EOL 5: Professional Weeping (Greene)

1. A Funeral

My first encounter of oppari is at a funeral ceremony (eruti chatangu) that takes place approximately one kilometer outside the village of Icaikurichi, a chiefly agricultural village of approximately four thousand. My host in the village informs me that a man of the Kallar caste community has very recently died, and that his relatives and locally important, "known men" (terinta manitar) are making arrangements for a funeral. At about five o'clock in the evening, I make my way by motor-bike to the site of the ceremony, which is a collection of about five buildings in open fields. About fifty people are gathered for the event, and another fifty arrive in the following thirty minutes. As I approach the site, I hear loud noises. Villagers are lighting firecrackers and launching small rockets into the air. Five drummers are walking in procession into the area of the huts, where they begin an extended performance.

Plate 1 Plate 1. "M.G.R." leads musical performance at the funeral.

A group of Harijan (Paraiyar) professional musicians has been hired to perform at the funeral. Their performance, shown in Plate 1, is led by one drummer, who calls himself "M.G.R.," a stage name he borrows from one of Tamil Nadu's most popular film actors. The original M.G.R. was a fantastically popular celebrity who later became Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu. The leather tappu drum, shown in the plate, is commonly used for funeral performances like this one and also to accompany the incantation of village announcements. The performance is in call-and-response format: M.G.R. (shown in front) sings a phrase, then he and the other drummers responds to the sung phrase by drumming out a pattern. M.G.R.'s words concern the greatness of the dead man and certain matters of the funeral preparations. Although a few people present refer to this group performance as oppari, most people reserve the term oppari chiefly for solo performances.

After some time, M.G.R. also performs solo. It is in these solo performances of oppari proper that he is most emotionally expressive. He sings a few phrases to a repeating incantation melody, and punctuates groups of phrases with wails and shrieks. Into these punctuating wails he incorporates expressive effects such as sobbing, breathy intakes, groans, and falsetto. As he sings, it becomes clear that he has adopted the performed persona of a grieving woman, sometimes the daughter of the deceased, sometimes the wife, sometimes the mother. At several points in the performance he actually sheds tears. M.G.R. performs with tremendous stage presence as well as skill. His performance is quite animated: he moves around, swaying with his body and lifting his arms and legs in a slow dance. He even grins at times, as shown in Plate 1

Perhaps M.G.R. takes his performance too far in the direction of showmanship. He leads his group in performing a pop folk song called "Rasathi," originally by the popular singer Pushpavanam Kuppuswamy, and one of the relatives approaches him and loudly insists that he turn his performance to the occasion at hand rather than to a love song. The relative further complains that M.G.R. and the other drummers are being too money- and career-minded. 

After some time, I become aware of wailing and sobbing coming from a group of mourners in a structure behind a white sheet. The sounds of grief become louder and louder. These wailers are the deceased man's widow, sisters and other close relatives and friends. They are mostly women, but also include a few men. They are crying in a loosely structured, more spontaneous form of oppari. They cry out about how their lives will be forever changed, and how they will have difficulty supporting themselves. They accompany their performance with arm and hand gestures of two types: 1) a performer strikes her fists against her collarbone, then extends both hands forward; or 2) a performer clasps both hands against her collarbone on the left side, then lowers the hands to her lap, then raises them to her right side, then back to her lap. Mourners do not synchronize their expressions, and the result is heterophonic incantation on a shared pitch center, punctuated by sobbing (see also Feld 1990:100-102). They lean against each other and hug each other as they perform. Gradually, the weeping grows in volume, and weepers begin to sing about the dead person and their relation to him, settling on a single incantation pitch. Their oppari continues for about thirty minutes. 

Plate 2 thumbnailPlate 2. Funeral bier prepared for transportation to the cremation site. 

Meanwhile in one of the huts some of the close male relatives of the dead man wash themselves and put on red clothing. Some of the "known men" do likewise. Other relatives decorate a bier with flowers and garlands (Plate 2). After a pause the drummers start again. The mourners process out of the huts to the accompaniment of fireworks. The corpse is placed in the bier. Mourning women walk around the cart clockwise several times, still performing oppari. The men pick up the bier and carry it to the road. The dead man's eldest son leads the way, carrying a tripod which holds a pot of burning cow dung. The women follow the procession only as far as the road. There they stop, huddle down on the road, and continue to sob and hug each other. (Henry observes similar practices in women's laments in North India [1988:102].) The mourning women remain huddled as the men, led by the dead man's eldest son, proceed with the cart up a small hill, accompanied by firecrackers and energetic drumming. The road is quickly littered with flowers and garlands that fall from the cart. 

The men carry the bier about a third of a kilometer to an immolation site on a small hill above the fields. When the cart reaches the site, the drumming and firecrackers cease. Conversation becomes pragmatic, task-oriented, and unemotional. Older men and "known men" give orders about how the body is to be situated, and so forth. The body, wrapped in a pink cloth, is placed on a pile of cow dung covered with sticks and logs. The men cover the corpse with rice hay and other flammable materials, and present coins and rice near the head of the corpse. After a few ceremonial actions, the dead man's son lights the hay with the flame he has carried. Everyone immediately leaves. The entire ritual takes no more than twelve minutes, and the immolation runs its course in the barren field without spectators. After settling the expenses on the road nearby, the male and female mourners immediately return home and bathe. 

Funeral rituals like this one seem to be slow to change in Tamil Nadu. Comparison of this Kallar man's funeral to Moffatt's account (1979:195-201) of a funeral outside Madras (now renamed Chennai) and especially to Dumont's account (1986:272-278) of a Kallar woman's burial ceremony outside Madurai (observed during his research in 1949-1950), reveals many striking similarities and only a few differences. Dumont describes a "band of Untouchables (six to eight members)" who played "lively and even tempestuous music" on drums with the purpose to "keep the mind occupied, or distract it" (p. 272). Dumont observes the same distinction between the grieving practices of male and female relatives, also noting that the women weep audibly while under the white sheet with the dead man, and do not follow the corpse to the cremation/burial site.6 Icaikurichi villagers deny that funeral rituals have changed much over recent decades, a claim that would seem to be supported by the outburst M.G.R. encountered when he tried to perform a commercially-marketed folksong. Although commercial processes and western technologies have stimulated changes in many other dimensions of village life (Greene 1999), funeral rituals seem to be especially conservative, resisting change. 

2. Oppari in Cultural Perspectives 

"Professional Weeping" | EOL 5 | email Author