Catching a sport by its horns – The Hindu – The Hindu

The Tamil word for ox and cattle, ‘maadu’, also means wealth. As the great book of wisdom, the Tirukkural, emphatically asserts, education is the real ‘maadu’. As the unprecedented mass uprising in Tamil Nadu unfolds, jallikattu, the sport of taming the bull, has now become a symbol of Tamil pride and identity. How did a sport with origins in a pastoral world capture the imagination of a vast and differentiated linguistic community and become its symbol?

Since Sangam literature

In the extraordinary body of poetry, termed as Sangam literature, is a text called Kalithokai. In five long poems, totalling over 300 breath-taking lines, it provides the first elaborate description of this ancient sport.

Though there is evidence in ancient rock art of forms of this sport, it is only in modern Tamil literary prose writing that we find extended descriptions of jallikattu.

The pioneer was B.R. Rajam Aiyar, the great vedantin and disciple of Swami Vivekananda. His Tamil novel, Kamalambal Charithiram (English translation: The Fatal Rumour, Oxford University Press), written in 1893, depicts the celebration accompanying the sport with men and women turning up in huge numbers. Rajam Aiyar also records technical terms associated with this sport.

Kothamangalam Subbu (‘Kalaimani’) is now largely known for his novel Thillana Mohanambal, later made into the eponymous film starring Sivaji Ganesan and Padmini. Few know that his first foray into fiction, in the 1930s, was with a short story, ‘Manji Virattu’ (another form of jallikattu). Not satisfied with writing a short story on this theme, Subbu serialised a sprawling novel, Rao Bahadur Singaram, in the popular weekly, Ananda Vikatan. This story, centred on the romance between a young girl who raises a bull and a youth who sets out to tame it, was filmed (Vilaiyattu Pillai, 1970) by the same team that produced Thillana Mohanambal.

But the locus classicus of jallikattu remains Ci.Su. Chellappa’s Vaadi Vaasal (English translation: The Arena, Oxford University Press). Conceiving it as a short story, Chellappa later expanded it into a novella. Out of print for a quarter of a century after its first publication in 1959, Vaadi Vaasal has over the last twenty years been reprinted more than a dozen times by Kalachuvadu Pathippagam — an indication of not only its literary merit but also the cultural importance accorded to it.

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