Saturday, July 2, 2016

Crying and Singing

Anjali, oppari singer in Ayodhyakuppam, Chennai.
Oil on canvas, 24 x 12 inches, 2016.
For many years I have collected examples of cry singing from around the world. Known as keening in Ireland, the tradition of cry singing, as a mourning ritual at funerals, was once widespread throughout the world, and across religions. The latest addition to my collection are some recordings made in the state Tamil Nadu in India. The cry singing tradition in Chennai, formerly known as Madras, is called oppari and is still widely practiced among the fisherman caste of the Tamil population, one of only a few locations in the world where the tradition has not died out. Oppari was brought to my attention through the website Excavated Shellac. Blogger, collector, and musicologist Jonathan Ward recently excavated a disc by a certain Krishnasawmy recorded in Madras in 1916. He was amazed that a recording of oppari was actually recorded and published one hundred years ago. I'm amazed with him but I've learned throughout the years not to be too surprised by the strangeness (to our Western ears) of music put on disc a long time ago in far away places. Oppari singers are typically women, some professional mourners, but Krishnasawmy is a man. Quoting from Ward in the Excavated Shellac post of April 16: "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." The state of Tamil Nadu is also known for its annual transgender and transvestite festival, in which participants act out the ancient myth of the marriage of Lord Krishna, who takes the form of a woman, with Lord Koothandavar.

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