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Deep rivers

Kannan M.
Jennifer Clare

Contemporary Tamil

Fear and honour: reading Vāṭivācal1

Texte intégral

C. S. Chellappa or the passion for fighting

  • 1 Ci. Cu. Cellappa. Vāṭivācal, Eluttu piracuram, Chennai, 1959, 1977, reprint 1993, 2003.

1The birthplace of C. S. Chellappa, (1912-1998) Vattalakundu, to the north-west of Madurai, towards the heights of the hill station of Kodaikanal, is a village of “fighters”. It is an important centre of bull fighting, and may even be the cradle of the sport which is the subject of this short novel; it has also given birth, over the last century to some figureheads of the contemporary Tamil world who, by their literary or political engagement, have forged its history and culture.

  • 1 Available in English, under the title The Fatal Rumour, A Nineteenth-century Indian Novel, by B. R (...)

2Native of Vattalakundu, B. R. Rajam Iyer (1872-1898), in 1893, when he was twenty-one, put out the first Tamil novel, now a classic,1 Kamalāmbāḷ carittiram (Story of Kamalāmbāḷ) and, a generation later, a short story writer, B. S. Ramiah (1905-1983), founded and ran the first properly Tamil literary journal, Maṇikkoṭi, in which Chellappa made his debut, and whose role during the 1930s in promoting modern writing in the short story was crucial. B. R. Rajam Iyer was also, and above all, an ardent propagandist of Vedanta, in the line of Vivekananda. A similar militant enthusiasm is to be found in two pioneers of Tamil nationalism, still from the same village, B. S. Sankaran, and especially, Subramania Sivam (1884-1925), a superb figure of a political ascetic and engaged writer, who paid with his health and his life for his zeal in the service of Indian Independence.

3Inspired from childhood by these examples, Chellappa, born in 1912, vowed himself to Tamil literature with as much talent as determination. He thus became a symbolic figure in the avant-garde of Tamil letters. As much as he was a writer, he was, in the manner of the celebrities of his village, a militant, a theoretician and a practitioner, a creator and a leader. In 1959, he launched Eḻuttu (letter, Writing) a periodical which is still the model for the small reviews without budget which, in his country, keep literature alive. The first independent edition of Vāṭivācal, in 1959 too, assigns the back cover to the publicity for his journal, the door to door distribution of which he guaranteed himself, as a humble salesman of Letters. In 1962, with a small volume entitled Putuk kuralkaḷ (New Voices), he presented the first anthology of modern Tamil poetry, marking an epoch. He sustained around him enough dynamism that after a hundred and twenty numbers of Eḻuttu, in 1970, poets, painters and critics carried on the torch with a new review, Ka ca ṭa ta pa ṟa, as fertile but short lived. In the middle of the 1980s, Chellappa, still hard at it at seventy-five, founded by himself his last review, still experimental and intended this time to set out the bases of a literary criticism, Cuvai (Taste).

4His theoretical work, dedicated especially to the history of the short story and to poetry, is considerable: half a dozen books and innumerable articles. He also published short stories until 1971, a dozen collections, but only two collections of poetry and three short novels; he left an impressive mass of unpublished manuscripts. He retired to a small house in Triplicane (Tiruvallikkeni), a traditional area of Madras, and continued to be regarded with deferential affection by his juniors. He died in 1998, after publishing a last book of memoirs and reflections which is at once literary and political, an autobiography of more than 1600 pages.

5Vāṭivācal is exemplary in many ways and is one of the very first works of fiction to bring into Tamil literature the spoken language and folklore; on a subject as deeply popular as this one, Chellappa remains one of the rare writers whose literary pretensions are justified. For this reason, the special issue 1994-1995 of the Tamil version of India Today, reprinted the story, as a classic that had become impossible to find.

6Chellappa brings alive for us, in a whirlwind of dust and passions, the dramatic emotions of this confrontation of bulls and men which has something in common with tragedy. Nevertheless, the splendid pride of the writer, candidly proclaimed in a strident preface, also transposes in an original way the classic prologue of the traditional Tamil story teller, an appeal to his listeners to remember that they themselves have a role to play; this narrative, as all stories declaimed to a village public, is not an anecdote but a ritual and theatrical celebration through which the audience participates in the dramatic action. In a living community it is the genuine actualisation of a myth.

The rules of the game

7“I am aware of introducing you into a new world”

8To whom is Chellappa addressing this? To his Tamil readers first of all, and most especially to his fellow writers to whom, as theoretician and leader of the group, he intended giving the example of a perfectly constructed text, on a subject and in a language which had not yet gained the right to be quoted in literature.

9Luckily for the translator, however, these very citified Tamil readers are unlikely to be more familiar than the western public with rural bull fighting games. In the absence of such familiarity, Chellappa has renounced the esotericism inherent to every aficionado. We enter into the action with the author himself as guide, providing us with all necessary explanations in a sort of didactic commentary, an off screen voice integrated into the action. In doing this, he puts the finishing touches to a perfect counter-example to the country of the sacred cow and of bovine myth: the Indian version of a corrida.

Always, respect and love for cows…

10The profound attachment of the Hindu to his cows can hardly be forgotten, nor their place in his rituals and in his deepest sensibility. There is joy at the birth of a heifer and general sorrow when the cow has to be separated from her calf, or snatched from the stable for her last journey, or when she is heard straying in the forest, lowing. Residents of Madras today receive their milk in plastic cartons on the walkways of their apartments, but they all still share the emotions of rural literature in which the tinkling of cowbells, the sharp, muffled sound of the milk in the copper pots, the rustling of straw as it is chewed, the dull kicking of hoofs against the planks of the stall and the modulated mooing soothe their ears.

11Cows are at the heart of the most exalted metaphors. The Buddha himself was called Gautama “eminently-cow”, the grammatical superlative form of the name for the cow. Siva, the supreme god is “the master of cattle”. Every disciple is “a young calf” frolicking before his master. Royal wives and concubines are known as “the she-buffaloes” of their prince: Rama’s “cows” fill his palace with their desolate bellowing when he is exiled. Krishna, the charming young cowherd, brought up by adoptive parents of the herdsman caste, teases the cowherd girls or turns their heads. But he protects the herders and the herd from the flood sent by Indra, god of rain and king of the gods, by covering them with a hill that he lifts above his head. The cows are always protected, from the very earliest Tamil literature in which, if cattle rustling is, as everywhere, a pretext for war, it is also a way to protect the cows better: before the battle, they are put in a shelter with all the weak creatures deserving of pity, women, children, the elderly, invalids and Brahmins.

The warrior folklore of the cow herds

  • 2 See Erik AF Edholm & Carl Suneson, “The Seven Bulls and Krishna’s Marriage to Nīlā/Nappiṉṉai in Sa (...)

12By contrast, virile or warrior traits mark this pastoral landscape. Siva’s mount and symbol of power is an intact bull whose impressive sex has not escaped the coded norms of iconometric treatises. One of the games of Krishna, whose elder brother’s symbol is the plough, is the archetype of this novel. An ancient Tamil tradition, known also to Sanskrit sources, neither later nor apocryphal, and particularly to versions of the legend of Krishna, the Harivaṃśa, makes him the dazzling victor of a fight in which he must single handedly subdue seven royal bulls simultaneously, in order to obtain from their owner his daughter’s hand. Early Tamil literature too provides a large number of allusions to a test of this kind, linked with the conquest of a bride or with the celebration of a myth, which was to survive in folklore.2

13The oral memory of Nilgiri hill tribes, Todas or Kotas retains, though with regard to buffalo, the recollection of analogous games which in other times allowed the winner to gain a wife. A tradition of the pastoral forest populations of Tamil Nadu has it that when a calf is born on the same day as the daughter of its owner it has the exorbitant and exclusive privilege of feeding from its mother to satiety.

14If a young cowherd later succeeds in overcoming this unique bull whose strength is exceptional due to his diet, he may obtain the hand of the daughter of the house. This last element reconciles the respect for cattle inherent to the most intimate domestic life and the public recognition of virile force rewarded.

Tamil bull fighting games

15In order to follow the ins and outs of the game some details are necessary. First is the morphology of the Indian bull (bos indicus) which is specific. The dorsal hump which distinguishes it from European livestock is essential as it allows for almost half the holds. Traditional treatises of veterinary practice also detail the nuances of colour and other characteristics, especially the curliness of the pelt whose meaning, as to whether it is a good or bad omen, is clear only to initiates. The bulls have their names, often related to their individual physical appearance or to their owner. Thus, in the novel, Kāri is the Black and Pillai the White, but a broken white, sullied by large, very light brown stains.

16The bulls have the monopoly of the luxury of the setting and decorations, flowers, collars of several layers of bells, anklets of bells round the forefeet, cloth capes, richly slatted or encrusted with metal etc. The men who face them wear only very simple clothes which leave them dangerously exposed: a cotton band wrapped round the kidneys and passed between the legs as both a loincloth and thong. They have no muleta, and still less a sword. It is unnecessary to add that the bull can only be fought with bare hands and that he should not be wounded in the course of the trial. The man has only the strength of his hands to count on, rubbed with sand for a better grip, but defenceless against the abrasive coating that vicious owners sometimes treacherously put on their champion’s horns.

  • 3 Including also some popular folk games around the celebrations of the “Tarasque” the monster of Ta (...)

17There is no bull pen nor bull ring here. The least inaccurate analogy would be a compromise between a running of cows or a “cockade hunt” as practised in a few French southern districts.3 The latter comes very close to evoking jallikkaṭṭu, the sport’s name which designates the silk scarf, along with the medalions and coins (jalli) attached (kaṭṭu) between the horns of the bull, which are the stake in the game.

18The game does have its rules. Essentially, victory consists either in mastering the bull by holding him to the ground for several seconds, the time it takes to strip him of his trophies, or in attaching oneself to him without falling off while the animal bucks three times (tavvu), in principle on a ground defined by two stakes, for the starting point and a finishing line, which is never talked about explicitly, but which we may imagine less than fifty metres farther on, at the end of the “path” run; the intermediary space, circumscribed by the fluctuations of the crowd more than by its architecture, is the Vāṭivācal.

An enclosed field without fences

19This area gives the novel its title, Vāṭivācal, a name whose two components have closely related meanings. Vāṭi is generally a defined space whether its limits are manifest or not. According to circumstance, and in a rather contradictory manner, this may be the path, circle (or ellipse) of the spectators and the “arena” of the action or, more technically and in the jargon of various informants, the more or less fixed-enclosure, assembly of the wings, or the area from where the bull is loosed, the local substitute for a bull pen.

20Vācal is the front of that space, porch and façade, and it stretches to the enclosure itself, substituting for the arena. As for the vāṭivācal, it is the whole area where the action takes place, the track with its portico, an enclosed field but without fences and thus geometrically variable since it is formed by the crowd. Reduced by the excitation of the onlookers to a few scant metres, it shapes itself according to the movements of the bull, and becomes enormously bigger due to fear of dangerous bulls or of the police with their even more redoubtable blows. We may not therefore speak of an arena; it is usually an ordinary village street, a dry river bed or a field fallow after the harvest.

21The only indispensable structure is functional. Just as a curtain is enough to create a theatre, a barrier and two stakes of about two metres, palm or coconut palm trunks, are sufficient as well as necessary to separate the path from its off-stage section where the bull is prepared and eventually stripped of its processional decorations. It is, especially, delivered from its lunging reins and from the cord through its nostrils with which it is bridled, supposing there is time, before its entry into the lists. For reasons of convenience and security, the starting area (generally called vāṭi and uḷ vāṭi or caṅku vāṭi for the part that has been narrowed, sometimes in the form of a conch, caṅku) and usually made of a fairly narrow rectangular passage, defined by palisades or planks, is controlled at entrance and exit by a barrier and a gate (which, to make the terminology more confused, are also entrance and exit vācal). This passage, a sort of guichet, or ticket office, in the sense that we speak of the "guichets" of the Tuileries, opens behind onto the cowshed, waste ground rather than organised corral, summary and provisional park more than a solid construction, where the animals wait in a very relative order.

22The official VIPs’ and judges’ stand, however imposing, is no less precarious. Set up in the immediate neighbourhood, above the starting gate and flanked by two strategic stakes, it adjoins the most sensitive area where the action takes place, for men as for beasts; it is reached only by a ladder put up at the last moment. Here too sit the village headmen, judges and distributors of the prizes. In fact, all variants are possible, from the sparest game in an open field, up to the modern permanent arrangements constructed, with tourism in mind, at Alankanallur, attesting to the fact that official folklore encourages the tradition but channels it carefully.

23Another element of the preliminaries is to be emphasised. Since the eve of the festival the bulls have been filing through the village and enthusiasts have thus been free to have a look at them. There is however a real parade of the bulls before the game, but not in the style we might expect. Those who are leading their bulls, in the direction opposite to the way they will go very soon when they are released, are not showing them to the crowd but “showing” them the path, to make them familiar with their itinerary. As there are no markers on the path, which is defined by the presence of the public, fury or panic may easily draw the bulls towards the crowd. But the expression, which is surprising, is linked to the psyche of the Tamil bull and of its masters. Nowadays, only the bulls who are participating in the game for the first time must necessarily take part in this ritual, as a sort of initiation.

24We may imagine the scene; a bamboo and casuarina structure structure attached by coconut fibre ropes, disguised by streamers and vegetal ornamentation; scaffolding of carts under clusters of humans, at the same time ramparts and doubling as stands marking the itinerary; and above all the crowd, pressing, surging and fluid, in the heat and the dust.

At the heart of the Tamil world of the imagination

25To go deeper than the exoticism of Chellappa, more evident in the original because of the savour of dialectal terms, it is necessary to know how to recreate the Tamil mental landscape and world of the imagination. We may leave to anthropologists the Dravidian preferential marriage with the daughter of the maternal uncle, which thereby unites the two brothers-in-law, and the socio-economic structure of this small village, where the zamindar, the local potentate, enjoys the privileges, the insignia and the titles of a feudal lord, whilst the villagers are nothing but dogs to be kept separate. We shall leave to them too the temptation to reduce this festival to one of its possible components, whether a marriage rite or agrarian fertility ritual connected with the winter solstice (there is not a single element for localisation in a calendar cycle in the novel).

26On the other hand, there is one dimension of the jallikkaṭṭu which must absolutely be emphasised. We spoke in French of the “Pardon”, that is the largest possible regional pilgrimage-festival, of the goddess Cellāyi. The character of the old man is there to call to order whomsoever dares to forget the omnipresent power of the goddess: it is clear that it is she who presides over a festival which is hers first of all.

27For the jallikkaṭṭu is linked to the festival of Cellāyi, and very powerfully, since the gods always demand sacrifices. It is by religious ceremonies (pūcai) to all the guardian deities of the region that the festival begins, even if a strong minded person such as the zamindar may dispense with being physically present. It is also always the bull of the temple of Cellāyi who inaugurates and consacrates the loosing of the beasts. This is expressed in the Tamil text by a metonymy, as significant as it is untranslatable: it is there, we are told, like the sign of Piḷḷaiyār, (another name of Ganesha, the elephant headed god who removes obstacles), invoked at the beginning of every enterprise and the auspicious logo at the head of every piece of writing.

28Chellappa makes it clear to us that the blood of the bulls must never flow; but since he writes that the blood of the man “may” flow, this must be read as the blood “must” flow, for an entire folk literature, mostly still unpublished, proves that there is no real jallikkaṭṭu except to satisfy and render propitious the gods who, as though they were another level of spectator, always have the need to see the blood of man flow, as much and more than that of animals. And in any case, the more or less serious accidents that occur each year are complacently reported as random facts of no importance and no one is shocked, even when the attention of the highest administrative and judicial authorities is directed towards the festival. Seen as a normal and necessary tribute, it will even be amplified by the local press

A learned brahmin who read Hemingway

29It is not, however, certain that the novelist subscribed to that profound dimensions of folklore where violent sport is a substitute for putting to death. He favoured a vision, more pleasantly traditional and better tuned to his peasant atavism and his Brahmin culture, where the meaning and the quality of the show is sketched between passionate chauvinism, popular amusement and the technical exhibition, appreciated to the full by some enlightened amateurs and the families which cultivate it, in the communities of Tēvars, Maṟavars and Kaḷḷars, those whom the British in days gone by called the “warrior races” of South India. This doubtless separates an elaborate novel from a rough popular narrative. We are in the presence of a work in which the mastery of the writer imposes its choices.

30The memory of Hemingway, obviously in filigree, is a heavy one to bring before international literature. It was not explicitly claimed except as late as 1977, in an introductory note to the third edition, but it is nevertheless as important from the point of view of Chellappa as the visceral link which attaches him to his family village, Vattalakundu, one of the cradles of jallikkaṭṭu, and which underlines the original editions dedication to his uncle, rich in meaning, but, mysteriously, absent from later editions.

31He himself transferred his passion as an aficionado to the figure of an old man, an inspired chronicler who adjusts the rhythm of his words to the pestle of his little copper or leaded tin mortar for betel. He is still, however, the commentator first and foremost, and the distanced writer who constantly checks the swift flux of his narrative, constructed with the rigour of a classical drama respectful of the three units (place, time and action), where an act of exposition allows, through the dialogue, the flashback indispensable to the tying up of the plot. It sometimes happens all the same, that Chellappa, theoretician of letters, a Le Corbusier of Tamil literature, sacrifices the construction of a work of art with its rhythms to the didacticism of demonstration.

32Finally, Chellappa has been reproached for a rather melodramatic ending which brings his narrative to a halt without concluding it and is poorly integrated with the tradition of the game itself. On the one hand, the zamindar is presented with all the paraphernalia conferring on him a prestigious royal psychology, as the absolute ruler of the place including even, as a kind of potlatch, lavish expenditures. Therefore some socio-anthropologically oriented readers may even be tempted to speculate about the confrontation between the villager and the zamindar while something else is really at stake here. And from the western dramatic, if not tragic, perspective of the sanction of hubris, which cannot be foregone in a classical drama, his final gesture is more easily understood as the climax, the fatal end of the true hero and victim, the bull Kāri. On the other hand, how does this match the profound psychology of the jallikkaṭṭu of Cellāyi, which has its own quite different ethics? In this latter perspective, the behaviour of the zamindar unsettles other readers with an ambiguity that the author did not know how, or want, to dissipate.


33On January 11th 2008, the Supreme Court in Delhi held a special hearing to disallow the organising of the jallikkaṭṭu due to take place in the next few days during the Poṅkal festivities in several villages of southern Tamil Nadu. After two days of public agitation in Madurai district, another hearing on Tuesday 15th revised the order and partly lifted the ban. Finally, some jallikkaṭṭu performances took place later, with their usual toll of casualties, a few fatal accidents and a few score of more or less seriously wounded. Simultaneously with the proclamation of the Supreme Court first verdict, The Hindu on Sunday January 13, 2008 published an article by I. Mahadevan on a beautiful seal found at Mohenjo-daro (and kept in the National Museum, New Delhi) giving “evidence of jallikkaṭṭu in the Indus Valley, two thousand years ago”. Two days later, concurrently with the second hearing, The Hindu published a painting of bull chasing on a massive rock surface at Karikkiyur, in the Nilgiris as more evidence of the antiquity of the Tamil tradition of bull chasing. “These pictures, according to specialists in rock art, are dateable to 2000 BC to 1500 BC. Karikkiyur is the biggest rock art site in south India, with the rock surface teeming with about 500 paintings.”

34The article argued that, originally, there was no bull baiting but only mañcu viraṭṭu (bull chasing) or erutu kaṭṭutal (bull tying, that is lassoing). The nature of the game changed after the Nāyak period when Telugu rulers caused it to be metamorphosed into jallikkaṭṭu, and, with the establishment of zamindari system and the personal pride of some zamindars, it became a ferocious struggle for prestige. Obviously, the article had incorporated the substance of Chellappa’s story. But, to the surprise of the Tamil scholar, no explicit reference was made to Kalittokai, Nappiṉṉai or to Krishna fighting the seven bulls, though his exploit at Kamca’s court is referred to as early as the Mahabharata.

  • 4 See n. 2 above.

35I. Mahadevan having thrown the weight of his authority behind giving a village game the prestige of the Indus Valley Culture, thus challenging the highest judiciary authority of India, it may look awkward to suggest that the bull on the seal might more probably be a buffalo, or to propose in cold blood a world survey of the graffiti in pre-or proto-historic cultures, in which the two pictures involved could be very easily integrated and receive a more contextualised evaluation. And how are we to take a fresh view of a likely interaction between Aryan and Dravidian, and, indeed, between well known Sanskrit and Tamil folk themes, in the multiple versions of the story, as was rather successfully attempted by Carl Suneson,4 a student of Siegfried Lienhard, in 1972?

36In any case, even if this shows that the most trivial news item may drag the indologist onto a mine field it also attests to the complexity of Tamil culture and to the difficulty of grasping it in all its dimensions, from art and archaeology to village ethnography, from the earliest times to the present context.

37This article was written as the preface to the French translation of the short novel by Ci. Cu. Cellappa which however remains unpublished.


1 Available in English, under the title The Fatal Rumour, A Nineteenth-century Indian Novel, by B. R. Rajam Aiyar translated with an Afterword by Stuart Blackburn, SOAS South Asian Texts Series O.U.P. (India), 1998.

2 See Erik AF Edholm & Carl Suneson, “The Seven Bulls and Krishna’s Marriage to Nīlā/Nappiṉṉai in Sanskrit and Tamil Literature” in TEMENOS, Studies in Comparative Religion… Vol. 8.1972, pp. 29-53.

3 Including also some popular folk games around the celebrations of the “Tarasque” the monster of Tarascon, a small city near Arles and Avignon to which the French anthropologist Louis Dumont devoted his first book, which remains a model for such monographs; see Louis Dumont, La Tarasque, Essai de description d’un fait local d’un point de vue ethnographique, Paris, Gallimard, 1951.

4 See n. 2 above.

Notes de fin

1 Ci. Cu. Cellappa. Vāṭivācal, Eluttu piracuram, Chennai, 1959, 1977, reprint 1993, 2003.

© Institut Français de Pondichéry, 2009

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