As New Year revelry tapers down and the fresh high-octane January energy reduces itself to turning the pages of the calendar, Tamil Nadu gets rejuvenated with Pongal festivities, reminding us of never letting “this-is-just-another-day” feeling creep in. The annual harvest festivities begin on the paddy fields, take us through the joy of earthernware pots overflowing with expectations of prosperity and culminate in an adventurous climax sequence that is played out in the Jallikattu arena.
This ancient and traditional bull-taming sport that wears the badge of Tamil pride has now become a greater-than-ever spectacle, attracting international attention, thanks to the protests in the January of 2017. It was touted as one of the biggest gatherings of people, who camped on the sands of the Marina for over 10 days. Jallikattu had become a pan-Indian word, with the TV anchors effortlessly pronouncing it by the end of a week’s coverage after the initial hiccup of twisting their tongues for that perfect Tamil twang.
Marina had the Shaheen Bagh look and feel. Food and water were being provided to the protesters. Police were vigilant. But the people of Chennai came together, with children in tow, and made it one of the most peaceful sit-ins in recent times. Television media had slotted 9 pm debates among animal rights activists, Tamil politicians, celebrities and people — all showing bull-like stubbornness for and against Jallikattu. Finally, the waves of protesters erupted into a tsunami of joy on January 23, 2017, when the state legislature passed the bipartisan Bill with the President’s assent to exempt the sport from the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960. The pride won over the pain that the animal rights activists felt.
But all this is history, going by the way the sport has been gaining attention. It is now being smothered with patronage. What was majorly a macho sport where the bull tamer would sometimes win the hand of the village headman’s daughter, has emerged as a high-profile spectacle, attracting visitors, tourists, political participation, and unimaginable prizes. The cash prizes now run into lakhs with add-ons like televisions, cars and mobile phones.
This year, too, the epicentre of Jallikattu were the three villages of Avaniyapuram, Palamedu and Alanganallur, where over 15,000 police personnel provided a thick security blanket for close to 60,000 spectators who gathered to watch 700 bulls and over 740 tamers participating. The pre-event drama was riddled with tussles among groups of organising committees with caste overtones. This was then silenced by the hammering of the court gavel, which ordered a separate joint committee comprising members of both the groups.
The Tamil Nadu government tied the headgear and signalled its readiness to organise the high-profile extravaganza right to the last point. From medical teams to screen bulls and bull-tamers to streamlining the queue system with token allotment, from deployment of ambulances, including two bike ambulances, at the entrance, exit and outside Primary Health Centres (PHCs), to posting a large team of veterinarians and para-veterinarians, including officials from the Department of Animal Husbandry, the government went the whole hog.
So, when the bull majestically emerged from the vadivasal and unleashed its raw energy on the tamers, the crowd went delirious, making many senior citizens nostalgic. A veteran bull-tamer proudly displayed the numerous scars he had sustained over his 30-year association with the sport — both as a participant and a spectator. Many politicians locked horns, so to speak, as their bulls kicked up a cracker of a contest in the arena. Finally, Muppuli, the handsome star, trotted his way into his 73rd consecutive victory, earning pride for his owner and saving the `1 lakh reward he had offered to anyone who dared to rein in his hunk.
But the concern about the animals still remains. With the sport getting prominence globally, there needs to be more attention on safety and comfort of the animals. The past practice of provoking the bulls with alcohol, sickles and even smearing chilli powder in their eyes, has reportedly been stopped. But, the animals are still having to stand for long hours without food and water, waiting for their turn to showcase their machismo. Perhaps, the state government could make arrangements in favour of the bulls to ensure the sport remains a sport, and not a form of exploitation.To end with an observation of a Spanish tourist at this year’s event at Alanganallur: “In Spain, we only celebrate the tamer. Here both the tamer and the bull are hailed. In Spain, the game ends with the bull dying.”Tamil Nadu scores major points on that.
Deputy Resident Editor, Tamil Nadu firstname.lastname@example.org