Stills of the chase

Stills of the chase

rural sport

Stills of the chase

Jallikattu, the rural bull-taming sport played in Tamil Nadu, was an unbroken thread of culture until it was banned by the Supreme Court in May 2014 in the name of animal rights.

In practice, the Jallikattu bull is cherished by his owner as the pride of his herd, petted by the entire village, honoured at the temple as the kovil kaalai, and protected by the community because this bull is specially chosen for inseminating the village cows and exchanged between villages for the same reason. Scores of temples across the state even have a dedicated vadivasal reserved for the entry of the kovil kaalai into the Jallikattu arena during temple festivals.

Well, despite the ban, Jallikattu continues to keep many ensnared in its aura. And one of them is award-winning photographer and photojournalist J Suresh, known for his forays into social, environmental and wildlife photography.

Suresh’s outstanding body of work has to be the collection of Jallikattu moments, shot over 15 years at various Jallikattu arenas across Tamil Nadu. His Veera Vilayattu (The Game of Valour), collection of photographs on Jallikattu, is an exhaustive one. These photos were exhibited in Chennai in November 2015.

Life-changing moment

Suresh, who started as a still photographer in 1993 from his studio in Thiruvananthapuram, visited the Madurai Jallikattu in 1998, which changed his life and work. He has since then keenly followed the sport across Tamil Nadu and now has a body of images of Jallikattu in all her moods.

He remarks, “More than a sport, Jallikattu is a culture. I have made every effort to showcase the raw power of a bull against that of a single man and an enthusiastic crowd. The moments may be lighter or violent, but the atmosphere is charged. The unity, the effort and the spirit of the people who are part of Jallikattu is awesome.”

He knows this because his camera has been zooming in on the moments of pulsating action in the arena, the frenzy among viewers, and  the lesser-known moments during the non-Jallikattu days — like the reverential care the Jallikattu bull receives from its owners and the rest of the villagers. Suresh asserts there isn’t any cruelty inflicted on the bull since Jallikattu is about an unarmed sportsman trying to embrace the bull for 10 seconds, or till the bull crosses the finish-line about 50 feet away. Moreover, the tradition of Jallikattu keeps alive the biodiversity of native bulls. “In the15 years of photographing Jallikattu, I have never seen a bull being mistreated,” he says.

For that perfect shot...

Of course, he has had close encounters with the bulls. “Bull owners don’t allow others near their bulls. But I had the rare chance to witness the efforts required to groom a bull. It includes special diet for the bull, physical training like making them swim across the river, and honing their skills by pushing them against mud,” shares Suresh. Then there have been times when, to get unusual angles, he would step into the Jallikattu arena and stand face-to-face with the bulls. The result is a collection of photos that show the bulls’ nose rope being cut before their release into the arena.

To effectively capture the unpredictable sport, Suresh follows some tried and tested ways. “You have to be there at 6.30 am. Even if you find a good spot, people may obstruct your view. Then, there is the long wait for the start. Usually, the event starts at 10.30 am and continues up to 5 pm. In between, one cannot move out to grab some food. If you do so, you will lose your vantage position. I have experienced sunstroke several times!” says Suresh. “This is a daunting task,” he adds wryly.

But convincing people connected with the sport to capture these moments has been even more daunting for him. In a curious mix of pride and humility, Suresh says, “Hundreds of photographers have been covering Jallikattu every year. But I am sure some of the rarest frames are with me. I haven’t spent this much time and energy on any other project.”

Suresh is the recipient of Documentary Award at the 9th Humanity Photography Awards organised by UNESCO & CFPA in China, 2015, and Government of India’s Professional Photographer of the year (2014) award.