Why do some traditions continue over centuries, while others wither away over time? How do the rituals we engage in define our lives, our communities? What power does belief hold over our actions, prompting generation after generation to engage in certain practices?
The recent protests over the ban on the bull-taming sport of jallikattu in Tamil Nadu turned the spotlight on these questions; as has the Karnataka government's decision to amend the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act (1960) to pave the way for kambala, the traditional buffalo race held in the coastal districts. But the line of inquiry is one that has informed Bengaluru-based photographer Pradeep KS' work for a while now.
(Note to readers: Some of the images that follow are of a graphic nature.)
For over five years now, Pradeep has been carefully documenting the practice of ritual animal sacrifice in parts of Karnataka. This has taken the form of five photo series, titled: Tonsure, In The Name Of God, Rain, Rites Of Passage and Unfounded Belief. Through his images, Pradeep offers a view of how animal sacrifice is a part of the rituals, desires and emotions that are attendant to human life, and death.
A word of caution: these are not 'easy' images to see. Pradeep does not shy away from showcasing the violence that is inherent in the act of taking a life, but he does so as an impartial observer, one who doesn't offer judgment or even commentary, merely recording a practice in all its aspects so the viewer can form his/her own impressions. You see fowl being offered up to the gods so that the devotee's prayers are answered, sheep being sacrificed so the heavens will favour a village with rain, a buffalo slaughtered to appease a ghost that resides in a tree. The images go beyond the act of the sacrifice itself, to its role in the community — the 'social' aspect as it were, bringing an entire village together, for the feast after the rituals are fulfilled.
"Why ritual sacrifice, as a subject, caught my eye was because this is a tradition that goes back hundreds of years...perhaps even more," explains Pradeep. "The beauty of this subject is how strongly certain practices seemed to have weathered the (all-pervasive) rapid development and urbanisation, especially in Karnataka where we celebrate (Bengaluru) being crowned the most dynamic city. I started working on this series as a means to understand (this dichotomy), talking to people across age groups to get their ideas and attachment to the practice."
Another reason why the subject of ritual sacrifice has held his interest for so many years is the chance to examine the relation between all the 'elements' involved in the practice — "be it the relationship between an animal and people, or the very idea of tradition," says Pradeep.
Among all his images, there's particular one that stands out; it is from the Unfounded Belief series and depicts the sacrifice of a buffalo to appease the ghost that is believed to live in a tree in the village. The photos depict how the buffalo is led from home to home in the village, anointed with vermilion, offered oil and coconut, bathed, revered. Then, after prayers are offered to the deity (and an offering in the form of clay pots filled with toddy) the village 'godman' chooses who will get to perform the sacrifice. The buffalo is then killed, and its head taken around the outskirts of the village, in a procession. In Pradeep's photo, the animal's severed head holds a serene expression — belying the violence that has been done to its body. It is powerful, and moving.
The 'contrasts' that this series captures is just what Pradeep finds fascinating about the practice of ritual sacrifice. "What surprised me was how things co-exist," he says. "I can quote several examples — the animal to be 'offered' is given the utmost respect and care, but then finally it is sacrificed. Here we can see two different acts, followed by (the animal) actually being offered to God, but being consumed by the people. This is seen as a prayer to communicate with God... at a time when technology is sending messages to outer space and attempting to communicate with extra-terrestrials. There's belief and disbelief. The relation between a certain practice and rationale clearly speaks of the beauty of coexistence, held together by a ritual or traditional practice."
Pradeep adds that his experience while working on these series speaks about how well and strongly certain beliefs and practices are followed, irrespective of the place or time. "(The ritual sacrifice) is more of large social gathering where people feed each other for a noble cause — be it for rains to come, or to keep an evil spirit away," he says. "When looked at from a macro perspective, you can see this mesmerising collage of belief, people, and place strongly knit by our age-old practice and tradition."
Updated Date: Jan 29, 2017 13:27 PM