CHENNAI: Multiplicity runs in our blood. Look at our names — there’s one for the records, another homegrown one that can turn painfully embarrassing when outgrown, and one coined by friends, often determined by one’s attributes, physical appearances or simply based on that one incident that stays on to define you for an entire lifetime. So, a Santhosh can become Sandy, Chotu, and Little Boxer all at the same time.
And so it is with our festivals. Pongal in Tamil Nadu is Makar Sankranti in Karnataka and Lohri in North India. Many names, one festival. In Tamil Nadu, the third day of Pongal is called Mattu Pongal, a day to honour and worship our cattle for their contribution to our farming practices. The day starts with giving them a bath, then painting their horns after scrubbing them and adorning them with beads and trinkets thereafter.
The humble cow also has a very important place in art history. As early as prehistoric times, our ancestors painted herds of cows on those now famous cave walls. There is even a hall of bulls from the Stone Ages painted on the Lascaux caves in France. When these wild cattle were domesticated and used for agriculture, their depiction changed. The Egyptians gave the form of cattle to many of their gods and their art featured cows and bulls repeatedly. When the Greeks introduced metal coinage, it was stamped with an image of the bull. The Romans, the wealthy ones in particular, turned this horned animal into decorative motifs adorning their villas. These tender creatures were even associated with the infliction of pain by the Greeks who are said to have made a bronze hollow bull, inside which the condemned were locked and roasted to death by lighting a fire under, to heat the metal. Most Roman temples have either paintings or carvings of the god Mithras slaying a bull.
Art in the centuries that followed these ancient times has been kinder to this gentle animal. A painting by Chinese artist Li Keran implies the Zen tradition of the Ox being a metaphor for the mind and cows in art symbolised control over the self.
In Western traditions, any nativity scene or the birth of Christ would surely have a cow as a witness, a symbol of the Christian virtues of humility and obedience. But in Brazilian artist Candido Portinari’s painting from 1960, the cow stands tall in the glory of the birth of Jesus, speaking of a new energy being born. In India, the cow has crept into every genre of art since time immemorial, representing our nation’s religious, social, and economic beliefs.
Contemporary times have seen artworks like Damien Hirst’s Cow and Calf preserved in formaldehyde, the central idea of it being the futility of preserving when inevitably we will all die and disintegrate someday. This exquisite bovine may be celebrated once a year in festivals across our country, but art has always celebrated them in many ways across cultures. They have dominated canvases, leapt out of ancient wall carvings, or simply chewed the cud and calmed us in peaceful landscape paintings. Holy Cow indeed!
(Jitha Karthikeyan is an artist and curator, passionate about making art accessible to the larger public)