A Photographer Takes the Bull by the Horns in His Jallikattu Series

Ryan Lobo wrestles with the controversial tradition of bull-baiting in Tamil Nadu.

Originally published on VICE India.

For the past few years, Jallikattu has been a flashpoint—often covered in the news as a conflict between tradition and modernity, or between India’s northern and southern centres of power. The Tamil celebration—in which men wrestle with bulls in an attempt to retrieve small bags of coins tied to their horns—was banned by the Supreme Court in 2014, in a case filed by the Indian chapter of the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). This January, a gubernatorial order allowed Jallikattu to continue, but it remains controversial.

Photographer, filmmaker and writer Ryan Lobo, whose family has a farm near Madurai, has watched several Jallikattu ceremonies. In a series of unpublished photographs of the 2012 festival, Lobo reveals his fascination with the role the ritual plays in agrarian Tamil society. Through these photographs (accompanied by his chosen captions), and conversations with participants, Lobo seeks to put forward a strong argument for why this centuries-old tradition should be allowed to continue.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

“It is by defeating fear that we become men.” Image: Ryan Lobo

VICE: How did your relationship with Madurai and with the contestants shape your thoughts about Jallikattu?
Ryan Lobo: Jallikattu is a harvest event that’s been happening around Pongal in Tamil Nadu for as long as anyone can remember. Jallikattu for a Tamil famer is like Christmas or Bakrid, except far fewer animals die for its celebration. It’s celebrated right across Asia in various ways and is followed by mostly tribal and rural populations. Jallikattu differs from its Spanish equivalent in that the bulls are not killed.

Many of the people working on our coconut farm play Jallikattu or attend the festivities. Being a farmer in India involves immense challenges, and Pongal is a Thanksgiving of sorts. The first rice of the season is fed to bulls. It’s not solely a male event—everyone attends, often atop bullock carts on trucks for a better and safer vantage point. Teams are formed, villages get together, and the best bulls are paraded about. The discussion goes on for days—once everyone has returned to work—and the most aggressive bulls are in much demand as studs. Much human courtship and matchmaking happen after harvest time as well.

For a young farmer, what’s the appeal of Jallikattu?
It’s fun. The women love it. The men who succeed at it are definitely looked at with admiration—it provides an opportunity for a man to prove himself in front of the whole village. It also builds camaraderie, cements bonds, builds up an idea of community and provides semi-impoverished farmers with entertainment, spectacle, an involvement with the sacred, and a sense of cultural belonging without them having to pay for it.

“He is my Innova. He is my Scorpio.” Image: Ryan Lobo

How did farmers you met react to the Supreme Court ban and then the ordinance last year that permitted it?
The opinions were varied, but it seemed to me that overriding them all was a sense of shock and hurt that people who lived far away, removed from the deeper aspects of this tradition, could ban it based on the petition filed by an organization with its ideological roots in another country.

A Bangalore-based auto rickshaw driver who returns to his village every year for Jallikattu told me that while us city chaps just play with our cellphones, he “battles gods” once a year. A young woman in Madurai quipped that women did not need Jallikattu, as they went through childbirth. She also joked that there were more love matches after Jallikattu than at any other time, and that banning Jallikattu would reduce the number of children in Tamil Nadu.

Has the spotlight on Jallikattu actually contributed to its popularity, especially among urban young men?
I hope so. I think so.

“What’s the use of lofty and holy appearance, if one does what his own heart knows is wrong.” From The Thirukkal, a classic Tamil text. Image: Ryan Lobo

Were most of the people you photographed farmers, or did you find lots of people in other professions now participating as well?
I met several auto drivers, one mechanic, a fruit seller and one medical student, both before and after they played Jallikattu. Many participants work in cities and return to the villages for Jallikattu, which plays an important part in keeping communities together rather than allowing for fragmentation, as there is massive migration to cities.

People who participated in the protests last January havereportedly taken up cattle-rearing, farming and other “socio-environmental initiatives” . How do you see the event changing in its scope?
I am not sure how effective urban people farming is really going to be. Farming is not easy and I don’t know if “socio-environmental initiatives” will last the test of time and seasons. I hope people move into agricultural areas and do farming work. I think they will do so when it is lucrative and not otherwise.

“Doesn’t he look like the Supreme One digging into the bosom of Death.” (Excerpt from the 2000-year-old Kaliththokai anthology of poems) Image: Ryan Lobo

Your pictures capture an intimacy between man and beast. How would you respond to animal rights activists who might view this as a glamourisation of cruelty?
To answer the allegation that Jallikattu is sometimes cruel, yes it is—though not as much as activists might suggest. So is non-vegetarianism, palm oil, fossil fuels, chicken farms, eggs, dairy, the unjust war in Iraq, leather shoes, coffee and tea (grown in former forests of the Western Ghats), cell phone towers and motor vehicles.

In India the targets of animals rights activism are most often tribals, snake charmers and semi-impoverished farmers. Recently in Chennai, animal rights activists had Narikuravars—a tribal people who have adapted to living in cities—arrested for eating cats. The Narikuravars live mostly in slums and eat feral cats, or when there aren’t enough cats about, they eat rats. The activists were not concerned with the situation of the people in this situation but with what they ate. Sounds familiar doesn’t it?

I found it interesting that most animal rights activists come from sections of society that consume the most in terms of natural resources (and thus inflict cruelty upon other sentient beings) yet attack the customs and traditions of the poorest and least powerful. Imagine banning Christmas because turkeys and chickens are killed, or Bakrid because millions of goats are illegally slaughtered in peoples homes. Some of the activists I’ve met who oppose Jallikattu also oppose the recent beef bans by right wing Hindu groups, and there is a contradiction in this.

“Look at the bull,/ Raised horns as certain as silkmoths,/ he skewers to death the cowherd who sprang/ heedless of the look in the animal’s eyes.” (From the Kaliththokai) Image: Ryan Lobo

At a certain level I believe, the ban on Jallikattu is governed by a deeper impulse to regain power. The empathy regarding cruelty is incidental or a replacement for darker intentions. For example Gau Rakshaks inflict violence on people transporting cattle, but cows often end up badly taken care of or are allowed to roam the streets eating plastic. Banning Jallikattu ensures the slaughter of most male calves at birth, as there would be no use for them.

This impulse to impose one’s rule reminds me of an incident in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Marlow, the protagonist, mentions that Kurtz, the maniacal antagonist, has written a rant on behalf of the “International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs.” He notices that while Kurtz’s waxes on about altruistic and sentimental reasons to civilise the “savages”, he ends with the sudden addition of an incongruous phrase— “Exterminate all the brutes!”—revealing his darker intentions.

Your photo captions are quite literary. How do you find the right quotes, and could you describe some of your sources for them?
For centuries Jallikattu has inspired poems, songs, books and paintings. Its deep cultural reverberations go far beyond current definitions of the event. I view Jallikattu as a sacred rite of passage, with characteristics of folk craft, ritual, religion, festival and sport. It’s a huge spectacle and an important for agriculture business and livestock rearing.

I wanted to reveal more profound aspects of the celebration via my photographs and their captions. The quotes come either from people who took part in Jallikattu, or ancient, epic Tamil poetry. A beautiful poem that describes Jallikattu is in the Kaliththokai , one of the anthologies of Tamil poetry.

“He rides on an elephant as fast as the wind, with unstoppable strength,/ like Death with swift gait, jingling bells hanging on both sides and eternal odai ornaments,/ With a face lined with deep scars caused by weapons with sharp tips.” (From Tirumurugatruppadai by the medieval Tamil poet Nakkirar) Image: Ryan Lobo

What kind of decisions do you have to make during a shoot like this as opposed to covering other kinds of pilgrimages?
Keep an eye out for angry bulls and—after the ban—keep an eye out for angry Tamils.

Why did you decide to shoot the series in black-and-white?
Less distraction. More epic. The captions are a part of the work and colour would have distracted. Magenta shorts, fluorescent t-shirts and crazed bulls look better in black and white. I wanted to reveal those timeless, sacred aspects of the event rather than just photographing spectacular moments, which everyone seems to do.

In one image, a bull standing between several campaign posters hints at the way culture becomes politicised. How do you see the link between this event and the larger political context?
Political parties in Tamil Nadu have always supported Jallikattu; it’s an integral part of village culture and therefore a source of votes. With the death of Jayalalithaa there is a large political vacuum in Tamil Nadu and other forces might use this to rise. Inadvertently, the ban gives political parties much fodder. I think a lot of Tamils misunderstand the ban to be an attack by the centre on Tamil culture, which it is not. It is being used by some fringe groups as a call to secession from the Union. I heard that surviving elements of the LTTE [Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam] are hard at work using the emotions aroused by the ban to gain political currency.

“There, in the middle ground where the brides wait,/ Men gather again/ Ready to master the bulls.” (From “The Girl Friend Describes the Bull Fight”, by AK Ramanujan) Image: Ryan Lobo

Regarding a more global political context, however, it is important to recognise that Jallikattu was banned by the Supreme Court based on a lawsuit filed by the Indian chapter of PETA, which is guided by the same radical principles as its American parent organisation. Ingrid Newkirk, PETA’s founder, supports “direct action”, a term taken from radical anarchists and socialist unions in the early part of the 19th century. She has said that no movement for social change has ever succeeded without “militarism”: “Thinkers may prepare revolutions,” Newkirk wrote in 2004, “but bandits must carry them out.” In India, the middle- and upper-class bandits found an effective way to promote their agenda via judicial activism.

I believe the larger political context is not local Tamil parties or any international conspiracy, but is power play by urban, English speaking, left-leaning, cantonment activists who believe they have lost power and have found a moral cause to regain it, even if it means the eventual destruction of those who feed them.

“We designed our own t-shirts. We are fearless.” Lingam brothers Jallikattu team, Kottapatti village. Image: Ryan Lobo

How is the brotherhood and camaraderie that you’ve captured—in team t-shirts, for example—changing?
The smallest unit of civilization is the family. Then you have a community or tribe. In modern society, we may dress up for initiation ceremonies like passing out of college or confirmation, ceremonies that might not have a connection to the sacred anymore. In traditional societies, initiation ceremonies like Jallikattu serve to increase a sense of of the sacred, and introduce the initiate to the spiritual values of the community. The initiate returns to society with a refreshed sense of the sacred, a deeper sense of camaraderie and belonging to his kin group. The requirement to endure physical pain or to test one’s courage are very common features of initiation rites. The brotherhood you mention, or better put “community-hood”, is a result of Jallikattu and serves to make a community stronger against whatever external force might come to visit.

What do you think the effects would be of completely banning Jallikattu, particularly on the idea of masculinity, with the loss of this “rite of passage”?
Many people say that it’s a “masculine” event, but Jallikattu involves and affects the whole community. One might look at cities like Gurugram, where traditional society has been destroyed, where young men are de-cultured and where the mythic bonds that hold communities together have been broken by real estate values and a more globalised consumerist culture. All that energy will find other outlets.

Today, many factors threaten traditional ideas of masculinity. Some of it is warranted but some of it is ideologically motivated. Often it’s cantonment-dwelling sorts who push certain ideologies that emanate from imaginary homelands far away. Gender and identity politics have been weaponised by the far left and the English speaking ‘elite’ in India mirror the views of their left counterparts in the United States and Europe without much thinking through of their contexts. The imaginary homeland of the cantonment-dwelling English speaking activist is not Mumbai, Bangalore or Chennai, but New York and California.

“I remain rooted to the earth,/ No matter the winds that blow.” Image: Ryan Lobo

The best definition of a dark age I’ve heard is when one generation is unable to transmit their values to the next. The eventual outcome could be tragic. Globalising traditional societies has a price. Minus their myths, an agrarian society could quickly become factory workers.

What’s the goriest thing you’ve seen at a Jallikattu?
A woman had a minor car accident near Madurai. The lady looked like an activist: she spoke good English, wore khadi and jeans, and was in an SUV driven by a Tamil speaker. She had been educated in California but returned, married an industrialist and as she told everyone, she was the proud mother of several street dogs. In between berating her driver, even though the accident wasn’t his fault, she cursed farmers saying that they had no right to force bulls to run and that maybe they should make their own grandfathers run. “How would you like to be jumped on,” she said. She then put on some lipstick and checked herself in the mirror. I wanted to tell her that her lipstick was made from palm oil, grown on slash and burned rainforest from Southeast Asia which meant she was indirectly consuming orangutans. It was very gory to watch. I like orangutans.

“Even one’s own tradition is not one’s birthright./ It has to be earned, repossessed.” (AK Ramanujan) Image: Ryan Lobo

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