Professional Mourners in Ceylon and Southern India

Michael Roberts

 My interest in the topic of disappearances in Sri Lanka over the past decade and the allegations presented by one “Floyyd” in his comments on my central frontispiece named ”Sinhala Mind-Set” on the 25th November 2013 led me to supplement my posts and inquiries on that topic with a serious question I sent to several friends and personnel on  the 9th December 2016 and the week that followed.  Only a few responded to my inquiry in the course of that month. It is of some significance that most of those whose information is presented below are of the older generation and, like me, in the age-bracket seventies. For that reason they are calling upon their younger days in supplying ethnographic information that is of considerable value. For this reason I refer to “Ceylon” in my title because the data seems to refer to practices before the name change in 1972. However, this does not mean that the practitioners of mourning and the capacities for lamentation on cue have been totally buried.

oppari-22  Women in oppari lamentation in southern India — cf Balachandran’s note below oppariFrom https://www.flickr.com/photos/wellbredkannanclicks/14228110375

In my reading the few answers I received add up to a field of gems. As I am returning to the topic of the MISSING and taking up another topic, namely, the empowering force of anguish, it is an appropriate moment  for me to place this ethnographic corpus in the public realm.

Inquiry from Roberts sent on 9 December 2016 et seq:

I believe that in the past in the Negombo area there used to be professional mourners hired to wail at FUNERALS.

  1. Can you provide me with information on this point? ….. and indicate whether the practice occurs even today or in relatively recent times?
  2. … and whether such personnel and practices also could be found ON OCCASIONS in say (a) the Moratuwa area … (b) Puttalam area …. (c) Jaffna Peninsula … (d) Eastern Province ?

Michael

ANSWERS

Gerald Peiris,[1] dated 11 December 2016: At the death of my grandfather in 1943 (I was 5 at that time) there were hired mourners – four women from Negombo – whose job was to wail loudly (sobbing and shouting out various good things about the old man), synchronised with the arrival of fresh visitors to the funeral. This was in the village of Dunagaha, 10 miles to the interior of Negombo, along the Negombo-Mirigama road. I also remember (my memory has all along been quite good!) that the corpse was kept for three days before being taken to the church and then to the cemetery for burial in the course of which we had quite an enjoyable time. This type of mourning was evidently the usual practice at that time among those who could afford – even Buddhists – but probably not at the ‘westernised elite levels.

Needless to say, there was no such thing at weddings, and I haven’t seen this in any of the funerals in the area in the more recent past (i.e. since 1961 when my grandmother died). Beyond that – regarding the other areas you mention – I really don’t know.

Regards, Gerry

Rajiva Wijsesinha,[2] dated 12 December 2016: No idea of the wider provenance but there is a fascinating story by Alagu Subramaniam called professional mourners, which i am republishing this month, about Jaffna.

Ranjan Abaysekara,[3] dated ? December 2016: Hi Michael, ….  It was an annual feature in the ‘Big Match’ that some of the trucks of older school boys, would hire a band to accompany them on their two days of merry-making. Usually a drum, trumpet and a saxophone. The bands would be sourced from Jaela area usually. They would come in their usual black kit, and seemed to be quite happy performing from morn to night, mainly on a ‘liquid diet’ supplemented with eats and a buth packet. I guess these bands were part of the professional mourner group. Someone based in SL will be able to confirm for you about current practices. …..You may have seen the links below, …… Ranjan

KNO Dharmadasa,[4] 1 January 2017: Dear Michael, … This is an interesting area of study. When we were young our elders referred to Mrrgamuve Gaenu who were professional mourners who came on payment and did the job of loudly mourning the death. Unfortunately I have no info. about the questions you ask. The best bet is to contact newspapermen in the Negombo area and try….. Best, KNO

Ismeth Raheem,[5] mid-December:  “In my short life- running to 75 – I have come across these wailing , weeping mob of women. They were common in Jaffna and were of a special caste.

Strangely I am reading a book on Davinci’s Last Supper. Ross King the author says that this sort of  public show of  mourning -beating the chest and rolling on the floor was so prevalent i Milan and Florence in the 14-15th century- the Pope and the Medicis had to step in and prohibit by law and fine and jail such extrovert show.”

Jayantha Somsaundaram,[6] mid-December 2016: “Michael, I am not familiar with these practices with respect to Negombo or the Eastern Province.

However I can vouch for them being present in Jaffna around 1960. As a boy I was taken from Colombo to attend my great grandmother’s funeral in Jaffna. I can remember a couple of women coming up to my great aunt (Mrs C. Coomaraswamy) who was one of the chief mourners. They were beating their chests and wailing and succeeded in getting my great aunt to burst into tears again.

In all probability they belonged to a particular caste, which provided this service, because I also do remember after the post-funeral dinner that night, servings of the food were provided to the barber and laundrymen, who happened to be there, to take back home with them.

Even in Colombo, the Hindu community employed the services of a barber who officiated at funerals. My guess is that the man whom I remember from the seventies, and last saw in a BBC clip officiating at Neelan Tiruchelvam’s funeral, now made his living by officiating at funerals rather than cutting hair.

This was partly because no Brahmin priest will go near a funeral or a corpse. So a Vellala ‘priest’ would perform the Hindu religious ceremony at the funeral house. Once the body left the home of the deceased, the barber would become the master of ceremonies and conduct proceedings both at the cemetery around the wood pyre, and the next day when the ashes would be collected and taken to ‘waters meet’ at Mutuwal where the Kelani met the sea, to be scattered.

I am not sure how much of these traditions and rituals continue to be practiced.

Regards, Jayantha

Noel Nadesan,[7] dated 12 December 2016: We had that habit in early days in my Home island when I was growing up in late 50s or early 60s  . mainly involving lower caste women …..  but they are not paid immediately but paid in kind later…. Noel”

Thiru Arumugam,[8] dated 26 December 2016 and addendum on 29 December 2016: Michael, I don’t know about Negombo or East Coast but in Jaffna about fifty years ago I remember professional women mourners hired at my grandmothers funeral. They wailed loudly in a group. When a special person or close relative arrived they were tipped off and they would wail even louder! … Regards Thiru

I understand that Koviyar women would be the professional mourners inside the house as they are allowed to enter the houses of the so-called higher castes. In the funeral procession to the cremation grounds Pallar and Nallavar men mourners will take over. Women are not supposed to go to the cremation.…………………..Regards, Thiru

PK Balachandran,[9] dated 23 December 2016: Professional mourners are part of Tamil culture in India. Many of the communities in the Negombo and Chilaw areas (even if they are Sinhalese speaking) are from the Tuticorin coast (for example the Warnakulasooriyas) and have Tamil practices.[10]  In Tamil Nadu the professional mourners sing what is called the “Oppaari” which are sad songs sung in a plaintive tone.

Wailing and breast beating are insisted upon and expected from family, kin and friends in Tamil Nadu and to some extent in Kerala also. There are chances of breast beating and wailing in the Eastern province among the Batticaloa Tamils as they are mostly of Kerala origin, though over time they have identified themselves as “Tamils”.

Wailing is not done in Brahmin families as death is a very solemn affair as is the case among the Muslims…… Bala”

A Fresh Ethnographic Note from Col. R. Hariharan, 5 May 2017:  “As a kid in the 50s I have seen them engaged by people who had a death in their family in our small town in Northern Tamil Nadu. In those days they were paid 4 Anna’s, paid ritually, with a couple of raw bananas. Of course they were fed.  They usually stood outside the house where the body was laid for public mourning. As soon as they see a relative coming, the drummers would give them the cue with vigorous beats of the drums then the dirge would flow rhythmically accompanied by the drums. They belonged to lower castes just like drummers.

I remember seeing small booklets of oppari songs written by itinerant local poets sold in bookshops. Each booklet had specialised songs for death in accidents, rich men, young women etc. When I wanted to buy one the shop keeper gave me a nasty look and told me it wasn’t meant for me.m Later I came across a doctoral thesis on art of oppari in Madurai District published as a book. It’s featured in Tamil movies too. One of the well known kuthu pattu singers featured in movies now started as oppari artiste. He says he does it extempore after he learns of the dead person.

***  *** 

ELABORATION about OPPARI  LAMENTATION in SOUTHERN INDIA, where it is also a performative art-form on stage and TV

Dipanita Nath: “If you have tears, prepare to shed them now,” Indian Express, 31 July 2016, http://indianexpress.com/article/lifestyle/art-and-culture/if-you-have-tears-prepare-to-shed-them-now/

Wikipedia: “Oppari,” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oppari

Greene: “Oppari in Cultural Perspective,” http://www.umbc.edu/eol/5/greene/Greene_2.htm

https://www.google.com.au/search?q=OPPARI+in+southern+India+photos&rlz=1C1NHXL_enAU727AU727&espv=2&biw=961&bih=446&tbm=isch&tbo=u&source=univ&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiG4_77h7jSAhXklVQKHYHFBx4QsAQIHw&dpr=1.75

funeral-singerRediff News: This funeral singer will leave you in Tears,”  5 February 2015,  Fhttp://www.rediff.com/news/report/this-funeral-singer-will-leave-you-in-tears/20150205.htm

oppari-in-nath

ENDNOTES

[1] Peiris was one year my senior at Ramanathan Hall. Peradeniya and is a retd Professor Emeritus, Peradeniya University. He lives in Kandy.

[2] Rajiva Wijesinha is the son of Sam Wijesinha and has had an illustrious career, including spell at the head of the Peace Secretariat in trying times. He lives in Colombo.

[3] Ranjan Abaysekara works in Whyalla Australia and is the son the ecumenical Anne Abaysekara of Colombo.

[4] KNO Dharamadasa was one of my batch-mates at Peradeniya University and became Professor of Sinhala in due course He lives now in Peradeniya and Colombo.

[5] Raheem was nourished in Jaffna and has lived in Colombo for quite a while, where he sustains a thriving architectural practice and has participated in many literary enterprises (including one in collaboration with Percy Colin-Thome and Roberts).

[6] Somasundaram lives now in Canberra and can be regarded as an earnest seeker of truth and an avid reader in matters Sri Lankan.

[7] Nadesan is an “Island Tamil” and fled from the north to India during the war years and established himself as a vet-surgeon in Melbourne; while helping to run the journal Uthayam for quite a while. As a moderate Tamil prepared to work with the SL government, he has earned the animus of Tiger activists.

[8] Arumugam is an engineer  with literary interests and accomplishments, who lives now in Sydney and serves as President of the ecumenical Ceylon Society of Australia. Several of his essays have appeared recently in Thuppahi.

[9] Balachandran is a native of Tamilnadu who has served as correspondent in Sri Lanka for leading Indian newspapers for ages. I have always found him to be methodical in his endeavours and highly conscientious in whatever he does.

[10] Balachandran is pointing to the immigration of Tamil-speaking people, inclusive of those known today as Bharatha, from the Coromandel and southern Indian coastal areas from way back in the 15th and 16th centuries and even in Dutch times. These migrants were found in the coastal areas from Mutwal to Puttalam and especially around Negombo. Many were Sinhalacized over time. More information could be gained from chatting to Jock Stirrat or M Tanaka … while snippets of information could be gleaned from their books: viz, RL Stirrat, On the Beach. Fishermen, Fisheries, and Fishtraders in Postcolonial Sri Lanka, Delhi, Hindustan Pub. Corporation, 1988 and Masakazu Tanaka, Patrons, Devotees and Goddesses, Kyoto University, 1991.

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7 responses to “Professional Mourners in Ceylon and Southern India

  1. WALTER

    I AM 86 FROM COLOMBO KOCHIKADE AND KOTAHENA.
    I REMEMBER NEARLY 75 YEARS AGO, I USED TO ACCOMPANY MY MOTHER TO FUNERAL HOUSES OF RELATIVES.
    DEFINITELY WOMEN UNKNOWN TO OUR FAMILY APPEARED AT THESE FUNERAL HOUSES AND WEEP AND WAILED, HOWLING.
    THEY MAY HAVE BEEN COMPENSATED.
    THIS WAS A COMMON PRACTICE IN THE YESTER YEARS.

  2. Hello Micheal,
    I have had one experience of two professional mourners during a funeral visit in Munnakkara, Negombo during my time at St. Mary’s church, Grand Street in February 1983. It was about late afternoon, the actual burial was due on the following day. The deceased was a woman, laid in the living room of the home. Not many people were present and the place was quiet. Did not expect a priest to visit, also I had blessed two new boats scheduled to fish that night and as I was in the area wanted to visit the funeral home. Two women near the body began howling and wailing as if they had seen a ghost entering through the main door. They began the wailing narrative, “Ane maria nono, yako Swamith avilla balapanko tikak” (hey madam Maria, to hell, the priest has come, have a look) invoking the deceased to pay attention as the priest has come to visit her.
    I could not believe my eyes, the two women continued to wail, I even forgot my prayers, about 30 other people came as the wailing accelerated. Later I found that the people had gathered to hear whether there was anything new in the ‘wailing narrative’ which they have not heard before. The young men and women were watching in rapture while older women with true emotions connected with the mourning patterns not the ‘wailing narrative’. When I left the coffin and the home, the wailing had subsided, minutes later the two women who were wailing were having a mighty laughter on something that had ‘miswailed’ about which someone had commented. I am not sure whether the two women were hired, and I believe that there is some residue of this tradition that prevail in certain parts of Negombo, especially among the Kurukulasooriyas, Mihindukulasooriyas and the Warnalukasooriya clans which might have been aped by others on the coastal belt all the way up to Chilaw. I hope this area of funeral rite and rituals could inspire someone to investigate further into other customs, habits and behaviour in this region. Surely a colourful anthropological study could be carried out.
    Thanks Micheal for invoking this discussion.

    Dr. Shanthikumar Hettairachchi

  3. Kenneth Reeves from Canada has sent this Note via Victor Melder: “Dear Victor, this might have been intoduced by the Portugese, as such customs were practised in early Greece, Rome and other parts of Europe. In Sri Lanka, Negombo and some coastal villages had professional mourners and funereal bands. Some carried the family name,( Or Wasagama as it’s called) as, “Adannagedera” meaning, ‘House of cryers.
    Sincerely,
    Kenneth.

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