Originating in the Indian Deccan region, mardaani khel was a popular armed martial art form within the Maratha regime. Popularised by Chhatrapati Shivaji, the art form involves several weapons and was an important part of the war tactics employed by the Marathas along with ganimi kava or guerilla warfare. It is performed by both men and women.
Some of the weapons used in the mardaani khel include the dand-patta, a double-edged flexible sword measuring up to three feet with a covered handle that extends upto the wrist and, sometimes, up to the elbow. It is normally moved horizontally due to its flexible blade. Another weapon is the bhala, or spear, consisting of a six-foot long stick with a pointed metal arrow at one hand, which is used in movements very similar to the lathi (stick). A weapon that was developed resembling the spear, but one that allowed attacks over longer distances was the vita. Also consisting of a six-foot long stick, with a two feet long pointed metal piece on one end and a six-foot long rope on the other to be coiled around the hand, the vita could be flung over a distance of about ten feet and retracted with the use of the rope. Yet another weapon developed as a part of this art form is the maduvu, a weapon made of two deer horns, both pointing outwards with a grip in the centre. A much smaller yet equally fatal weapon was the bagh nakh, a contraption resembling tiger's claws that could be worn on the fingers and consisted of pointed claw-like bits on the palm. And finally, the dhop, a four-foot long sword that was different from the regular three-foot-long sword, that was a compulsory weapon to be carried by all soldiers in Shivaji's army.
Since the art-form has evolved from real war tactics, the formations and movements take multiple opponents into consideration and account for attacks from multiple directions. This is reflected in formations where the players go back-to-back securing a 360-degree view of the opponents. Women performers wear the Nauvari saree and the men wear mandchol, a thigh-length tunic with knee-length breeches. Additionally, they wear a headdress called mundasa and leather mojaris.
The popularity of mardaani khel fell considerably after the British invasion and the introduction of the Arms Act (1878). Therefore, to ensure the art form’s survival, senior practitioners, known as vastads, turned it into a folk game which in the present day is performed as a part of cultural festivals and sports programmes. Presently, there are training centres in Pune, Kolhapur and Mumbai where the art of mardaani khel is taught.
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