EOL 5: Professional Weeping (Greene)

3. Musical and Expressive Features of the Oppari Genre 

Since it is a point of contention between rural Tamils whether oppari is actually music (icai) or merely emotional outbursts, I should point out that I situate myself and this article closer to the position of professional musicians and grieving women. Taking as an analytic point of departure M.G.R.'s claim that his oppari performance grows out of musical craftsmanship, I look for evidence of artistry and deliberate patterning in oppari performances I have witnessed. My data suggest that women oppari performers are also concerned about the deliberate crafting of musical and emotional expression, in order that their expressions be more persuasive. The data marshaled in this section come mostly from recordings of four professional musicians, but analysis is also informed by my experiences of women performing at the funeral, and by many interviews with people who have witnessed or participated in oppari. 

When women perform oppari, as at the funeral, they commonly perform in groups. Incantation is heterophonic, based loosely on the same pitch range and gravitating toward a shared pitch center, but not synchronized in rhythm or words (see also Feld 1990:100-102). At the Icaikurichi funeral I notice that performers often wait for gaps when other grievers become momentarily silent before crying out a line, which supports the contention that oppari is intended to be a public voicing of personal concerns. The two types of arm and hand gestures described in a passage in Section 1 function to reinforce the rhythm of an individual griever's incantation, which is the rhythm of her words, her message. Although oppari performances are not synchronized, there is a social, interactive aspect of group oppari. As grievers perform, they increasingly lean on each other. As men carry the bier toward the Icaikurichi cremation site, the grieving women remain huddled together in the road, performing oppari together. 

Oppari performance, both professional and non-professional, consists of a series of melodically-similar, incanted phrases, each of which is performed on a single breath (see also Urban 1988:387). Phrases are punctuated by inhalations, and sometimes also by wails and drumming. Phrases end in what could be called half or full cadences...

listen and compare:
Phrase 1 ending in a half cadence
Phrase 2 ending in a full cadence)

Audio help

...although an alternative way to hear these is also suggested below). To be sure, identifying pitch centers and cadences in oppari is sometimes somewhat speculative, since pitch centers sometimes rise or fall microtonally during performance, and some opparis involve sudden shifts of pitch centers. I find that half cadences typically end on lowered scale degree 7 (ni), and full cadences on 1 (the pitch center, sa). The pitch range of incantation is typically quite narrow. In almost all of the opparis that I have studied, melodic performance is limited to four or five pitches. If C may be defined as the pitch center (sa), the most common pitch domains for incantation are: {Bb, C, D, Eb, and F}; {Bb, C, D}; and {Bb, C, D, E-natural}. Most oppari performers, even the professionals, have not received formal musical training, so performance is not directly based on the classical ragas. Cried out words usually bring to mind a spontaneous stream of consciousness (Saraswathi 1982), but the words sometimes gravitate toward patterns involving bipartite stanzas (Egnor [Trawick] 1986:299-300). Recurring periodically in oppari performance is an apostrophe, in which the singer's persona sings to the dead person, addressing him or her as "my dear," "you who I brought up," "sir," or "my dear parrot." The latter is a term of affection that M.G.R. for example, uses frequently. The following sound samples are a few typical incantation melodies performed by a professional oppari musician, recorded outside the village of Marungulam, in the Thanjavur District. These phrases, taken from near the beginning of the performance, exemplify well the melodic makeup of this oppari, since the performer repeats similar melodic material throughout: 

Audio help

phrase 1 (half cadence) 

phrase 2 (half cadence) 

phrase 3 (half cadence) 

phrase 4 (half cadence) 

phrase 5 (half cadence) 

phrase 6 (half cadence) 

phrase 7 (full cadence) 

I have suggested that the most likely way these phrases are heard by Tamils is that they start on scale degree 1 (sa) and end on lowered 7 (ni) in the case of half cadences, or end on 1 (sa) in the case of the full cadence. However, it is also possible to hear these phrases as starting not on 1 (sa), but on 6 (dha). In this hearing, phrases 1through 6 would be heard as ending on 5 (pa), and phrase 7 would end on 6 (dha). The fact that phrase 7 is followed by a non-pitched wail with sobbing, which is a section-articulating device, tends to support the first hearing (although not definitively), in which the singer arrives at the pitch center, sa (rather than 6, dha) at the end of a section. But even if the arrival at the end of phrase 7 clarifies the pitch center to the listener, it is likely that the pitch center remains ambiguous at least up until that point, and possibly afterwards as well. Many opparis likewise often involve ambiguous or unclear pitch centers. 

Sometimes the intervals of performance are inflected slightly for expressive purposes. For example, in this Marungulam performance, the musician gradually raises scale degree 4 (ma), to #4 as he performs the series of incantation phrases (or, in the alternate hearing, from 2 to #2). Listen to and compare phrase 1 to phrase 6, and both to a later phrase (click to hear), which occurs later on in the performance. By gradually augmenting the pitch range of oppari performance, the performer makes successive incantation melodies express increasing emotion, and perhaps take on a more wail-like melodic shape. 

A performer marks the end of a group of phrases with a full cadence. Some of these full cadences are punctuated by wails or shrieks. Typically, a performer arrives on and sustains scale degree 1 (sa) for a few seconds, and then performs a non-pitched wail, an icon of the sounds of crying. Such punctuating wails are both highly personalized elements of oppari performance, and a defining characteristic of the genre. The goal of wails, sobs, and shrieks, according to M.G.R. is to harness the sonic trappings of intense emotional expression. In all of my interviews, professional oppari performers described the art of crafting and performing these wails as a fundamentally musical one, rather than an emotional one. The musician's skill lies in his or her ability to observe, reproduce, and often exaggerate the sonic elements of weeping. 

I have cataloged and analyzed over 250 wails which can be heard in 22 recorded oppari performances. I identify eight distinct features that are used in the punctuating wails, which are used to varying degrees in different performances. I introduce English analytic terms, because the oppari performers do not use Tamil words in my interviews to describe these performative features (instead, they would perform each feature for me as they discuss the genre). These features are audibly distinct, and also distinct in the ways they are produced by the performing body. The following table offers an example and description of each wail feature, and tabulates the number of occurrences of the feature that I find in my data pool. It is worth noting that not every oppari performer uses every feature; some performers use only a subset of the features listed here. The performance analysis I conduct in Section 4 is based on these features. 




Respiratory Features number of instances
sobbing A chain of "cry breaks," or pulses of air pressure built up and then released behind the glottis (Urban 1988:389-390). By far the most common respiratory feature, it is heard in almost every wail.


raspy intake The performer makes the intake of air audible by voicing it. This feature is most commonly heard following sobbing and before incantation resumes, as in the sound example.


sniffling If the performer is able to produce tears, phrases can be punctuated by audible sniffling.



Vocalization Features

gritty scream A low-pitched, throaty shriek, related to what Urban calls a "creaky voice" (1988:390).


falsetto A performer can allow his or her voice to "crack" expressively between normal and falsetto vocalization, moving suddenly between the normal vocal range and pitches well above the normal range.



Pitch Inflection Features 

up-down arc In this sound example, the arc is followed by brief sobbing.


downward slide This is the most common pitch inflection.


upward slide This pitch inflection is the least common, most likely because it is not a very common or natural sonic shape for a wail. One might speculate that there is a physiological reason for this. In the provided sound example, the upward slide is combined with a shift to falsetto vocalization.


As the sonic icons of crying are drawn into stylized expressions, they sometimes suggest new interpretations. For example, Urban (1988:390) points out that sobbing loosely resembles laughing, both in the way it is produced and in the way it sounds. (In fact, such sobbing sounds can even be heard as reminiscent of the laughter of villains in Tamil films.) In addition, any of these wail features tabulated above can be exaggerated to such an extent that they become mocking variants of grief expressions. Perhaps one way out of the professional oppari musician's double bind, as described in a passage in the Introduction, is to perform wails in such a way that they remain recognizable as crying sounds, but are transformed enough to suggest ridicule, mockery, or buffoonery. 

Non-verbal performative elements, such as those described here, have been analyzed in a few South Asian folk traditions. Blackburn (1986) finds that nonverbal performance markers, such as shift in mode of speech, shift from speaking to singing voice, introductions of musical rhythms and nonverbal cries, signal ritually important moments in an unfolding narrative. Wadley (1991) finds that other nonverbal performative elements function to situate the narrative, moving the audience from one place to another by invoking elements of musical styles that might be typically heard in various social spaces. Unlike the Tamil bow song tradition analyzed by Blackburn or the epics analyzed by Wadley, I find that narrative elements are less important in oppari. Non-verbal performative elements do not highlight important shifts in the unfolding narrative, because oppari, by design, has only a weak narrative structure, and commonly does not really tell a story at all. Oppari draws its expressive power from metaphors (see also Egnor [Trawick] 1986) and, especially in the case of professional oppari, from the synergy between melodic incantation and the wails and shrieks. In the following performance analysis, I suggest that yet another expressive function of nonverbal performance elements: to musically represent an increase in emotional intensity and an increasing emphasis on the human body of the performer. Wails, shrieks, intakes, and falsetto expressions are deployed in such a way that they suggest increasing emotional intensity. Climactic buildups seem to be a characteristic of professional men's oppari and not of women's oppari, a point also taken up in the following sections. 

4. A Performance Analysis

"Professional Weeping" | EOL 5 | email Author