PSi#21 Fluid States - Hugging the Bull: Jallikattu in Tamil Nadu, by S Vignesh India Correspondent

Hugging the Bull: Jallikattu in Tamil Nadu

by S Vignesh

31 March 2015

PSi#21 Fluid States - India: Rethinking Labor and the Creative Economy - Global Performance Perspectives

PDF available here.

An important aspect of the PSi conference in New Delhi concerned the pedagogical future of performance studies. With this in mind, conference curator Rustom Bharucha inserted brief interventions by JNU students in the plenary session on what performance studies means to them within the context of their own ongoing research.  

The following is an intervention by S.Vignesh who is beginning to write his MPhil thesis in performance studies on the human-animal relationship via the sport of Jallikattu in the southern state of Tamil Nadu in India.

Jallikattu is a Tamil word which, literally translated, means ‘bunch of coins tied together’. In this sport, which is played in rural Tamil Nadu, bulls are released, one by one, from a gate, and any man who hugs the fast-running bull around its hump from a predetermined distance is declared a winner.  If not, the bull wins.

On 7 May 2014 the Supreme Court of India banned this sport. The judgment of the Supreme Court said that this sport is an act of cruelty to bulls because “bulls cannot be a performing animal, [they are] anatomically not designed for that, but forced to perform”. “Performing animal” is a key category in the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960, which was cited in the legal banning of this sport. Activists representing the legal profession and animal rights understand the bull anatomically, drawing on features like “cloven footed” or “solid footed”; they calibrate the capacity of the bull by designating 350 kilograms as the maximum pulling capacity of bulls. Any activity of the animal which exceeds this capacity places the animal in the category of “performing animal”, which is illegal.

On the other hand, locals, who play the sport, approach the bull with the notion of suli. Suli literally means ‘spirals’. It is an embodied aesthetic category by which a bull or cow is perceived. Suli in its complete understanding would connote presence, elegance and grace, and not just the specific spiral signs in the body of a bull. There are many suli which are beyond sense perception, working in an imaginary realm.

Locals share an intimate relationship with the bull via this suli.  In contrast, legal and animal rights activists share a technical relationship with the bull via a predominant focus on animal anatomy. Both assume relationships of care and play, but both operate differently by viewing each other’s positions with suspicion. Furthermore, it is interesting to understand how the ‘human’ is constituted in both the above-mentioned cases. Locals who approach the bull via suli have thick zoomorphic tendencies (as opposed to anthropomorphic tendencies) among themselves. On the other hand, the question of ‘being-human’ is central to the animal rights discourse and the law.

With the above matrix of two streams of bulls, one based on suli and other based on anatomy, and two ways of approaching humans, one of zoomorphic tendencies and the other of ‘being human’, I intend to map the diverse contexts and frames of contingent knowledge relating to the bull.

Furthermore, I question: What does it actually means when people say that they “know the bull”? In what modes of perceptual, conscious or testimonial structures of knowledge does this recognition of the bull unfold?  In what ways can performance be regarded as a mode of knowledge? How do we interpret identity, difference and action through diverse encounters of the human-animal relationship? How does the laboring animal become a performing animal?  Why do humans perform with it, and where does the possibility of “becoming-animal” emerge?  The role of law, science, local aesthetics and imagination intermingle towards the creation of a framework of performance, which I am interested in researching.

I believe that performance research in India needs to review the local and regional ontological assumptions of people, which need to be inscribed within the framework of performance studies in order to fully exploit its potential.  The challenge in writing about performance is not to make a known out of the unknown but to acknowledge the immanence of the unknown. At the same time, performance studies research must not make a generalized or deterministic discourse out of these local “essences”, which have tangible and material repercussions in the everyday lives of people.  Discourse cannot exhaust performance, but can performance exhaust essence?   These intersecting relationships interest me. My moment of arrival in performance studies is not via a negation of the utility of other disciplines but through an engagement with the contingent performance knowledge available in sport and its impact in life as such.


Copyright –  S Vignesh  (2015) “Hugging the Bull: Jallikattu in Tamil Nadu”, PSi #21 Fluid States: Performances of UnKnowing LOG, ed. Marin Blazevic, Bree Hadley and Nina Gojic, Performance Studies international (PSi), 1 January 2015-31 December 2015, available

Tags: Class Labor Economy and Performance  Community and Performance  Daily Life Daily Rituals and Performance   Performance Studies in Asia  Performance Studies in Languages Other Than English  

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