EOL 5: Professional Weeping (Greene)
Not all professional oppari performances I recorded employ the same performative strategies as those found in the preceding section. Of the recordings I have made, only slightly more than half seem to use the technique of compression, or some variation of it. Other opparis are organized into subsections, each of which involves a process of compression. Many opparis build up performative energy to multiple climactic moments. But in all these performances can be found ample evidence of deliberate planning and musical craftsmanship, if one is willing to listen for it. Crafted structure is a way of marking a performance as musical rather than spontaneous, since it seems that unstructured performances are often dismissed by Tamils as embodying spontaneous emotion.
Although I have not been able to conduct the same kind of musical examination of women's oppari (for reasons mentioned in a passage in the Introduction), I can make a few observations. The fact that several women performing oppari begin to share a single pitch center, and that they sometimes time their incanted lines to fit into gaps that emerge between lines sung by other women, suggest that women, too, are crafting their expressions musically in order to allow them to most effectively express their concerns, and to draw the listener momentarily into their worlds. For women, deliberate musical crafting of oppari expressions allows the performer to voice personal concerns, and even protest unfair conditions.
Although sometimes marginalized as evidencing "weakness," a Tamil woman's oppari can function as a means by which she can exercise considerable power. This is the reason that attempts are made to marginalize her, through discourses of her "weakness" and through professional stand-ins. Moreover, comparison of my field data with those of Dumont (1986) from fifty years ago suggests that this competitive dynamic between professional male musicians (at least drummers) and weeping women has been a feature of Tamil Kallar funerals for decades. It is possible that women's voices may gain some ground as women gain control over more domains of cultural life, a process which has been happening for some time in Tamil cities and which seems to be slowly happening in Icaikurichi.
Although a widow is considered inauspicious in many ways (Reynolds 1980:36), and avoided in everyday social life, my data suggest that her presence is actually very important at a funeral (see also Evison 1989). I suggest that this reflects more than the mere fact that the death of a husband invariably results in the presence of a widow. A funeral is an exceptional opportunity for many Tamil women, especially Kallars, to express themselves, precisely because of the condition of widowhood. Furthermore, inasmuch as the professional musician is a competition, distraction, or substitution for a grieving widow, his presence and spectacular performance also actually attest to the cultural importance of widowhood, and of women's oppari. At some level, his performance is based on the sounds, words, and persona of a grieving widow, and although he may mock this persona, he is not permitted to deviate too far from his charge of performing it.
The striking cry-like iconicity of the oppari professional's wail features tabulated in a part of Section 3 reflect the importance of the widow's grieving persona, while at the same time the crafted patterning analyzed in Section 4 reflects his efforts to draw attention away from her, and to distance himself from her, as a professional musician. Furthermore, the importance of the widow extends beyond funerals: women singing oppari at home willingly perform the persona of a widow, even if they have not in fact been widowed. In research on South Asian folk culture, widows are most commonly modeled as inauspicious people one should simply avoid.
But it seems that many of the powers ascribed to Tamil women (see Wadley 1980) seem to accrue to widows as well, which means that, in addition to being shunned, in some contexts they are to be honored, given gifts, and given a public forum, albeit contested, of self-expression. Tamil widowhood is understudied, and more research should be done in the few cultural contexts, like funerals, in which widows and representations of widows are important: even, almost, central.11