A little while ago, I was party to an exchange of opinions on Jallikattu with @realitycheckind – a fellow Twitter correspondent who is well read on social media for learned and incisive views on Indian Law and Policy. Jallikattu – a bull wrestling sport (not fight) – was recently banned by the Indian Supreme Court after a protracted campaign by animal rights activists.
Where practiced, Jallikattu is considered culture; not sport. The storm of negative reportage about this cultural sport makes it easy to ignore its closeness to the hearts and culture of the local population. There are few reports (like this feature in the NYT) which penetrate the high-handedness of a culturally disconnected activism and attempt understanding. It is widely accepted that recorded reports of animal abuse are deviant manoeuvres which have recently crept into Jallikattu. As such, abuse could have been weeded out and a ban averted if activists had engaged instead of choosing a legal confrontation.
Realitycheckind sees the ban as predatory law that must be repealed. I agree with him on the peculiarly blinkered approach of both activism and the Law but, I nevertheless persist in my belief that a case exists for cultural evolution, for the continued existence of the sport sans abuse and, for responsible activism.
Re-reading AK Ramanujan’s ‘Poems of Love and War’ – a selection of his translations of Tamil Sangam poetry – I came upon a poem, from the Kallithokkai, on the Bull Fight which I have reproduced in full below. Jallikattu has traceable hoary antecedents and this poem belongs to the often quoted reference to a record of it in the Sangam literature. It is noteworthy that the poem describes the sport as a ‘bull fight’. However, verse after verse describes the wounded fighters as human with nary a mention of a wounded or killed bull. ‘Fight’ can thus be assumed to be an allusion to the battle of wits between a mighty bull and an unarmed man. While the man risks his own life, the bull, at the end of the tussle, walks away defiant and unharmed. None of this is much different from how the sport is practiced to this day.
As to why the man indulges in this patently foolhardy exercise, Uruttiran, the author of the poem, suggests sexual selection at play. This dangerous display of machismo had an ulterior purpose as cultural ornamentation for a courting/mating ritual. “There, in the middle ground, where the brides wait, men gather again and again ready to master the bulls”. The men who were brave enough to enter the ring and tame the bull were highly prized suitors. “That bull is wilder than an elephant gone wild: do not loosen your hand’s grip on him, and the shoulders of our girl will bring you victory flags”.
Jallikattu still retains the machismo element and the winners, to this day, are able to enhance their value as suitors in the matrimonial game. But, the overt courtship rituals that it was associated with have disappeared. Women are still value seekers; it is what is valued as marriage-worthy that has changed and the game has kept pace with that change. It is this sort of evolution in the rules of the game, to stay au courant with the times, that will reinstate and refurbish an ancient culture.
A brief note on Tamil Sangam literature:
The period of the Tamil Sangam is dated between 200 BCE and 250 CE. The corpus of literature from this period is broadly classified into three broad groups: 1. Eight Anthologies of poetry – EttuThokkai 2. Ten long poems – PatthuPattu and 3. A book on grammar – TholkApiyam. Excluding the last, the other eighteen works contain within them a total of 2381 poems composed by 473 poets; 30 of who were women. The most prolific poet amongst them was Kapilar – 235 poems are ascribed to him. Of the women, AvvayyAr’s 59 poems command the highest pedestal.
An extraordinary feature of these poems is that all of them are collected under two clearly defined themes – Akam and Puram. Akam refers to the inner or personal life, deals overwhelmingly with love and sites its various moods in glorious descriptions of nature and landscape. Puram, on the other hand, refers to the outer or public life. Love doesn’t feature here; and when it does, it is not in the celebratory style of the Akam but takes on unrequited and perverse themes. All 2381 poems fall into one of these two categories. The poem that describes the Bull Fight is in the Kalithokkai – one of the eight anthologies.
The Girl Friend Describes The Bull Fight
With the first rains
white clusters of the wild jasmine
The bud of the glory lily
The bilberry, flowering,
Weaving such blossom
There, in the middle ground,
There, they leap into the field.
Look, the bull,
Like the warrior Bhima
Look at that black bull,
like the raging androgynous god
Look at that other bull
like Asvatthama in grief and rage
But now the herdsmen
[Saying this, the girlfriend went to the man and said: ]
That bull is wilder
Only to that man
Among men who take on a bull
Surely, one day, not too far,
There, the bulls are faint,
Uruttiran, Kalittokai 101
[Translated by AK Ramanujan in, ‘Poems of Love and War’ CUP, 1985]