Last year, in July, I was on a trip to Spain with friends. One of the five cities we visited was Seville, a beautiful city in the Andalusian province of Spain. We had a plethora of activities planned for the city – visiting the Real Alcazar, the Cathedral of St. Mary, the Plaza de Espana, watching a Flamenco performance, attending a local fair and music festival . . . and each of these was an experience to cherish. But what left a lasting impression on me was the visit to the Bullfight Arena of Seville or the Plaza de Toros de la Maestranza as they call it in Spanish. The arena itself is the oldest of its kind in the world and is a marvelous piece of architecture, but this post is not as much about the place as the sport it is famous for.
My first rub with bullfights was in a book – Ernest Hemingway’s ‘Death in the Afternoon’ to be precise. It is a book that both appalled and enamored me. The exacting details of a real bullfight on a sunny afternoon that the author provides in the book are at once interesting, poignant and ire-inducing. Why would anyone want to kill a bull that has done him no harm? And this same feeling washed over me when I followed our charming guide as she showed us around the arena in Seville.
“There are four main entrances to the ring,” she said pointing to the wide openings along the circumference of the ring. “The first one is from where the Cuadrilla* enters the arena, the second one is for the bull to make his entrance and the third is from where the Matador is carried out of the arena on the shoulders of colleagues when he successfully slays the bull as per the rules,” she continued, even as she cooled herself with the wave of an exquisite Spanish fan.
“And the fourth?” asked a fellow tourist with a look on his face that betrayed the fact that he already knew the answer.
“Oh, that one is used to drag the slayed bull out of the arena. We have a carriage drawn by four strong mules to do the job. Once out of the arena, the bull is taken directly to the butcher’s and you will find many a shop in the market serving its meat the next day.” At that last statement, Hemingway’s detailed descriptions of the Banderilleros, Picadors, the Matador – complete with their resplendent attires and the motions they go through while approaching, teasing and finally killing the bull- came back to me and made me shudder.It was too stark a contrast of beauty and gore for me to digest.
* A Cuadrilla comprises of 2 Picadors (lance bearers mounted on horses), 3 Banderilleros (flagmen), 1 Matador (the main bullfighter – either a pro or novice) and 1 Mozo de Espeda (sword servant)
The guide then talked a bit about the beautiful layer of sand -in multiple shades of yellow and brown- that covered the arena, eliciting praise from one and all, including me. But at the back of my mind, I was trying to understand how a layer of colorful sand – that without doubt would be bathed in the blood of another bull sometime soon – could evoke more awe than the unfair death of a mute animal.
Unfair, because you have anywhere between 3-6 armed people on the arena, fighting one bull. Although they say it is the Matador who slays the bull after showing off his purportedly elegant skills with the cape, it is seldom clean and simple. At most times (unless he is a pro and sometimes despite it), the Matador misses the nape of the bull through which he’s supposed to drive his sword. And then there are multiple attempts made to hit the mark amidst raging cheer (and sometimes despite the boos) from the audience. When all else fails, the other toreros rush in to impale the bull with multiple stabs of their lances until the poor animal has no breath left in him. How cruel is that? I know of this, because some of my friends witnessed not one or two but three such fights in Madrid, which was the next stop on our itinerary. Despite this, bullfighting is a reality in Spain and there are many who defend the sport as being a important part of their heritage.
In ‘Death in the Afternoon’, Hemingway writes about this and much more with such a clinical approach that I remember squirming even as I read the book in the comfort of my home. However, the author also contemplates the meaning of courage and fear, and the dynamics of life and death in its more basic form that found resonance with some of my own thoughts.
Let me now bring you back home to India, where bullfighting is not something new and unknown. Not at all! In fact, Jallikattu is a reality in the state of Tamil Nadu and people who indulge in the sport offer the same excuse as their Spanish counterparts – preserving ancient heritage. And that brings me to the second book on bullfighting – Vaadivasal, by C U Chellappa, an evocative story that revolves around the practice of Jallikattu, which literally means – tying a bag of gold or silver coins to the horn of the bull. The idea of the fight is for a contender to catch the bull by his horns and hold on to it for some distance/time. If he survives, the bag of coins is his. Vaadivasal, by the way, translates into ‘arena’.
While both ‘Death in the Afternoon’ and ‘Vaadivasal’ deal with bullfighting, they couldn’t be more different in their approach to exploring the subject -with Hemingway’s approach being rather impassioned, even peppered with wry humor at places, and Chellappa’s story packing in a lot of emotion and drama and dealing with the bull itself as though it were human. This difference of course is not to the discredit of either author, since Hemingway’s book is essentially non-fiction while Chellappa’s is fiction of the almost larger-than-life variety.
I would recommend a read of both books for the sheer beauty of Hemingway’s language and the simple but evocative story of Chellappa’s.
Back in Seville, once my wandering mind returned to the present, I followed the guide to the Bullfight Museum that housed many paintings, photographs and souvenirs from Spain’s bullfighting history. But I’ll cover more of that ground some other time. For now, here are a few photographs of the beautiful arena that started me off on this book journey…
And here’s a thought I’d like to leave you with before signing off – Isn’t it strange that something so gory should take place in a place that’s so beautiful?
Even as I write this post, I read on the net of the gruesome death (and its live airing on television) of 28 year old Matador Victor Barrio during a fight in Teruel, Spain. This has again set off the critics of the sport arguing for a ban – not only because of the fatality involved in the arena, but off it too. As is the rule of the sport, the mother of the bull that kills a Matador is put to death too – to end the lineage, they say. Click here to read more on this latest news.