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In The Land Of Periyar, Ramanujan And Tyagaraja, Do We Need Jallikattu To Define Our Identity?

If Tamil identity means terrifying a helpless animal, then perhaps Tamil culture is indeed in great peril.

24/01/2017 10:27 PM IST | Updated 26/01/2017 3:07 PM IST
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Jallikattu is not a sport. A sport by classification involves the participation of consenting entities in competitive physical activities, providing enjoyment to the participants. Jallikattu certainly appears to deliver great enjoyment to one side of the team, perhaps also supplementing their masculinity by significantly outnumbering the other side—a lone, hapless and coerced animal who is clearly isn't experiencing any merriment whatsoever. The entire spectacle is watched by more men, cheering on the unreasonably advantaged team; perhaps as the bull is overpowered, they feel their masculinity rise in tandem and their Tamilness feel more complete.

We continue to be essentially Indian despite having ceased the practice of throwing widowed women onto the funeral pyre of their husband.

An activity or an arrangement of proceedings becomes tradition when it is ritualistically and recurrently performed by a certain group of people. Eventually, these people feel progressively attached to the tradition and start to identify and distinguish themselves from others outside of the activity. In the process the original meaning or ethos may evolve or get lost. Every tradition practiced endlessly must be examined periodically for its authentic relevance to contemporary life and for its appropriateness in an evolving set of human values. It is true that, over time, numerous observances in the name of either religion or identity have been abandoned or outlawed, through force or instruction. We continue to be essentially Indian despite having ceased the practice of throwing widowed women onto the funeral pyre of their husband. Neither has the Indian family crumbled because we are not able to legally marry 13-year-old girls anymore.

Over the centuries, Tamil culture has and remains articulated through its language, music, literature and rituals. Jallikattu has been practiced since the Tamil classical period. Indeed, there is some archaeological evidence to suggest that it may be 2500 years old. With its sustained custom into contemporary life and its portrayal and referencing in prevalent culture, cinema and literature, this gladiatorial public performance is indeed an intrinsic element of Tamil tradition. The event, held predominantly during the Mattu Pongal festival in Tamil Nadu has created some commerce where the Bos Indicus bull is specifically bred and traded for use in the event. But it may be time to leave the sometimes false cover of personal and communal particularity to examine if this routine fits our topical awareness of ourselves and humanity.

When one comes from such a [great] lineage, what is the need for a tradition that has clearly fallen foul of the contemporary meaning of humankind?

Remonstrations of an unprecedented nature, alluding to nothing but the maintenance of Tamilness, have now resulted in the ban being lifted, and preparations are in full swing for the continuation of jallikattu. The mass protesters on Marina beach in Chennai included a remarkably large number of young people, who abruptly felt endangered by the loss of their identity, which they claimed was closely related to jallikattu. If Tamil identity is linked to a practice of taunting and terrifying a helpless animal, then perhaps Tamil culture (in all its greatness and it ability to motivate) is indeed in great peril.

In times of uncertainty and under a perceived threat of homogeneity, to fortify our integral need for identity should we not look to the richness of the Tamil language itself and revel in the knowledge that among today's spoken languages it is the oldest written language, dating back to 500BC? When one comes from such a lineage, what is the need for a tradition that has clearly fallen foul of the contemporary meaning of humankind? In the land of the great philosopher Tiruvallur, the social reformer Periyar, the father of Tamil theatre Pammal Sambandha Mudaliar, the remarkable mathematician Ramanujan, the greatest of all Carnatic music composers Tyagaraja, the medieval Chola bronzes (considered to be India's highest contribution to world art), and the extraordinary architecture of the Meenakshi Amman temple, where is the need to taunt and aggravate a bull, and trying to hold on its hump for thirty seconds to reinforce our identity and to win a cash prize or a washing machine?

Jallikattu

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