“In India, letting someone sit between your legs, that’s a no-no.”
Apeksha Kakkar has done something almost no other woman in India has done before: she is one of the first to train jiu jitsu. As far as “being the only girl on the mat” goes, being the only woman in a nation of 1.3 billion is pioneering on a whole new level. We sat down with her to talk about where she comes from, and where she is headed.
You are currently the highest ranked female jiu jitsu athlete in India: blue belt, four stripes. Where do you train and what else do you do?
I am 24 years old, and I train at BJJ India in Delhi, under my professor Arun Sharma. He is a brown belt, two stripes, the highest ranked belt we have in India. His professor is Rodrigo Teixeira, who is a 4th degree black belt under Pedro Carvalho. Besides jiu jitsu, I just graduated from university and have a degree in architecture.
Though India is a huge country, the jiu jitsu scene is still very young and small. How did you get to know jiu jitsu?
You probably heard of the horrible rape case in 2012 – the Delhi gang rape – that received a lot of media attention, also internationally. I realised how important self-defense is. In doing self-defense, I realised how important the ground game is, and how incomplete self-defense is without it.
“The worst case scenario a woman can face is a rape situation where somebody is on top of you. No other martial art can help you when your back is on the ground except jiu jitsu.”
I was already training Jeet Kune Do and Filipino Kali, which focuses on standup fighting & weapons training. My professor Arun Sharma was teaching standup as well as jiu jitsu and self-defense. I would assist my instructor sometimes in self-defense seminars that we teach for free to NGO’s, schools and such. I found that if I am assisting my instructor in these seminars with ground game techniques, I should understand them myself.
Since you were alone, there was no other choice than to train with men. As an Indian woman in your country’s culture, how was that?
In India, letting someone sit between your legs, that’s a no-no. That position you’re not getting in with a stranger, even a girl.
So initially, I felt very uncomfortable being so close to another person. But I told myself to get over this, because I understood that learning jiu jitsu was the only way to learn to defend myself on the ground. Because of this, I only trained with my teacher in the beginning. We became friends over time, so I felt okay drilling techniques with him.
“As time passed, I started making new friends on the mat, and got comfortable enough to train with them. Now, I can train with anybody.”
Is having a man sit between your legs a reason why jiu jitsu is not so popular in India for women?
Yes, definetely. Such close contact with a man, that is not very appropriate in our society. When someone who doesn’t know the sport, sees you with a man like that, they will think: “Oh my God, what’s happening?”
To be honest, I didn’t tell my family exactly what I was doing when I started training jiu jitsu. To them, I was doing “martial arts”. They don’t know what jiu jitsu is, and I never bothered to explain. They thought I was doing kickboxing with the guys, haha.
“I didn’t tell my family exàctly what I was doing when I started training jiu jitsu…”
Does your family still not know what you’re doing on the mat?
Now they know, haha. But I waited to tell them until I fully understood what jiu jitsu was. Since it even took me a while to understand, I waited until I was confident enough to tell them what I was doing.
And how did they react?
I thought they would not approve of it. But actually, it was quite the opposite! They said that if it’s important to me and I enjoy it, it was fine. My brother thinks I’m a little bit obsessed with it though, because I train so much, haha.
That’s amazing! So you never have discussions with your parents about training?
Not entirely true: after four years of training, my mom’s biggest concern still is: “who will marry you if you break your nose?” You can laugh, but that’s a very serious thing! Even if I get a little bruise or a gi burn, my mom will be like: “what have you done, you are not going to jiu jitsu training.” And then after two days I can show her it’s gone, and she can relax again.
“After four years of training, my mom’s biggest concern still is: “who will marry you if you break your nose?”
How many girls are there now in your gym?
Our academy has around 60 people training, and there are between 10 and 12 women throughout the week. In our kid’s class however, I often see more girls than boys on the mat! So that’s pretty amazing.
Seeing your own initial apprehension towards training with men, how do you create a safe learning environment for women who want to start jiu jitsu in your gym?
We try to make sure to buddy up a new woman with another woman on the first class, to get a bit comfortable. That’s just the beginning though: within two weeks I see women get so comfortable, they approach guys to pair up for sparring! I’m so glad to see how confident they get in such short time.
So there’s no separate women’s class?
So far, every class is mixed. We have been planning to start women’s only jiu jitsu classes, but actually we are doubtful that we will get a full mat of women to start the class. The thing is, jiu jitsu as a sport might be a bigger obstacle for women than doing self-defense.
Self-defense still makes more sense, people understand what that is. So our idea is to start a women’s self-defense class – as a stepping stone – and thèn create a follow-up class that is women’s jiu jitsu.
“I love jiu jitsu so much, I train six times a week. No matter what happens, I am not missing my class.”
Having experienced so many ups, are there also downs of training for you?
Luckily, I train in a very welcoming and nice environment. But, when new guys come in, they can be strong. When I roll with them, get better positions and even submissions, I can see that they don’t like it. A girl doing it better than them, that gets to their ego. But when they train for a while, they get to understand jiu jitsu and realize they don’t have to prove anything.
But initial days like these can be hard for me. I sometimes feel like there is pressure on me, that I can’t fail when I spar, because I am a blue belt. And I don’t want to boost their ego, making them think that strength will work.
Luckily, I haven’t gotten injured in this process. I realize that I shouldn’t get hurt wanting to prove something to somebody. So when I feel from the beginning that the vibe of the roll is not good, I tap and let it go.
How is the competition scene in India for women?
It’s not there yet, unfortunately. Jiu jitsu has been around in India for about seven or nine years, but so far local competitions in India only started about a year ago. There are only two women in India with a blue belt: me and my friend Uma. This meant that there was no one in my division, so I couldn’t compete.
I’m hoping to compete one day though! I want to experience the adrenaline and being in a real competitive fight. As a team we are planning to go out and compete abroad, so I’m very excited for that!
“For me, jiu jitsu is about empowering people. It shows you how much power you can give to others, and how much power they can give back to you.”
What does jiu jitsu mean to you?
Jiu jitsu started as self-defense for me. I didn’t have a goal with it at the time. But now I fell in love with jiu jitsu, and it’s all I want to do. My goal is to spread jiu jitsu as much as I can. It’s thrilling to be one of the few in a country so big to do something like this.
When you empower people, you see how much power you can give to others, and how much power they give back to you. Teaching women they can do it, learning they can fight for themselves, that just creates so much confidence. That’s the most wonderful part.
Who inspires you?
My professor Arun Sharma. He is one of the few who introduced jiu jitsu in India. When he started, he had no place to train and no teacher to learn from. He learned from DVD’s and YouTube, and just grabbed some friends to grapple in the park. His dedication to jiu jitsu is what makes me look up to him, and keeps me going.
This one day, a boy in class came up to me and said “I want my sister to be just like you when she grows up.” Having someone say these things, letting you know that what you’re doing is wonderful, that’s just amazing. Thàt is my drive, and makes me only want to do more jiu jitsu.