Wailing for a living
In the narrow lanes of Ayodhyakuppam, a settlement off Marina Beach, four aging women keep alive the legacy of oppari, an ancient tradition in Tamil Nadu to mourn the dead.
It is a genre of people’s music that doesn’t have a definitive date to indicate its antiquity.
Though originally a homespun affair with family expressing their grief in verse, it later turned professional with the need to hire oppari singers for a complete funeral.
Krishnaveni, who is well past 60, is one among the oppari singers. But when you hear her mourn in verse, you begin to wonder if this is the same person, as she sounds nothing more than 30.
Swiftly moving from one oppari song to another, her voice flawlessly touches the ascending notes with ease. Belonging to a family of singers, it probably comes naturally to her.
She says, “I have never learned singing formally from anyone.” Krishnaveni is the head singer and has trained others in her group. Having been engaged with many other women from the settlement for several decades, she is the senior-most in terms of experience.
It’s not surprising the group of women doesn’t know oppari’s historical significance. Experience and age have just made them masters of the art. And that’s all that matters to them.
Vanamayil, another resident of Ayodhyakuppam, joins the conversation with her account of her neighbours’ expertise and says, “If you hear them sing, you won’t be able to control your tears. They are really good, you know.”
Krishnaveni and her team comprising Annam, Sellamma and Anjalai charge Rs 1,500 for a funeral and sing only for male deaths.
Ask them if the money is enough, given that their income is uncertain as death, Anjalai, who is the oldest in the group, says with a stoic pause, “What to do? This is the only thing we can pull off. We are too old to engage in any other trade.”
Sellamma is quick to add, “But we never go uninvited,” preempting the next question. “Just because we are funeral mourners, that doesn’t mean we look at every death with the intention of making money,” she says.
Funeral mourners or oppari singers are mostly women and as per tradition, only widows can participate in such mourning. Anjalai adds, “Now that our husbands are no more, we are able to go to people’s houses whenever there is a death.”
The women mostly get invited to funerals in settlements across the city. Usually, it is the head or the chief of the area who comes to them with the invitation.
So, how do they cry at an unknown person’s funeral? “If it is in our area, we would know the person. And, when we grieve for a good man, tears flow automatically. It makes no difference even if it is a stranger, I can cry even now, if someone asks me to,” says Annam, immediately breaking into an oppari song, vehemently beating her breasts and slapping her forehead.
Krishnaveni says it is hard to find good singers for her team. “The ones I have roped in take a long time to learn the numbers; they are all old as well. But, somehow I manage with them. Ayodhyakuppam had so many talented singers just a decade ago. Today, it is only the four of us,” she says.