Occupation – Boomboom maatukaran. "More than three generations of my family have made a living training and walking bulls. I’ve never been to school, but I can teach bulls tricks," says Raghavan.
Do you know the song ‘Boomboomboom maatukaran theruvil vandhan di’? I acted in it,” asks says 52-year-old Raghavan. “My thai-maaman (uncle) and his wife too were in that movie, Adhey Kangal. I was little older than him then,” he points to his five-year-old son Vijay, who’s playing with a stick.
But even before he acted as one, Raghavan was destined to become a boomboom maatukaran (person who plays a drum and walks with a fortune telling bull). “More than three generations of my family have made a living training and walking bulls. I’ve never been to school, but I can teach bulls tricks — to shake hands, kiss, point to the ‘sothukai’ (right hand), and of course, shake their heads in response to my questions.” Typically, Raghavan asks people-pleasing questions. Pora kariyam jeyukumma? (Will the work one is setting out for be fruitful) Will this little girl become a doctor? And the bull nods a yes or a no,” he smiles.
“But this bull,” he points to the short, brown animal, sitting on a quiet lane in Alwarpet, “can’t do anything yet. He was given to me recently by a family in Ambattur. Traditionally, if somebody is ill in a house, they pray to Ezhumalaiyaan, and donate a bull to a boomboom maatukaran. From then, it is our duty to look after the bull; we also take it back to that family, every six months and show them that it is well cared for.” Though he lives in Periyapalayam, Raghavan spends a part of the year wandering around Chennai with his wife and son, especially during festivals, when people are typically generous with their hand-outs. “In the city, if we walk around the whole day, we make about Rs. 200. In the villages, the money is poor, but people give food and fodder, and you don’t have to pay Rs. 15 to have a shower. You simply bathe in lakes and cook in the open.”
Among Raghavan’s five children, only one daughter goes to school; his 18 and 20-year-old sons are boomboom maatukarans. “I’m going to enrol this boy in school,” he points to Vijay, who’s now squatting on the pavement close to his mother. “Everybody tells me he must be educated. When we go from house to house, some people are kind; others just say, ‘you’re fit, take up a job’,” he rues, adjusting his blue turban. “But this is what I know to do; I strike this sambu-kulam (round steel gong) to let people know I’ve come; then I play the nadaswaram and sing songs — I’m fluent in Telugu and Tamil; finally, my bull predicts the family’s fortune. In my father’s days, we carried a drum along; that’s why we were called boomboom maatukaran.”
The sun races west as Raghavan hoicks his bull; marigold garlands its horns, kumkum reddens its forehead. “We have to get to the Marina before it gets dark; we’ll stay somewhere nearby, and leave early tomorrow morning for our rounds.” It’s the day before Diwali; fireworks boom and crackle, but the bull does not flinch. “When we take leave, we pray for our benefactors; we say, Bhagavaney, amma koduthaanga, avanga lakshanama irrukanam, poittu varen amma,” and he gathers the bull’s ropes closer. His son imitates him, singing poittu varen, poittu varen. And he follows his father and the green-robed bull, cradling in his hands, another child’s used Diwali cracker.
(A weekly column on men and women who make Chennai what it is)