Tuesday, January 24, 2017

The puzzle of Jallikattu pride in Tamilnadu

by Ratnakar Tripathy  

large crowds of people protesting on Marina beach
The easiest thing for an outsider to Tamil culture and customs will be to declare the recent protests in Chennai and several other cities and smaller towns in Tamilnadu over the jallikattu practice as a case of irrational and excessive cultural zeal. Or simply claim that we seem to live in a mad mad world these days generally speaking! But wait – remember, jallikattu is not quite bullfighting in its European sense. Quite literally ‘jallikattu’ the composite word means bull-embracing and denotes a contest that is not meant to be a blood sport at all. This despite the fact that humans do occasionally get killed in the fracas as was the case just the other day when two fatalities occurred in the state. Interestingly, the article in question here uses the term ‘bull-vaulters’ for jallikattu. The latest reports of the Tamilnadu government issuing an ordinance to quell the huge mobs in different parts of the state asking for the lifting of ban on jallikattu is an indication of the state power bowing to the might of the masses. The move may take the throngs away from the protest hubs for the time being but then who knows.
 jallikattu performed in Alanganallur, Madurai

According to reports from the ground, the jallikattu protestors found the occasion suitable for raising a whole bouquet of demands including better protection for the Tamilian fishermen who are frequently fired at by the Sri Lankan navy and the stopping of heavy use of ground water by the beverages companies like PepsiCo and Coke. Jallikattu in brief continues to be a mark of Tamilian pride and Tamilian masculine pride in particular but may be used as a symbol for much more. The jallikattu protests saw the AIADMK leaders, the recent heirs to Jayalalitha being ridiculed, and even BJP making a target quite simply because any central government is wont to be seen as being adversarial to the Tamil pride. There are other decisive events lurking behind but we cannot see the overt connections clearly – Jayalalitha’s recent passing away and the moral vacuum in its wake as well as the recent drought in the state. Any politician would drool at the size of the crowds that gathered over the issue in the past few weeks - unfortunately the crowds wanted them strictly kept away.

What foxes any likely analysts of the events is how Tamilnadu, the most urbanized state of India should be so preoccupied with an issue that seems pastoral by all standards. Is this just nostalgia or an attempt at revival of localism? A glimpse at the varied history of this sport that goes back to 2500 years may enlighten us some – according to Mr. Gandhirajan, a post-graduate in Art History from Madurai-Kamaraj University, ancient Tamil tradition was “manju virattu” (chasing bulls) or “eruthu kattuthal” (lassoing bulls) and it was never “jallikattu,” that it has become today. Further ‘in ancient Tamil country, during the harvest festival, decorated bulls would be let loose on the “peru vazhi” (highway) and the village youth would take pride in chasing them and outrunning them. Women, elders and children would watch the fun from the sidelines of the “peru vazhi” or streets. Nobody was injured in this. Or the village youth would take delight in lassoing the sprinting bulls with “vadam” (rope). It was about 500 years ago, after the advent of the Nayak rule in Tamil Nadu with its Telugu rulers and chieftains, that this harmless bull-chasing sport metamorphosed into “jallikattu.’ Clearly then the sport is currently undergoing one more critical transition and we do not know if the cultural meanings of the game have stabilized already.  Even some parts in the neighbouring state of Karnataka follow a somewhat similar practice of buffalo racing  where the purpose was to assert caste power by the owners of the battened animals. Pastoral pride however has its downside and there are instances when the animals are goaded, hurt and provoked to unspeakable levels of pain turning the sport turning it into a sadistic spectacle.
Jallikattu, a Bull Taming Sport of Tamils

Identifying the male self with the bull or its various organs is a primitive impulse that still lives with us. Several Tamil films weave their tales around jallikattu and the recent protests are quite likely to see the sport being used with renewed zeal.  An Indian has to go no further than the ubiquitous ‘linga’ in shrines to unravel the puzzle and an American will fully understand the significance of the rodeo sport and the image of the cowboy, which is a major subgenre in Hollywood, having spread its memes all over the globe. The enthusiasm for Jallikattu may thus continue to remain something of a puzzle but the fact remains that this symbol of power, masculinity, and pride over regional identity, the assertion of the underdog as well as a declaration of might by the mightiest continues to circulate in our language and conduct.   


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