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.