Professional Weeping: Music, Affect and Hierarchy in a South Indian Folk Performance Art

Paul D Greene


This article examines oppari, a Tamil genre of weeping performed primarily by grieving women, and also by professional male musicians from Harijan caste communities in South India. Oppari is an expressive space within which women can, among other things, publicly voice personal concerns and protest unfair conditions. The article examines the calculated, poetic, and musical dimensions of  oppari performance, and illuminates the meanings and politics of  oppari through ethnographic study of the genre in Tamil villages. Properly understood, "singing"-pattu-and "crying"-aira-are overlapping categories along a continuum of expressions. The article  tabulates for comparison eight distinct features of emotionally-charged vocal production in oppari, and shows how there features are deployed musically and strategically in a performance analysis. In some ways, professional male oppari performers, who are hired to weep musically, seek to steal the thunder of women. The article seeks not only to analyze but also to critique cultural representations and enactments of women performed by men. The article therefore deconstructs the oppari of professional male performers, exposing mechanisms by which it marginalizes women and their expressions. The article also explores complex expressive double binds in which professional oppari performers find themselves as they perform.

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