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

Prestige (Singapore) - - CONTENTS -

” 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

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