April 17, 2016
I had no intention of returning so quickly to India, but this newly discovered disc was just too fascinating to ignore. It features a type of song that, as far as I know, was almost never recorded for commercial reasons. In the Gramophone Company’s ledgers for that day, September 21, 1916 in Madras, there is no artist, title, or catalog number listed. There’s just one phrase: “crying song.”
British engineer George Dillnut must have really been stretching his ears that day, as when the mysterious Krishnasawmy stepped up to record this piece, he’d just finished recording several songs by Cunniah Naidu on the snake charmer’s pungi, another type of music that appeared infrequently. The record label must not have known what to do with this – perhaps the Europeans who recorded this thought of these performances as something like “Indian novelty songs.” Perhaps that was one reason that this piece was not even listed as a “song” on the label, and instead was described as “talking.”
Except that while it is most certainly exaggerated, it’s not just talking at all – this incredible song is called an oppari, and it’s a traditional Tamil song that’s sung during a funeral. An oppari contains exaggerated crying and wailing between each sung line in a single breath, emphasizing the tragedy of the death, and to show that the recently deceased is truly missed as they send them off to the next life. As each line about the deceased’s virtues is sung, the singer sometimes self-flagellates, beating their chest.
Although Krishnasawmy was a man, oppari performers are usually women of the lower caste who sing for deceased men who left wives and children. However, professional wailing can apparently be performed for most deaths in Tamil society. Oppari songs can occasionally be sung in the home, as well, unrelated to a funeral. Contemporary ethnomusicologists have suggested that oppari songs can be a way for Tamil women to express their voices, concerns, and even protest. While oppari is associated with women, there have been male oppari singers, historically up to today. The male performers are usually from the Dalit (oppressed) caste. Ethnomusicologist Paul Greene stated that “Even when men perform it, oppari is a performance of women’s emotions.” He suggests that despite the long-standing tradition of men performing oppari, men’s embodiment of women’s grieving in an oppari performance steals women’s own voice, in a way.
Oppari singers are then both musicians, actors, and craftspeople. Many train for years to perfect their melodic phrasings as professional weepers, and also as performers who can push the boundaries of expression (since, one would assume, they do not often know whom they’re singing about). This expression might, to some non-Indians, border on mockery, just as the wailing on this record might be quickly mistaken for laughter. But it is not a mockery, nor is it laughter – it is yet another regional performance style which, amazingly, made it to 78.
Label: HMV (Calcutta)
Issue Number: P 4480
Coupling Number: 8-11752
Matrix Number: 4046ak
With thanks to Richard Nevins.