 1857.
Always worried about safety and security, she was inspired to train herself and girls of her ilk when she heard stories of Karuvaki, a female warrior in Kalinga War. “The character inspired me a lot. Like her, I too belong to a fishermen community. Perturbed over growing violence against women, I decided to focus on building confidence among young girls, teaching them self-defence and strategies that can save their lives during crisis,” she says.
Though at a growing age she used to try her skills with a sword that was being worshipped in her house, she developed an interest to learn the art at Paika Akhada when she witnessed male members of the village engaging themselves in lathi (baton) and sword fighting during festivities.
“I took to learning lathi fighting with friends during schools days. I used to think if I get training in martial art forms, it would help me fight adversities in life,” says Behera, who has trained 100 girls till now.
Her skill was discovered by the authorities of Janata College at Kuhudi where she was pursuing intermediate.“They decided to send a Paika Akhada group for National Services Scheme (NSS) camp in 2012. The then programme officer, Sushant Patnaik, motivated us and arranged a Paika guru to train us in various fighting skills. Thanks to guru Kedar Nath Das, we successfully learnt many techniques within a week,” she recollects. The group was adjudged the best in the camp and there was no looking back for her. She formed her group in 2012.
She has formed two teams comprising 22 members, who have been imparting self-defence techniques to school and college students. Divided into senior and junior groups, they also perform at national and state-level events to showcase their skills in martial arts, baton and sword fighting and military formations. Their performances have been appreciated in states, including Arunachal Pradesh, Kerala and Karnataka.
“Though people in my village thought I was doing the job of boys, my family stood behind me like a rock. They used to taunt my family, but I chose to ignore the nosy neighbours as I was determined to do something unique for the society,” says Behera, who has bagged many state-level awards.
She is not the only girl to take her safety into her own hands. Her courageous acts drew the attention of other girls of her age. “Women should be able to fight their own battle. Our parents encouraged us to take up martial art training. It would help us when we are under attack,” say her team members Jayashree Jena and Rekha Behera.
Many of her friends are now engaged as NSS trainers and taking self-defence classes in nearby colleges. Snehalata Bhola, who is now a volunteer of Nehru Yuva Kendra, believes learning Paika would help empower women.
In a country with significant gender inequality and patriarchal traditions, her team is now dubbed as Kalinga Kanya, which has set an example for others. “They are doing a wonderful job by not only carrying forward the legacy of traditional martial arts of the state without much patronage but also taking it to the young women of society. They deserve much more kudos,” says educationist Uttam Kumar Paikaray, who has seen them growing.
With safety of women becoming a major concern and sexual violence against women widespread, she stands out for her passion, breaking away from gender stereotypes. Behera, who is pursuing diploma in civil engineering after graduation, has also stormed the male bastion by taking up the job, which has made her the role model for rural girls.