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Yuvraj takes centre stage

Jaideep Unudurti | Updated on January 22, 2018 Published on November 27, 2015

Different kind of beast The festivities at Sadar Sammelan kick off at night, with processions wending their way through crowded alleys before converging at the YMCA circle early the next morning   -  Sanjay Borra

Make way The first thing that strikes one is that Yuvraj’s back is broad and flat like a dinner table   -  Sanjay Borra

The mela throws one into different realities in quick succession   -  Sanjay Borra

The annual Sadar Sammelan in Hyderabad might be an occasion for the Yadav community to celebrate its cattle, but it is also where buffaloes bop to music and men are rendered wholly insignificant

The Telugu writer Rachakonda Viswanatha Sastry once began a novel with a meditation on how buffaloes are the “negroes of the animal world”. In general, dunnapotu (bull) is not a term of endearment. Men will remember when they were berated as boys — ‘stop lolling about like a dunnapotu and do your homework’.

If Viswanatha Sastry were here today, this sight would gladden his heart — dozens and dozens of caparisoned buffaloes, cheered on by thousands of onlookers. I am at the Sadar Sammelan — the annual meet held by the Yadav community in Hyderabad to celebrate its cattle. It is traditionally held two days after Diwali. The festivities kick off at night, with processions wending their way through gallis before converging at the YMCA circle in Narayanguda early the next morning. The notice in the newspaper promised “buffalo acrobatics” but right now the beasts are serene. Which is good — because the street is absolutely jam-packed, and any incipient acrobatics would bring hooves crashing down on the revellers.

Earlier in the day I’d called up my shutterbug friend, would he like to join? He is a veteran street photographer and I felt this would be a walk in the park for him. I was mistaken. We’d first turned up at the YMCA, where the pandals await the animals. The majordomo explains that about two months before the event each animal is fed a rich diet, and also gets “special neck exercises”. It is “cooperation, not competition”, he explains. There are no prizes; every participant and each buffalo gets a medal, a shawl, a participatory certificate and a garland. Another man cuts in, “You want the seven-crore bull?” Before I can reply, he says, “Go to Mushirabad.” Ah yes, the seven-crore bull.

The Sadar Sammelan goes back formally to 1947, when it was first held in Hyderabad. But this year, all the city can talk about is Yuvraj, the gigantic bull brought from Haryana in an air-conditioned truck. Thanks to wall-to-wall media coverage, any child can reel off the statistics. He is 6.5 feet tall at his shoulder, weighs 1,600 kg, eats 100 apples a day, has a staff of 10 — “keeping a watch over him like the eye watches the eyelid”, as the TV channels explain — giving him mustard oil massages, combing his hair, ensuring the air-conditioning is at an ambient level and so on.

The Sadar Sammelan will go on as it always has, but there is no question who the marquee attraction is.

As we drive, the crowds thicken like curd. We park the vehicle near the police station and make our way into the maze of streets. The distant thunder of the dappu reaches us. Our first attempt to break through is naught; there are too many people in front of us. A man suggests we take a side street and re-enter at the head of the procession.

We do, and the atmosphere changes in an instant. A low, dirge-like song is passed on between the loudspeakers strung up along the street. Silent-eyed pilgrims take off their shoes and gather around bonfires. I realise we’ve stumbled on a Shia gathering; there is silence except for the crackling of the flame. Turn another corner and, once again, we are into the chaos of the procession. I marvel at the change, at the multitudes within India, within a city, within a neighbourhood.

We are just a parallel street away, but we could be in an adjacent reality.

And now we are finally here — at the moving heart of this river of animals and men on their way to an incredible confluence. The beat of the drums hammers a tattoo inside one’s brain. Floats holding idols and tableaus drag their way through the lanes. The photographer gestures ‘up’ — it is too loud to talk — and we try the narrow stairs of the houses. The balconies are crowded with women — the streets are a monopoly of the men. We push our way across and carve a vantage point. Directly below us we see the wave of oncoming buffaloes. They are black vacancies in the colour of the crowd, moving like stealth bombers. There is a constant stream of youths taking selfies next to the ambling animals. I reflect that this tumult is the echo of ancient wars between the gods. This is the continuing celebration of the time when Krishna lifted the Govardhan mountain and protected the Yadavas and their herds from the lightning essayed by Lord Indra. This is the ur-myth that sustains them.

I look down; the buffaloes seem to be bopping to the music! Amazed, I stare and then realise how it is done — each holy mammal has a youth standing under its snout. When the music starts the youth shakes his head — and the buffalo follows suit, jiving to the tunes.

As the music reaches a crescendo I sense a ripple through the crowds. The big bull is here. His entry is presaged by a field of swaying hands holding cellphones, rising from the crowd. I see jagged slices of him off a hundred smartphone screens. The first thing that strikes me is that his back is broad and flat like a dinner table. I overhear one man comparing him favourably to the animated one that menaced Rana Daggubati in Baahubali. A dozen bouncers, clad in identical black t-shirts, march in formation holding metal ladders and barricades. Two boys next to me chatter excitedly, “they are the same bouncers who guarded Salman Khan when he came last month”. They march in lockstep, ensuring a moving enclosure, a metal rectangle that always surrounds Yuvraj. Inside this vacancy is the owner, Karan Vir Singh of Haryana, who seems bemused by the scene.

The bull and his entourage reach the junction on the main road. Yuvraj decides to have a lie-down, thus reaffirming that old adage “where does a 3,200-pound buffalo take a nap? The answer: “wherever he damn wants to”. A surge of selfie-seekers takes advantage of this immobility. There is a constant rotation as youths grab selfies or take one of their friends next to that massive horned head. Politicians line up and an avenue is cleared for “VIP Selfies”. Flashes bounce off the crisp white shirts of MLAs, corporators and councilmen.

I’m not immune. I gesture to the photographer. He is an old hand at these things. Without a word he rips off a page from my notebook, writes ‘The Hindu’ in block letters and, holding up this banner, we enter the fray. He rushes off to get better angles — the expanse of the beast’s black hide seems to defeat even his flash. I merely gawp like a country yokel. In my reading of the Mahabharata, I’d often come across characters addressing each other as “O Bull of the Yadu race” but never appreciated it till now.

In Yuvraj I sense the jaded attitude common to all celebrities. The boredom of a hundred presscons or junkets.

Finally he gets up. As he rises, the crowd lets loose a full-throated roar that reverberates around us. Too late I realise my danger. The metal cage is on the move again and I bounce around like a character in a video game. Too slow and I get hit by the trailing edge. Too fast and I run the risk of getting squashed as Yuvraj lurches from side to side. It is in this moving metal cage with this 1.6-tonne behemoth that you become aware of his sheer size. The details suddenly all add up to form a new picture, something you saw but didn’t understand till now. The glistening sheen of the hide. The beads of moisture on the hair on his head. The rolling eyes. The cascades of turmeric rolling off his flanks, flakes of gold that catch the light and drift like yellow snow. And all around us the incessant baying of the crowds.

The crowd is an animal, but the bull is the bigger animal.

Up front the two handlers struggle — yet it is very clear that they are ‘handling’ Yuvraj only because Yuvraj allows them to. One experimental shake and the handlers are thrown off like flies.

Bande bahut bekaar hain,” says the owner at my side. Like his buffalo, he seems bored by the hysteria. One word, one touch from him and Yuvraj quietens down immediately. I take advantage of this temporary hiatus and clamber over the railings.

I re-join the photographer. We are exhausted and have already slipped many times in the mounds of dung that suffix the animals. The acrobatics are still ahead of us — where the buffaloes stand on their hind legs and caper. We anchor in a lagoon of bystanders as the river of men and animals flows on. In this stream the black of the buffaloes is a nullity, an absence that denotes a presence. Their silence is a terrible counterpoint to the roar of the crowd. The Lord of Death rides on a buffalo too, I reflect. The last thing you will ever see.

Jaideep Unudurti is a Hyderabad-based writer

Published on November 27, 2015
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