EOL 5: Professional Weeping (Greene) 


Tamil oppari, or oppaari,1 is a distinctively South Indian genre of weeping songs performed primarily by grieving women, or by professional male musicians mostly from Harijan2 caste communities. Oppari is most commonly identified as the grieving song of a widow at the funeral of her husband. The genre is also performed in other cultural contexts and has adopted other cultural meanings and functions. Women also perform oppari at home, lamenting a wide range of problems and even injustices, and their laments carry beyond the home's open-air structures to be overheard by others. Indeed, Blackburn and Ramanujan (1986:17-18) argue that much of Indian folklore, and Tamil weeping songs in particular, are designed to be overheard (see also Urban 1988:392). Oppari performances constitute an undercurrent, a secondary code of emotional and substantive expressions which are marginalized in the contexts in which they are heard. For example, although the expressions of women's grievances (and even protests) through oppari are impossible to completely ignore at a funeral, the stated purpose of the rite is to send the soul off to the next life. Women's emotional expressions are considered peripheral to this "official" function, at least according to several men I interviewed after a funeral. Nevertheless, oppari is an important expressive opportunity for many rural Tamil women. 

Although Harijan women participate frequently in public activities and can voice their concerns in work songs (Greene 1995:240-246), women of many other caste communities, such as the landowning Kallar caste, live lives restricted to domestic, private cultural spheres, and have few opportunities for public self-expression. Through oppari they can publicly voice personal concerns, and even protest unfair conditions and injustices. Successful oppari performances by women can, and often do, function not only as cathartic release but also as effective vehicles of social protests and special appeals for sympathy, reaching the ears of many people in a village or neighborhood, including those of higher castes. At a funeral, an oppari performer can even make claims to the possessions of the deceased. 

This exceptional space that many women find to voice their personal concerns is encroached upon by professional male performers. At most rural Tamil funerals, six to eight professional drummers are hired. As Dumont observes in his account of a Tamil funeral, one of the stated purposes of the drum music is to "distract" the participants with "lively and even tempestuous" sounds (1986:272). In many cases, male singers (who may or may not also be drummers) are hired to perform the persona of a grieving women, or several grieving women, and possibly other personae as well. Likewise, as a distraction, this professional oppari sometimes becomes somewhat spectacular, involving dramatic buildups of emotional expression, and even dancing, mockery, and buffoonery. This is not to say that the professional oppari performer's role is in some way "inauthentic": like women's oppari, professional men's oppari has a long-standing tradition behind it. But I argue here that professional oppari functions as a countermeasure to women's oppari, stealing their thunder.  

Although patrons of professional oppari merely say that the performances are hired out of respect to long-standing traditions, I find that professional opparis serve an unstated, traditional function of competing with and standing in for real women's expressions, partially eclipsing the expressive goals of the grieving women who are present. Moreover, professional opparis typically lack the suggestions of blame or claims to possessions that may be heard in women's oppari. Perhaps this is in part due to the fact that it is the male relatives of the deceased who hire the musician, not the female ones. But in order to be an effective stand-in, a professional man's oppari must embody the essential trappings of emotional, musical, and poetic expressions of grieving women. In some ways, then, it is important that he become a grieving woman in his performance. 

One can examine the cultural contexts, meanings, and politics of professional men's oppari in Tamil folk culture; enumerate the musical and poetic features of the little-documented oppari genre; and undertake a careful analysis of an oppari performance by a professional musician. Successful oppari performances are rich in metaphors, constructed of elaborate, impromptu poetry, and calculated in sonic design, and they function as effective vehicles to move the listener and to appeal for sympathy. The performative design of opparis involves wails, shrieks, sobs, and breathy intakes: sound elements (included as sound samples and analyzed in a part of Section 3) which musicologists and ethnomusicologists have only recently begun to analyze as music, and which are crafted, deployed, and developed in performance quite deliberately, in ways that I find warrant musical analysis. 

In order to understand professional oppari performers and their calculated expressive designs, I argue it is necessary to understand a double bind in which the musicians find themselves, and, by extension, the men who hire them as well. On the one hand, a professional musician is charged with performing in a way that sounds like the intense, personal, spontaneous emotional expressions of a woman grieving over death. This official role in an important public ritual is a source of income as well as some cultural pride (see Moffatt 1979:201). On the other hand, death and widowhood are often considered highly dangerous (Wadley 1980:155), and widowhood in particular is commonly called "the most inauspicious of inauspicious things" (Reynolds 1980:36). In addition, spontaneous, personal, intense emotional expressions, although highly valued in certain contexts of Hindu devotion, are more commonly considered "solitary emotions" (Brenneis 1990:119-121), and their public expression is characteristic of "weak" people (Greene 1995:79-85, 98-106).  

The prestige of the performer is caught in a double bind between these contradictory expectations. He therefore seeks to distance himself from widowhood, death, and the appearance of emotional spontaneity by performing in ways that are controlled, deliberate, patterned, and "musical"--therefore reputable. The male relatives who hired the musician are also caught in this double bind, since they are responsible for his role at the funeral. They love and honor their deceased relative, but find the corpse frightening and disgusting (Evison 1989). Although non-professional women oppari performers are caught in a somewhat different double bind, they, too seek to perform in controlled, calculated, "musical" ways. This article does not dismiss oppari as merely the emotional outbursts of unimportant people, but engages it as a kind of socially functional music, a genre of deliberately crafted expressions, regardless of the performer's personal emotional state, whether performed by women or men. 

The musical genre of oppari remains understudied, although death has been an important topic in ethnographic research on South India for several decades, and the body of literature on the region's music can no longer be said to be small. One reason may be that oppari analysis involves attention to sonic features such as wails, breathy intakes, and sobs: sounds which might be dismissed as non-musical, especially from pitch-based perspectives common in western musical analysis traditions. Moreover, as suggested above, there are Tamils who dismiss oppari as emotional outburst, not music. But such assertions, as Raheja and Gold (1994) would warn us, can be a means of marginalizing voices in a society, in this case the voices of women and low-caste men. It is inherently difficult, but very important, to "listen to the voices" of those who are marginalized. In general, this may be one reason that there is a much larger body of research on the Tamil high arts, and research on folk expressions, especially of women and lower caste communities, is slower to emerge. Moreover, recent research on Tamil folk culture and folk music, organized both at Indian universities and those abroad, has only begun to address oppari. 

Studying and Writing about Ritual Wailing 
In many human societies, a distinction is drawn between activities which can be called "singing" and those which can be called "crying" (Feld 1990:129; Graham 1986; Henry 1988:102; Urban 1988:393-394; Wolf 1997:364), although the distinction often breaks down in specific instances. "Singing" (pattu in Tamil) refers to a culturally learned practice, involving poetic features and stylistic conventions, that is often conducted in social settings. Urban (1988) suggests that patterned regularities, alliteration, and adherence to expressive conventions in Amerindian ritual wailing indicate a "desire for sociability": a latent or actual intent to use song as a vehicle of social interaction. In contrast, "crying" (ayira in Tamil) refers to a spontaneous, personal, emotional response. It is evidenced not by adherence to culture-specific stylistic conventions, but rather by certain respiratory and vocal features which may be universal human physiological responses to intense emotions, as well as to the related conditions of pain, injury, and body weakness (Urban 1988). But, properly understood, the two activities of "singing" and "crying" overlap and are parts of a continuum of expressions. Many instances of ritual wailing therefore seem to involve both social and personal/physiological aspects, and oppari spans a substantial portion of the singing-crying continuum. 

In several ways, Tamil oppari performances parallel Kaluli grieving practices, as studied by Steven Feld. As women weep, it is common for their weeping (in Kaluli: sa-yelab) to be gradually elaborated into controlled, patterned, melodic phrases with increasing consistency and redundancy, and become wept song (Feld 1990:128). But while professional male oppari performers may, like Kaluli men who perform stylized weeping songs (gisalos), affect the emotions of their audience, an important part of the Tamil professional's performance is to bring himself to tears. Whereas gisalo is designed to move audiences to emotions of grief and to experience death, loss, and abandonment, a professional oppari performance operates in an almost inverse fashion: it is a stand-in, distraction, or buffer between grieving relatives and the emotions caused by death and loss. To some extent, the professional weeps in place of the grieving relatives. Accordingly, elements of singing and crying, of stylized music and personal/physiological responses, are interrelated in different ways. This is taken up in a performance analysis in Section 4

In the ethnographic literature on ritual wailing traditions, an understudied topic is the ways that discourse about ritual wailing affects its social efficacy. As mentioned above, the Tamil professional oppari performer is in a double bind between the expectation that he produce the sounds of a widow weeping spontaneously (crying) and the need to distance himself from this persona through stylized, crafted expression (singing). Whether his expression is to be classified as singing or crying is an issue for each person within earshot, who may choose to either ascribe him status as a musical professional or dismiss him as emotional, out of control. In addition, one way in which women's opparis--and the protests and demands embedded in them--are marginalized by men is that they are not given the status of music, but instead dismissed as emotional outbursts. I do not seek to determine whether or not specific opparis embody "real" or "spontaneous" inner emotions.  

The question of spontaneity is especially difficult to answer, especially since opparis often include phrases from opparis performed earlier, or even printed sources. Instead, I examine what those present say about emotional expressions. I follow Abu-Lughod and Lutz, who suggest that the most productive approach in the anthropology of emotions is to analyze the social "discourses on emotion and emotional discourses as social practices" (1990:1). Accordingly, I study how discourses about emotions may shape the social efficacy of emotional expressions, and place oppari performers and patrons in various double binds. 

As a male writer engaging an expressive genre that is primarily by and about women, I follow the lead of feminist writers like van Oostrum (1995): I seek to not only analyze but also critique cultural representations and enactments of women performed by men. One of my goals is to deconstruct professional oppari, to expose the mechanisms by which it marginalizes women and their expressions. Accordingly, Section 4 exposes some of these mechanisms in a careful analysis of a professional oppari performance. I find that one way a professional oppari can marginalize women is by functioning as a spectacular but socially inert stand-in for the socially charged expressions of women. A professional musician can enact the sound patterns and emotional expressions of women but leave their personal concerns and protests unvoiced. In some cases, men's opparis go one step further, by ridiculing women and their expressions, a point taken up in a passage in Section 3. For example, in carefully crafted oppari, a stylized wail can be subtly crafted to sound a bit like laughter, and listeners can experience in the wail a double-entendre. In other instances, the "sonic icons of crying" (Tolbert 1994:180; Urban 1988:389) can be so exaggerated as to become comical. Certain instances of audience responses faintly audible in the background of some of my sound samples in Section 4 suggest that such ridicule is sometimes successful.  

My critical analysis is intended not only to illuminate professional men's oppari, itself an important expressive tradition, but also to clarify the nature of women's struggle for self-expression. In the existing literature, ritual wailing is primarily modeled as an expression of personal concerns designed to be overheard. But my data suggest that many Tamil women find that being overheard is a difficult struggle, for they are competing with many other boisterous voices clamoring for attention in the same setting. This competitive aspect of ritual wailing is understudied, and is not even mentioned in most ethnographic accounts. By analyzing and critiquing men's oppari, I hope to open up research so we can better understand both men's and women's ritual wailing practices. 

In 1993 and 1994, I conducted field research in villages of the Thanjavur District3 of Tamil Nadu, South India. Most of my field research was focused on the village of Icaikurichi.4 One of the reasons I focus on professional male performances is that, as a male ethnographer in rural South India, I decided that it was not appropriate for me to record the intimate emotional expressions of women (provided I would even have been allowed to do so). Even female researchers in Tamil Nadu have found it difficult to record women's oppari in context, and ended up recording crying songs5 that were performed for the purpose of being recorded by an ethnographer (Egnor [Trawick] 1986:303). However, I was able to hear (but not record) women's oppari at a funeral I attended.  Section 1 is an ethnographic account of an Icaikurichi funeral in which grieving women and professional musicians perform oppari. Section 2 then examines the cultural meanings and functions of oppari. Section 3 outlines the features of oppari as a musical genre, informed by interviews with four professional musicians, mostly from the Thanjavur district. Section 4 is a performance analysis of a professional oppari, showing how characteristic musical elements are deployed as a professional musician struggles with the double bind of professionalizing funerary weeping. 

1. A Funeral

"Professional Weeping" | EOL 5 | email Author