By Divya Chandrasekaran
An Oppari is a mourning song or rhythmic lament sung by women at funeral gatherings. They are often songs sung by oppressed caste women who are surviving family members. But there is also a tradition, among oppressor caste households, of hiring oppari singers to sing at their homes when a death has taken place in their families. In both cases, an oppari is paired with parai, a traditional music instrument, known as a precursor to certain kinds of drums and other percussion instruments.
Given my unique experiences and up-close insight of my own family into this tradition, I watched how the history of my family and the art of the oppari were connected.
In 2005, when I had just finished my school, my great-grandfather, who was said to be over a 100 years old, passed away. His death is what my grandmom, Jayamani would call a ‘Kalyana Saavu’ (a celebratory death). The death of an old person, who has one or many grandchildren, is to be celebrated. And here was my great-grandfather who had not only grandchildren but all of us great-grandchildren. He had two sons and two daughters. So, my grandmother and her siblings were the main mourners, whose despair became the themes the oppari songs highlighted. Opparis are sung on behalf of, and even directly to, the family members closest to the deceased. In this case, that was the position of my grandmother and her sister, both of whom had lost their father. And so they, and their mourning became the subject of the oppari that day.
I was standing next to my grandmother when the oppari began. I saw a group of ladies approaching her and heard the start of a loud collective wail. They all hugged and made a circle. My grandmother and her sister were too a part of this circle. From the side lines, I begin to hear my grandma sing something. This was my first ever encounter with an actual oppari. I was fascinated by the story that they weaved through the oppari itself.
To me, my great-grandfather had seemed like a regular old man. He liked to read and he liked to sing. Even at his age, he was able to see, hear, sing and read, albeit with some difficulty. I remember he used to recite songs and read any Tamil newspaper that he could lay his hands on. To be honest, to date, I have no clue where he learnt to read at all, he was not formally educated of that I am sure.
However, the oppari singers turned his relatively normal life into an incredible one. They wielded amazing stories about the dead old man. The songs spoke about how the children were sad about the demise of their father and how their wonderful father was a source of strength for them throughout their lives. They lamented, for example, on how he had always been just around to have a chat whenever you needed it.
The mood of the songs were deeply grief-stricken but in between songs, the women were seen talking normally with each other. They were able to switch on and off the emotional flow of spoken words and sung lyrics effortlessly. In between songs, they spoke about practical matters including who had already arrived for condolence and if all the relatives were informed of the demise. They even spoke about how their own travel there had been and when they were planning to travel back.
This was an amusing sight to me.
Over the years, I have noticed that the age, manner and circumstances of the person who passed away makes a huge difference in the way the songs are sung, emotions are involved, and in particular, the seriousness with which they sing the songs. However, it did not mean that an oppari sung at a ‘kalyana saavu’ was of less value or was any less emotional. Instead, there is a clarity to that moment. It is that in that instance of mourning they are also aware that the person who has passed has passed old and has had the fortune of a fulfilling life.
Years later, I was thinking of making an audio recording of my grandmother singing some of her oppari songs. She learnt it as she grew up, just by listening to the songs sung by others while attending mournings. Each time she started an oppari no one would know what story it will hold or what analogy will be used. There was this thought in me that I should make sure these songs would be carried forward. To add to this, this year, I saw a poster that Tamil movie director Pa. Ranjith had shared, announcing an event of his music group ‘The Casteless Collective’. In the program of events was also a special showcase of the ‘oppari’ tradition featuring professional oppari singers. I was elated because some one had had the same thought as myself and they even went a step ahead and made this into an event for musicians to perform on stage.
Another moment of inspiration for me came from Arivu, an independent musician who is also part of the Casteless Collective and who has recently released a song ‘Enjoy Enjaami’ which samples verses of oppari . The lyrics go,
நான் அஞ்சு மரம் வளர்த்தேன்
அழகான தோட்டம் வெச்சேன்
என் தொண்டை நனையலேயே
I grew five trees
I kept a beautiful garden
The garden bloomed
But my throat was not wet
- Arivu and Dhee, Enjoy Enjami, Maajja inc., 2021
This literally means that the five trees that she grew, did not fruit. Figuratively, it refers to her five children whom she gave birth and nurtured but who did not survive. Since they did not survive, the children would not be there when she would be on her deathbed. They wouldn’t be there to give her a last sip of water.
These lyrics resonated so much with me because of what I have seen my own grandmother go through. She had actually literally planted four coconut trees, one for each of her children. The second tree that she planted was for her second born son. But this tree kept getting infected and never gave fruit. I have heard her lament about the tree being infected so many times as a child. It was infected from the root, But no one was allowed to cut down that tree. Only years after my maternal uncle passed away did she allow anyone to remove that tree. These small windows into someone’s story truly inspired me to know more about oppari culture , to make sure I knew a few songs myself and to tell my grand mother’s story.
But oppari singing is also a caste-influenced occupation and the art form was developed by oppressed caste people. So unlike singing oppari to mourn for someone’s death in your own family, there is a stigma associated with performing in other’s funerals. The stigma could be because the oppressor castes feel expressing sorrow is a sign of weakness. The accompanying parai percussion instrument and the communities who traditionally perform parai are also looked down upon.
And yet, while professional oppari singers distance themselves from the dead person or the death itself, they invariably help people around to express their sorrow without restrain. Indeed, it is an art of lamenting and we claim it with pride.
In this spirit, I am sharing some of my grandmother’s and aunt’s oppari songs as a way to honor her and them.
தும்பப் பழத்தவியோ நீங்க
Thumba (Leucas aspera) fruit you were
you could have leaned on the pillar
you could have leaned on the pillar
இந்த தூணுக்கு ஆதரவு,
நீங்க பெத்த தொரையருக்கு பேராதரவு
It would have been a great support for the pillar
It would have been a great support for your sons
தூணை விட்டு கீழிறங்கி
நீங்க பெத்த தொரையருக்கு பொக்குங்குதே..அம்மா…
Got down from your pillar
Took on a fast (early) journey
The pillar is empty now
The sons you birthed are sad…(oh) mother!
கனியப் பழத்தவியொ நீங்க
Your are like the kaniya fruit
you should have just rested in the bed
you should have just rested in the bed
இந்த கட்டலுக்கு ஆதரவு நீங்க
பெத்த கணக்கருக்கு பேராதரவு
Even the bed would have felt your support
the children you birthed would have felt great support
கட்டலுட்டு கீழிறங்கி நீங்க
நீங்க பெத்த கணக்கருக்கு பொக்குங்குதே..அம்மா…
(But) You got out of the bed
taking on a tough journey
The bed looks empty now
Your children feel sad..(oh) mother!
- சிவபாக்கியம் (செவிவழி பாடல்)
Sivabakiyam (Songs passed from generation to generation)
தேரோடும் வீதியிலே நாங்க
தேரேத்தாங் காம்போமே அப்பா
நாங்க தேடிப்புடிக்காமே நாங்க
In the street which the chariot come
We would look at you like the chariot
We would search for you around
(Now) we are sorrowed
முத்து வரும் பாதையிலே அப்பா
நாங்க முத்தேப் பொறுப்போமே
நாங்க முத்தழகி வாடுறமே
பொன் மயிலே வாடுறமே
In the streets where we can find pearls (of wisdom)
We would cherish your pearls (of Wisdom)
We would cherish looking at your beautiful face
Without these pearls (of Wisdom)
Without looking at your beautiful face
We are damned and sorrowed
We are melting away like molten gold
We are lonely without you
(Like a lonely golden feathered peacock)
கோட்டை சுத்திக் கல் பொறுக்கி
அப்பா நீங்க கோபுரங்களுண்டுபண்ணி
கோபுரத்துக் குள்ளாலே நீங்க
கோட்டை விட்டு கீழிறங்கி
You took one stone at a time around the forts (worked for the landlords)
Oh my dad! you built this tower
Inside this tower that you built
Even when you were like the parked chariot
The tower lighted up
People would have come in congregation
But you got out (and) down from this tower
Left the tower and went on your journey
(Now) The tower is left dark
There will be no congregation
இந்த வளத்துந் தொரே சாஞ்சிருந்தா
வளத்து மக்கோ பொக்குங்குதே
இந்த மண்டபமு வேறிச்சுங்குதே அப்பா…
You picked one stone at a time around the palace
you created these mahals
Inside one of these mahals
if you had been like the fallen tall chariot
The mahals would be lighted up
Mahals will be filled with people
(But) You got out of this mahal
You went on a fast journey (journey too soon)
Your grown children are sad
This mahal is also empty Oh Father!
ஜெயமணி வேதநாயக்கம் (செவிவழி பாடல்) (Jeyamani Vedhanayagam, Songs passed from generation to generation)
Divya Chandrasekaran is a paediatric physiotherapist and a birth worker by education,. She identifies as a liberal feminist, Periyarist and Ambedkarite and is a Dalit-Bahujan activist. Through her work, she wishes to convey to the marginalised, that they do not owe this world anything at all.