Having closely studied the different forms of music in Tamil Nadu for the past 34 years, Madurai-based couple Navaneethakrishnan and Vijayalakshmi Navaneethakrishnan are a treasure trove of information. Among the many genres of music that have their roots in Tamil Nadu is oppari, a genre of music that celebrates death.
Exploring the different versions of oppari songs that are as diverse as the many regions in Tamil Nadu, Navaneethakrishnan and Vijayalakshmii say opparis have been documented in several ancient texts of Tamil literature like poetry from the Sangam era, Sillappatikaram and even Kamba Ramayanam.
Shedding light on the historical references in opparis, Vijayalakshmi, a singer and writer, says, “The great poet Avvaiyar had sung oppari after the death of Athiyaman. But Tamil literary experts who documented her works didn’t know that. I found this out during my research, since the pauses mentioned in the texts were unique, unlike other works during the era.”
She goes on to say that oppari songs in diverse accents and structures can be heard within Tamil Nadu itself.
“The tribals living in the mountains or the malavalmakkal have a different way of rendering the oppari. The same applies to many districts in the State that have unique elements visible in songs,” she says.
The exchange between the many literary works from across the country can be seen in the State’s oppari songs.
“There is enough proof of such exchanges in the songs sung by Rathi, in memory of Manmatha. It sounds very similar to Lavani that is native to Maharashtra,” she adds.
Highlighting the many elements in oppari, Vijayalakshmi says that in certain instances, one can find a tinge of humour in opparis. “Since it is sung by women, there are some traits that are stereotypical of women that can be seen in them. Contrasting lines that indicate vanity and gossip, add a lighter tone to the sad mood. While mourning, no one’s actually paying attention to the lyrics,” she says.
She emphasises on the importance of oppari, as it offers an outlet for one of the most profound emotions of a human being — sorrow.
“Oppari’s history shows how people were aware of the importance of pouring out grief. And, maybe that’s why women have been the face of the oppari culture. We believe in expressing sorrow, while men hide it. As long as humans exist, opparis will continue to be an important part of people’s music,” she says.