next jallikattu

note: i am editing the format of the blog, so it should be easier to read. send comments if it’s still a problem.

tuesday: the date was 17 january, and we headed out to a second jallikattu in the village of siravayal. on the way, we stopped for breakfast in thirupattur (or tiruppattur), which is a relatively large village in the area, and the posters hung all around town trumpeted that it was m.g.r.’s birthday. m.g. ramachandran (17 jan. 1917 – 24 dec. 1987) was a hugely popular tamil film actor who became a major political figure in tamil nadu. he joined the tamil-oriented dmk party, becoming its spokesman, before creating his own competing party, the admk (later aiadmk) in 1972. he became tamil nadu’s chief minister in 1977 and served until his death 10 years later. when he died, there was rioting in the streets for days and one mourner even set himself on fire in mourning.

the leaders of both the dmk and the aiadmk, the two largest tamil parties, came out of the tamil film industry, and they go for big splashy posters; moreover, it is common for jayalalithaa, the actress who took over the aiadmk after m.g.r. died, to put pictures of m.g.r. and of periyar, the founder of the dk  tamil rights movement (from which the dmk sprung), on her posters to advertise her legacy. anyway, given m.g.r.’s enduring popularity, the aiadmk, which currently is in power, wasn’t going to let the day pass by unnoticed.

i am consistently fascinated by tamil political advertising.

anyway, back to the jallikattu. yesterday’s jallikattu was a relatively controlled affair, but during today’s jallikattu, in the village of sarivayal, the bull owners simply let their bulls loose in a field packed full of cars and spectators. the contestants would form a circle around the bull while it was tied up, with the audience surrounding them or watching from panel trucks; the owner would untie the bull; and the bull would run for it while the guys tried to grab it. in fact, as we pulled up to the field, we saw a bull come crashing through the brush and dash across the road.

given that the bull had to dodge the contestants, the spectators who were too reckless to stand back, and the parked vehicles, the opportunities for mayhem were enormous. since we were keeping a safe distance, the challenge for us was to figure out, from among all the trucks, where the next bull would be released; predict from the arrangement of people and vehicles where the bull would run; and then run to get there in time. not surprisingly, this wasn’t very easy, so most of my shots ended up looking, at best, like this:

the bull is released and, after menacing the crowd, dashes off between two trucks parked on the opposite side of the circle from where we were standing.

this isn’t to say that i didn’t get some interesting shots; i just didn’t get very many, since as soon as the bull got into any kind of tussle with a contestant, the crowd would immediately swarm in and block my next shot. the last bull of the day did break in my direction, so with the distance i had given myself, i was able to fire off some good shots before i had to get out of the way myself. i was using my long lens, of course, but if i could have shot with a short lens, i’d have captured some award-winning shots. not that i’d have lived to see them, of course.

next: the second half of the day.


this past week, i drove down to madurai to attend two days of jallikattu – an indian bull-taming contest. in a jallikattu contest, young indian men try to grab a bull by the hump on its back and hold on for as long as possible. traditionally, indian men would take part in a jallikattu as a test of strength, or to win the hand of prettiest girl in the village. the season begins after the pongal harvest festival in mid-january, and the bulls that are trained for jallikattu come from a specific breed of cattle known for its pugnaciousness.

sunday: i drove down from chennai that morning, taking the national highway, which is a surprisingly wide and smooth road. at a leisurely pace, the trip took me seven hours, which was what i’d expected. the hotel i had chosen for my stay was a cheap one which had originally been selected for  a jallikattu group trip sponsored by  the photographic society of madras; the trip was cancelled, but i decided to go on my own to meet two members who already were in town, and in keeping with the spirit of the adventure, i decided to see what a 900 rupee ($19) per night hotel was like.  i was shown to my room and i saw the blanket crumpled up at the foot of the bed along with the dirty sheets. the clerk assured me that the sheets had been changed, but a 20 rupee tip to the bellman ensured that i got fresh sheets – in other words, i took the room anyway. this is what i wanted to experience first-hand, after all, and i had my own roll of toilet paper; with the addition of clean sheets, a firm mattress, and reliable hot water, what else did i need? i didn’t notice the long black hairs on the floor until later, but by then it was too late. the fact that the elevator across the hall from my room played a tinny version of beethoven’s “für elise” whenever anyone left the door open or pushed a button, and did so long into the night, was just an added bonus.

monday: i met my one of my companions, named narayan, and we set off for the village of palamedu, where the first jallikattu would be held. on the way, narayan explained that in olden times, there’d be just a few of the village strong men who would take part in the competition, but nowadays any number of drunken guys take part and crowd in on the bull as soon as it’s released from the gate. once it looks like someone has a good chance at catching the bull, the others are supposed to back off, but it’s still a mad crowd. i asked narayan whether people got injured, and he responded “yes, and sometimes guys even killed.” he stopped for a minute. “no, every time.”

we arrived at the village and walked to the arena. palamedu has one of the more famous jallikattus in tamil nadu, so it has a small permanent structure built in the center of the village, but the event has grown so big that they extended it with bamboo stands and chain link fencing. i am terrible at estimating distances, but i’d say that the extension ran about 150 yards long and 40 yards wide. there was coconut matting spread over the first 100 feet of the arena, and i subsequently found out that this was the official catching area: the contestants had to grab the bull before it ran past the matting, or the round would be over and the bull would be free. unfortunately, i didn’t know this sooner, because after narayan conducted a little negotiation, we took a space in the one of the viewing stands, and we were a good 30 yards beyond the matting’s edge.

after we settled in, the 80 or so contestants ran onto the field. each of them had  been given a green shirt so the judges would know who was allowed to be in the arena. (whether any of them had to pass a sobriety test before they registered, i can’t say.) we watched from the stands for about an hour, and each round followed one of three patterns: the bull would come out, half the guys would crowd in on it while the other half ran away, and then either (1) one or two guys would try to grab on, and one would maintain his hold; (2) one or two guys would try to grab on, they’d get tossed off, and the bull would break through the crowd and run across the matting; or (3) none of the guys would get close to grabbing the bull before it got away. while this was happening on the field, i added my own pattern, in that during each jallikattu round, i had to push back against the short drunken guy who came in 15 minutes after the start of the event and decided to squeeze himself between me and the pole i was leaning against. he wouldn’t take “no” for an answer. the crush of people was bad enough – the stand owner didn’t limit the number of people he let in – but having to fight off some guy who was trying to wedge his entire body into my butt cheeks while his hot, beer-soaked breath stained my neck … let’s say that i now understand how some of the girls felt at my fraternity’s parties.

the bull comes out, and a number of contestants immediately fall upon its neck and back; by the fourth frame, one guy has emerged with the best claim to the bull’s back, and in the fifth frame, he appears to have control, but by the sixth frame, the bull is fighting back. the bull throws him by the eighth frame and he’s down in the ninth, but he has held on long enough to claim his prize (and walk away unhurt). total time from start to finish: one minute, nine seconds.

so, what makes these bulls so fierce? as i noted above, the bulls are bred for their fighting ability; the owners train them and give them special feed to make them strong. however, in the past, the bull owners would increase the bulls’s anger by rubbing chili powder in their eyes, getting them drunk, or clamping their testicles. in response to the complaints of animal advocates (including blue cross of india), the government began to impose restrictions on the jallikattus, and all of these types of practices are illegal. there were three veterinary vans on the grounds and the animals were watched carefully while they were in line for their turn in the arena (there were 500 bulls, so the line was pretty long). everything seemed pretty legit. still, even in a non-enhanced state of excitement, the bulls can do some damage, and all during the contest, a snippet of tom lehrer’s “in old mexico” kept coming to mind:

the moment had come, i swallowed my gum
we knew there’d be blood on the sand pretty soon
the crowd held its breath, hoping that death
would brighten an otherwise dull afternoon

a lot of guys did get tossed but we didn’t see any real injuries. one guy get hooked by a bull’s horns but, miraculously, the bull only caught his shirt and didn’t rip his back open. in the sequence below, a contestant had to get carried off, but from the grins on his friends’ faces, i assumed he wasn’t hurt too badly:

and what does the winner get for catching the bull? in many cases, the prize was a bicycle, although there also were a few large cooking pots and bureaus. (if the bull won the contest, the owner might collect the prize instead.) coupled with the pride of taming a bull, for these village guys, the prize was a big deal; i’m just not sure it’d be worth getting gored or stomped.

next: another jallikattu! 

kissy face

cooper has a friend on the beach that we call “kissy face” for obvious reasons. i’m not sure if she’s in love with cooper or just wants to know what he’s been eating, but she’s awfully persistent – and thorough.

cooper puts on his scary face and acts like he’s just tolerating the attention, but somehow i get the feeling he actually likes it.

chennai open 2012

this past week (2-8 january), abby and i went to the chennai open, the largest atp tournament in asia. it was a week of some amazing tennis. the finals came down to the 1st and 4th seeds, janko tipsarevic of serbia and milos raonic of canada (pictured in that order as they entered the stadium). tipsarevic was the better all-around player; raonic had a lot of trouble placing his shots – i lost count of the number of unforced errors he made – but he also had a killer serve that was almost always unreturnable.  each of the three sets ended with tiebreaks, and raonic finally wore tipsarevic down to take the final tiebreak 7-2.

the competitors enter the stadium. tipsarevic definitely had the intensity, but not the brute strength of raonic, whose 35 aces often left tipsarevic in the position shown in this last photo. (note the speed: 225 km/h)

it was not easy shooting from the stands, especially with a slower lens. watching the guys courtside, i definitely had lensvy.

“compelling” images? you decide.

i’ve just signed up for some online courses with an outfit called “the compelling image.” for their sample lesson, i was instructed to take two shots that incorporate various described compositional techniques to create images with visual impact, rather than the equivalent of snapshots of uncle fred by the side of the house. i didn’t think it right to submit shots i’d already done, so i went out today and grabbed a few shots. compelling? who knows. it’ll be interesting to read the professionals’ feedback.

happy new year.

i only had to submit two, so i didn’t include the third one, but there’s something about the girl’s face and the boy’s body position that interested me so i’ve included it here.