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Bulls in her backyard

Soundaram Ramasamy holding Singaravelan while another bull grazes.

Soundaram Ramasamy holding Singaravelan while another bull grazes.  

A small slightly built woman, wearing a mustard silk sari and roses in her hair, walks briskly up to an enormous black bull; nearly six-feet tall with a heavy-set neck, great hump and sharp horns, grazing under the shade of the acacia tree, and grabs the nose rope. Calling him ‘ kannukutti’ (calf), she rubs his face and back gently, and leads him towards us with one hand.

This is Soundaram Ramasamy, a stud bull keeper, who is something of a legend in her village Kathasamipalayam and the Kangeyam region, Tiruppur district. ‘ Kaalaikaramma’ (the bull-keeping woman) as she is known, is perhaps the only woman bull keeper. Besides, very few — man or woman — keep seven stud bulls. And certainly none have such fine Kangeyam specimens.

An indigenous cattle breed, the Kangeyams are native to Tamil Nadu’s Kongu region. I was there to document them with help from Karthikeya Sivasenapathy, of the Senapathy Kangayam Cattle Research Foundation. “Kangeyams,” he explained, “are ancient and handsome animals: both male and female have well-defined humps and curved horns. Both sexes can be put to plough; they can survive droughts, thrive on dry grasses and are very hardy.” But, the preference for high milk-yielders (Jersey and hybrids), prevalence of tractors in place of bullocks and, contentiously, the ban on jallikattu and reklas has savagely reduced their numbers. Karthikeya estimated a 90 per cent drop in 25 years. Today, there are less than 125,000 Kangeyams.

And that’s why 17 years ago, Soundaram and her husband Ramasamy began to breed Kangeyam cattle. They started with cows and, when one birthed an exceptionally good-looking bull calf, they decided to keep it. With Karuppan, that first bull, their stud farm was born. Slowly, the number of bulls grew. Now they have seven. Each bull was selected for its handsome features. Typically, the family rents a tempo, scours the countryside and cattle fairs, and pays between Rs.25,000-40,000 for a calf. The grown-up bulls fetch good prices. Soundaram was offered Rs.300,000 for Singaravelan, their biggest bull, in a cattle show. But she did not sell him.

Singaravelan is beautiful, but a bit of a brute. Ramasamy flatly refuses to approach him. “If I catch him, he’ll fuss. But Soundaram will easily get him.” And she does. She walks up to him, while he is flicking up mud with his horns, snorting, and pacifies him with words and pats. “I love the bulls like my sons,” she says, as Singaravelan stands next to her, massive but meek.

The couple’s careful grooming removes the menace from the animals. “When they get four teeth, (a way of telling the age of cattle) un-castrated bulls turn aggressive,” Ramasamy explains. “We train them to be docile. If not, nobody can handle them!” It is Soundaram who handles the bulls. Her day begins and ends with their upkeep. First, she takes the seven bulls out to graze on the Korangaadu (fields given over as pasture land, hosting 25 varieties of vegetation, a speciality of this region); later she fetches them their food and drink (water mixed with cattle feed, ground corn, cotton seeds, and broken urad dal) so that they are always in prime condition. Soundaram’s daily routine is so laborious and rigid that she can never travel anywhere. Her mother looks after the cooking and the kitchen. “I have no time!” she says. Her only other interest is roses. She points to the tall bushes outside her newly renovated house. “I love the flowers!”

When cows come to be serviced, Soundaram attends to that also personally. Almost everyday, she says, people come from a 150 km radius to mate their cows with her studs. The exercise can cost the cow’s owner up to Rs.4,000, including transport, food and stud-charges. (In contrast, artificial insemination costs only Rs.200-300). Each servicing nets Soundaram Rs.500. The cow’s owner gets to pick a bull of their choice. (Kangeyam bulls are usually white with black markings. But Soundaram keeps rare black-and-red specimens, as breeders and wealthy farmers prefer them).

While we are around, no cow turns up; a promise is made for the next day. Over tea, Soundaram shows me photos of the cattle mating. There’s a shot of her, her sari tucked into her waist, her hair pulled into a bun, her arms stretched to secure a rope around a visiting cow; in another, she’s right next to the bull, holding the rein, as it mounts a cow, a slip of a woman, besides the big, muscled bull. “My bulls need me beside them all the time.”

Her conservation efforts were recognised with the Breed Saviour Award in 2010. She was happy to receive it, and delighted when her relatives rang to congratulate her. “They were impressed that I went to Madras to get an award for raising bulls!”

Soundaram also has plans to expand the business, although the couple say they don’t keep the bulls for the money. “We do this because we’re passionate about keeping the Kangeyam breed alive.” Their income comes from the fields (Ramasamy grows drumsticks) and their two sons’ earnings. Soundaram’s second son, Veerasamy is now doing business in Chennai but is keen to start keeping cows to breed their own stud bulls.

In Soundaram’s farthest fields, we look at two more bulls. I beg her to name her favourite. She says she likes them all. I ask her to name the strongest. “All our bulls are strong. And they come running to me when I whistle.” She puts two fingers into her mouth and whistles; a piercing shattering noise. It startles me and the birds, but the bulls only look up enquiringly. She whistles again. They lower their heads and go back to grazing. She walks up to them, separate the horns locked in mock-fight, and strokes a bull. “He probably notices I’m wearing new clothes, and must be wondering where I went,” she says, pointing to her sari.

We don’t debate the point. Gently she rubs down the bull. I stand there, under a mid-day sun, watching a small woman and a big bull, content in each other’s company.

This article is part of the series ‘Vanishing Livelihoods of Rural Tamil Nadu’ and is supported under NFI National Media Award 2015.

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Printable version | Aug 13, 2020 2:58:55 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/magazine/bulls-in-her-backyard/article6966098.ece

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