Preserving cultures in times of Jallikattu

Do Jallikattu defenders know the rich heritage of the Tamil people rooted in the arts, science, philosophy?

A strange phenomenon has occurred in the neighbouring state of Tamil Nadu. Culture — that much misunderstood word which a monk of the Ramakrishna Mission once described as “mind meeting mind” — has surfaced in two different avatars.

Although both align themselves with the same cause of recognising the pride and sensitivity of the rural and socially deprived Tamil population, one does so by trying to bring them into the mainstream of society through artistic sharing, while the other thinks that it can do so by guarding time-honoured traditions that actually set them apart for generations.

The Urur Olcott Kuppam Vizha — that brainchild of Magsaysay award winner T M Krishna — takes music from the music hall to a village beach while Jallikattu — whose origin is shrouded in mystery — brings a rural sport into the city halls of law and legislation.

The first tries to share art gracefully. The second is a revival of medieval practices. If one promotes inclusiveness by taking music to the masses, the other panders to the basest instincts by promoting a sport that is inherently cruel and sadistic. Both have taken the city by storm.

When this reputed singer decided to boycott the glittering sabhas of Chennai during a festival which is the only one of its kind in the world, he created a stir among art lovers all over. Now, for the second time, the city is besieged with protests of a different kind.

Animal lovers and organisations for animals have revolted against a sport that uses a hapless bull for public entertainment. Their cause found support in the highest court in the land. It was a landmark judgement when the Supreme Court banned jallikattu.

“Even bulls have rights against torture,” it observed while condemning the appalling practice of squeezing the animal into the narrow “vadi vassal,” and subjecting it to such unspeakable fear and pain.

But, the court ruling was rejected by the state government which hurriedly passed an ordinance revoking a judgement of the apex court to appease the powerful Thevar community who were the guardians of this so called traditional “sport.”

Ultimately, Tamil Nadu politics and politicians have had their way. This is no love of tradition or culture. As a veteran journalist put it rather bluntly on television, the ordinance was a ruse to divert public attention from more burning issues in the state.

The political equations in Tamil Nadu are as ugly as the sport itself. Jubilant over their victory, guardians of so called Tamil culture are now asking for a permanent ruling that permits this annual ritual which is supposed to be the pride of Tamil youth.

Rich past in ruins

Strange that the real emblems of their culture are sadly neglected in the process. The timeless monuments of Mahabalipuram and the amazing sculptures of the Brihadeeshwarar temple in Thanjavur which reflect true Dravidian culture have suffered crass neglect despite being declared heritage sites. Why haven’t the politicians of Tamil Nadu who wax eloquent about Tamil pride even shed a tear for their sad neglect?

Do they even know the rich heritage of the Tamil people?  A heritage that is rooted in the arts, in science, in philosophy?  The same heritage that produced an Arunachala Kavi, a Ramanujan or a Thiruvalluvar. These are the real emblems of Tamil culture which is rooted in the lives of its people.

Just like its language with its 2,000 year old history which is said to be one of the longest surviving classical languages in the world. Its literature described as one of the greatest among world literatures is the real Tamil pride.

The same literature has been quoted by politicians in support of Jallikattu. If Sangam poetry revealed the spirit of a people, it is true that the ancient Tamils worshipped nature in all its forms. Their love of nature included flora and fauna.

That literature may have spoken of a rural sport where young men tried to outrun bulls. Down the centuries, it has changed into a cruel pastime of tormenting them. This is not to forget other art forms practiced in rural areas.

The ancient folk arts of Tamil Nadu also speak of a distinct culture that needs to be preserved. Whether it is pambattam or mayilattam or even kolattam, they have been the preserve of rural communities. And, what more, these arts — like the traditional kolam — have been practiced and handed down through  centuries to the daughters of Tamil Nadu.

If taming a bull is the preserve and pride of young men, why not promote arts and games which were the pride of Tamil women? They have lived marginalised lives with no means to voice their demands. Their customs and traditions also need respect and recognition. If Tamil heritage needs to be protected, let it be protected without discrimination.
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