BEHOLD THE DEATH DANCE
Will the bullfight, a spectacle deeply entrenched in Spanish culture, be a blood sport that time will erase? Rathina Sankari ponders from the sidelines
” Do you know the three religions of Spain?” enquires my guide Luke during a walking tour in Madrid. Before I could take a wild guess, he quips: “It’s soccer, ham and the Catholic church, in that order.” While the Iberian ham is indeed drool-worthy, my interests lie elsewhere: Spanish history, food, flamenco and bullfights – not necessarily in that order.
They were exactly the reasons for me to zero in on Spain as the destination of our family vacation. My eight-year-old daughter and 13-year-old son are oblivious of the itinerary, and the thrill and excitement of their maiden Europe trip is the crucial calling card of this journey. Besides gorging on Spanish delights – paella, churros, hot chocolate and ham – we also visit Barcelona for Gaudi’s work and to take a tour of Camp Nou, the home ground of FC Barcelona. In Granada, we hike to the hills of Sacromonte to watch the scintillating, feet tapping flamenco in cave restaurants. While these excursions are lessons in history, culture and architecture, I long to watch Spain’s famous bullfights.
I have to admit though: I was ignorant about the tragic end of Spanish bullfights until I watched the 2018 Oscar-nominated animation movie Ferdinand – which I felt was a good introduction to the topic for the kids. So, on our flight from India to the Iberian Peninsula, they were glued to the in-flight entertainment, watching the ginormous but completely adorable bull with rippling muscles and huge, gentle blue eyes. Fast-forward one week and my son makes up his mind as we soak in the dizzying beauty of Seville: He doesn’t want to watch Spain’s ritual in the flesh.
So, one hot afternoon, we visit Plaza de toros de la Real Maestranza, the oldest bullring in Spain – not to watch a bullfight, but to take a tour of the ring and visit its museum. The majestic temple of bullfights, with an arresting white façade skirted with ochre and red tones, has stood strong since 1881. We walk through rooms displaying pictures and paintings by famous painters that capture the matadors and the beasts in action, along with capes, matador outfits, swords and stuffed bull heads. I learn that bullfighting evolved when the King of Spain introduced it to train his cavalry around the 17th century.
What catches my eye is Romantic Spanish painter Eugenio Lucas’ 19th-century artwork Un lance en la Maestranza, which captures the spirit of an enthralled crowd cheering and watching the bullfight intently with craned necks. The details – knocked-down chairs; a spectator standing on a chair, holding on to a pillar and probably shouting animatedly from a box; Seville’s Giralda tower in the background – demonstrate the very essence of Spain’s cultural event. I long to witness it – not for its bloody end, but to witness the fervour that it has instigated in many and to understand the craze. As American author Ernest Hemingway described so aptly in 1932, “it’s impossible to believe the emotional and spiritual intensity, and the pure, classic beauty that can be produced by a man, an animal and a piece of scarlet serge”.
FACING THE TORO
Luckily for me, the grand San Isidro festival is nearing and I can actually catch a bullfight in Madrid. My husband and daughter agree to join me in my escapade. In Plaza de Toros de Las Ventas, the Neo Mudejar Bullfighting cathedral, we sit sandwiched between a group of old Spanish men to our right and a young couple to our left. Seated in the row below us is a bunch of elderly Spanish women cheering and talking loudly. Very soon, the ring is filled to its capacity.
The fanfare begins when three matadors and their teams of banderilleros and picadors on horses take part in a procession around the arena, with a band playing in the background. Soon, it is time for the 37-year-old French matador Juan Bautista and his team to face the toro. He waits patiently behind the burladeros, a wooden partition, for its advent. With the sound of a trumpet, the doors are thrown open and a 596kg beast charges into the arena. The first act is crucial for a matador, who watches the bull’s entrance attentively to understand its temperament and fighting traits as his three banderilleros perform the cape passes.
Bautista then steps into the field waving his cape, thus instigating the beast towards it. The old man next to me grunts in Spanish and clenches his fist before getting up and shouting. The women below raise their voices. Bullfighting has strict rules and etiquette, many to protect the bull from unwarranted harm and maximise the danger to the matador, who is expected to perform with artistry and courage; aficionados in the audience are vocal about breaches. “Bullfighting is the only art in which the artist is in danger of death and in which the degree of brilliance in the performance is left to the fighter’s honour,” discerned Hemingway in Death in the Afternoon.
Shortly, with the blow of trumpets, two bulky picadors come into the arena on horses. Lancing the charging bull, the picador ensures the head hangs low enough for the matador to conduct the kill in the last act. Bautista then re-enters to perform his passes. The old man shifts in his seat again. His body language suggests unhappiness with the passes. A matador must ensure grace in his movements working close to the bull, thus making sure the animal follows the cape’s movement.
Occasional passes result in the crowd shouting, “Olé!” The moves of the matador – in a richly embroidered short jacket and skin-tight trousers, with a montera on his head – and the bull charges the crowd as they enjoy the close shaves with death. The movements are calculated and well manoeuvred – it won’t be a stretch to describe them as works of art. A slight miss or a wrong step is enough to get one killed. The thrill and infectious energy draw aficionados to the ring. The young couple seated to our left, we find out, has bought tickets for the entire season.
While the passion of the crowd during the entire act is palpable, the kill – the descabellar, after the bull is mortally wounded – is a solemn moment for an outsider like me, who has never witnessed such events. After two bullfights, I realise I don’t have the appetite for more.
Today, Spain stands divided on bullfighting. Some point out that it is rooted in Spanish tradition, reported in the newspapers’ Culture sections rather than sports pages. To quote the poet Antonio Lorca: “Toreo is the liturgy of the bulls, an authentic religious drama in which, just as in the Mass, there is adoration and sacrifice of a god.” Blogger and digital marketing consultant Mar Pages, a Catalan, counters: “The sport, which is not as rooted in Catalan heritage as it is in other parts of Spain, is a very cruel one and is perhaps the part of being a Spaniard that I am most ashamed of.”
Uk-born Girona resident and writer Nicola Prentis said: “I have no strong opinion about the cruelty, as it seems to me that we treat factory farm animals far worse, but you don’t see many protests about that. Spain is definitely not a vegetarian-thinking country, so the strong resistance to bullfighting seems a bit hypocritical.”
Lori Zaino, an American writer who has lived in Madrid for a decade, has a different take. “I wouldn’t be surprised if in the next 10 years or so, bullfighting becomes illegal in Madrid. Once the generation that actively supports bullfighting is no longer here, I think it won’t be a relevant activity anymore.” No one knows the future of this spectacle, but for now, it continues to enthral its audience with its death dance.
THE THRILL AND INFECTIOUS ENERGY DRAW AFICIONADOS TO THE BULLFIGHTING RING
The first act in a bullfight at Plaza de Toros de Las Ventas in Madrid
Left: A mural on the walls of Plaza de Toros de Las Ventas in MadridBelow left: Elderly men wait for the bullfights to begin outside Plaza de Toros de Las Ventas in Madrid