Low-caste funerals in Chennai are a complex affair, and there’s a living to be made for some very specialist performers.
When she was a little girl, Krishnaveni would often take a rock, wrap it in cloth, and perform a funeral for it. She and her friends would gather in a circle, weep and wail, take the rock on a procession, and then sit together and eat a children’s version of a funeral feast.
While growing up in Ayodhyakuppam, one of the numerous beachside settlements of Chennai’s fishing community, this ceremony was Krishnaveni’s favourite childhood game, and her tears were always real. “My family would ask, ‘Why does this child cry all the time?’ They constantly had to calm me down.”
For her, this was nothing morbid. “I found it a happy game,” she laughs. “Fisherpeople are tamash-karan (joyous people). Other deaths are kept within and hidden, but in our community, laughter and festivity are important.”
Today, in her 60s, Krishnaveni is a professional mourner, a practitioner of an ancient singing tradition known as oppari, an art performed in order to express grief. She is part of the funerary rituals carried out for a man from the fishermen’s caste, although other castes are known to perform variants. Their songs date back centuries, probably further.
On any given day in Chennai, the sounds of robust drumming can be heard from blocks away. A lower-caste Tamil funeral procession is a public spectacle of pomp and pageantry, a performance that takes the city as its audience, merging into its traffic and dramatising its streets. The role of women is contained within the bereaved house, where after the procession, private rituals continue. From the threshold onwards, it is men’s work to take the corpse to its cremation, dancing in a frenetic style called dappankoothu, sticking out their tongues and thrusting their hips to the percussive beats of hand-held instruments. The corpse is openly displayed, sometimes even made to sit upright, as if on a throne, or with a black chicken tied to the palanquin if the cremation is on a Saturday, the day of Saniswaran or Saturn. But this is only the catalytic display: the performative elements of mourning go on for days after. By day, the professional female oppari singers sing and beat their chests to console the widow. By night, male musicians play a dynamic, percussion-based modern form known as marana gana. Music is a vital part of mourning.
For Chennai’s meenkarar (the Tamil term for fishermen), on the first and sixteenth days of mourning after a married fisherman in their community dies, the role of oppari-singing women is to perform laments for his widow.
“As long as a woman has a husband, she has respect in society,” says Krishnaveni, sitting under an umbrella on Marina Beach. “After he is gone, she has to lower her head as she walks. There is definitely less respect for a widow in our society.”
The most important ritual for the professional mourners takes place at the first dawn after the fisherman husband’s death, where Krishnaveni and her troupe of four dress the widow in a white sari, break her bangles and remove her nuptial chain, thus formalising her transition into widowhood. Songs are sung for each of these objects, as the widow is ceremonially stripped of them.
“We sing for the women, we sing for the widows,” says Anjalai, also in her 60s and one of Krishnaveni’s fellow oppari singers. “We put the ornaments of her life as a bride into a clay pot and give it to the pallbearer, who releases it into the sea.”
For the widow they sing: “Bedecked with flowers, ayyo, she looks like a goddess; beautified with turmeric, ayyo, she is a goddess. But how can she step outside the home dressed this way anymore? Ayyo, how sad to see her neck bare.”
Although she’s the youngest, Krishnaveni is the unspoken leader of a small band of professional mourners that perform at roughly 25 funerals a year. The women don’t have cellphones and don’t advertise their work. Messages are passed by word-of-mouth and the group will congregate as oppari singers only when the death of a local fisherman requires it. The rest of the time they live more or less conventional lives in Ayodhyakuppam, as grandmothers.
“We fetch water, clean the porch, wash clothes, do house chores, spend time playing dice,” says Krishnaveni.
“We took to oppari about five years ago. Before that, we sold fish … After the tsunami [that struck the Tamil Nadu coast in 2004], the fish trade changed and we began to make a loss selling fish. Oppari gives us a source of income.”
“It became difficult as we aged to jostle in the markets, too,” says Anjalai with a weary grimace.
Not just anyone can become an oppari singer. One must be a widow herself before she can enter the profession, and new singers join the troupe as older ones pass away.
The artform’s praxis is not formally taught, but handed down orally. It is mastered purely from memory and open to interpretation, and Krishnaveni and her troupe have heard the songs all their lives.
“Nobody taught us,” says Krishnaveni. “We tell the widow’s stories, we [convey] her sorrow so that her heart is satisfied. One must never keep grief within.”
It’s also an art that “comes from sorrow,” says Krishnaveni. And she speaks from experience. Thirty years ago, she lost her 15 year-old son to suicide, and her heartbroken husband soon followed suit. Her daughter died at 18.
Anjalai, too – she lost three children in their infancy, and one to an electric shock at the age of 25.
In one of the most visually and emotionally striking aspects of the oppari performance, the troupe moves in a circle, beating their chests in a powerfully percussive rhythm. “Ay ammaiadi (ay ammaiadi), ay appaiadi (ay appaiadi),” they chant. It is difficult, stirring, to watch – visceral in every sense. It is a potent way of bringing grief, even buried grief, to the surface.
After Krishnaveni and her troupe have completed their daytime ceremonies, the recently deceased fisherman’s body embarks on its final journey to the crematorium. Just as the oppari singers are paid to sing their morning lamentations for the widow, so are the musicians who perform gana at night. These performances are loud and festive, with male members of the community, often aided by alcohol and ganja, staying up to watch and participate in singing and rapping to the beat of handheld drums and other instruments.
Gana, a South Indian appropriation of the Hindi word for “song”, is a musical style unique to Chennai, having emerged from the city’s underbelly during the 20th century, performed only by men, mostly Dalits, and associated with liquor, ganja and gangsterism. The words are partly sung, mostly rapped, its percussive drive lending itself well to a party atmosphere. There are five strains of gana, but the one performed at funerals is marana gana, “marana” meaning death. Unlike oppari, a disquieting feminine ceremony for the widow, gana is infectious and rousing, a province of the masculine; though gana is performed for funerals of both sexes.
Marana Gana Viji, Chennai’s self-proclaimed premier marana gana musician, carries around with him a laminated book of morbid photographs of corpses, carnage and tombs; and business cards.
He says he’s performed at over 3 000 funerals and has had people become so excited by his music that they’ve offered him advances to play at their fathers’ funerals, sometimes their own. The musician has even gone as far as adopting the name of the musical style as the first part of his name. The other part, he took from an AIDS-stricken prostitute named Viji, who rescued him as an infant after being abandoned on Marina Beach, due, he believes, to his physical affliction.
“I would walk by dragging myself on the floor,” says Viji, indicating his deformed legs.
Viji cannot confirm his birth date, but he approximates himself to be in his mid-30s, and says he would have been seven or eight when, after his guardian Viji passed away, “one day I latched onto a funeral chariot that went to the Kannammapettai crematorium.”
There, he came under the tutelage of Karuppu Parayanar, who was responsible for the burning of corpses at five cremation grounds around Chennai.
“Who does the body speak to last but the vettiyaan, who oversees its burning?” asks Viji. “As he burned the bodies, he would discourse on marana siddha (esoteric death wisdoms), which became absorbed into my mind as a child.”
Viji describes the story of a PhD student who once spent a few days with him for research purposes, went home and hung himself because life lost meaning after being exposed to marana siddha, a philosophy, according to Viji, with the ultimate presumption that life is meaningless.
“I will never kill myself,” Viji says firmly. “I have seen it all and have lived to tell the tale.”
Viji is reticent to define exact dates in his past, but he says that after Karuppu Parayanar first exposed him to life on a cremation site, his musical skills were honed under Aayiram Vilakku Selva, once the pioneering gana artist heard a teenage Viji spontaneously burst into song at the funeral of a young boy. Thus began his musical patronage.
After partaking in his share of the seedier side of gana, Viji says he learnt discipline from Na Muthuswamy, the renowned founder of folk-based theatre group Koothu-ppattarai, quitting ganja and alcohol because, despite gana’s associations with such intoxicants, “art cannot be based on a vice,” he says.
Today, Marana Gana Viji claims to sleep on a stone slab in the Royapuram cremation ground, with his toothbrush in the teeth of a skull beside him. He believes in reincarnation but not in God.
“Death is my God,” he says. “That which gives me food is God, and death gives me mine … I go from town to town to sing at deaths, and when I die, who will sing for me? Life is an illusion.”
He sings: “You yourself are illusion, you yourself are the world, you yourself chose to come, you yourself chose to stay, you yourself chose to die, so who do you blame?”
He has undergone past-life regression therapy, which he says showed him how he suffered for 11 lifetimes: “Once I was stabbed in the back, once I was pushed off a cliff…” and he is firmly convinced that he was the author of an esoteric and possibly apocryphal text. “Think about it. I am illiterate, yet I am so knowledgeable. How? It must be reincarnation.”
In this lifetime, Viji has authored, by way of dictation, two memoirs and a play.
He dresses all in black, with a skull-and-crossbones pendant hanging from around his neck, a motif that’s also part of the rubber stamp he uses in lieu of a signature, and is emblazoned on his thappattai hand drum, along with his phone number, website and his name in a font of dripping blood. During conversation, he pauses frequently to gargle water from a plastic bottle and spit. It’s a gestural punctuation that emphasises the devil-may-care image he’s cultivated.
Viji claims to be the only marana gana practitioner to use the thappathai. Others use a mix of traditional and modern instruments, such as the tabla, dhol and keyboard to create their beats.
“Gana began in pre-independent India, when the only entertainment was All-India Radio,” Viji says. He tells of fishing peoples and auto-rickshaw drivers from Parry’s Corner, singing as they washed their clothes by the seashore. “North Madras had migrants from the north of India who would ask, ‘Ek gana mei’ (Give us a song). That’s how it began.”
Viji describes the caste elements of the artform, traceable to the city’s mix of migrants and day labourers who would wash their clothes in the sea. “In Tamil Nadu, only the Brahmin arts held in the hands of Saraswathi com-mand respect. The Dravidian arts do not. Gana is like jazz. It came from ganja and arrack, and was brewed in the sweat of the body.”
He says that while the Brahmins pray to a Krishna “who will not come”, he sings for the low castes like the Dalits and the fishing communities. Gana and oppari may focus on different stages of death, but they both seek, in their own ways, to alleviate suffering, and due in part to his music, Viji says, the deceased will be elevated: “In death, he is a king.”
Over the years, gana has come up from the streets and become a staple style for Tamil cinema, something of which Viji disapproves. When he performs in the Kodambakkam area, home to a high concentration of people from the cinema industry, Viji feels a certain amount of plagiarism takes place.
“All gana singers have a trademark song,” he says. “ ‘Autokaaran’ from the Rajnikanth film Bhaasha was stolen from mine” – he breaks into his version – “and ‘Naaka Mukka’ was stolen from Aayiram Vilakku Selva [Viji’s musical mentor]. There are no punishments for stealing intelligence,” he rues.
Viji reserves special vitriol for the hit song ‘Why This Kolaveri, Di?’ whose beat borrowed heavily from gana. “What an insult,” he shakes his head in scorn. “If people listen to this today and call it music, they will enjoy even worse tomorrow.”
Marana Gana Viji’s bravado is indicative of gana as something contemporary – its popularisation in cinema and pop music auger its survival – while Krishnaveni and her troupe of oppari singers embody something more ancient, more obscure, slowly being relegated to a sort of anthropological curiosity. What comes next for these two artforms is not easy to predict.
Of course young ones would rather disco dance,” laughs Krishnaveni, “maybe other traditions will fade. But not oppari.”
In a quiet moment as our conversation ends, Krishnaveni begins to hum an oppari song to herself.
“Whenever I sit down,” she says, “it [the song] comes to me, just like that.” “We entered this profession because we have no fear it will die out,” insists Anjalai. “There will always be death. So there will always be oppari.”