On a cobbled estate road, a group of Tamil women are seen seated on the ground in front of a photograph of late Minister Arumugam Thondaman. As mobile phone cameras capture the scene, the women start crying on cue, egged on by the men recording.
As the video is circulated on social media the incident is widely criticized. Some claimed the women were forced to lament for the late Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC) leader, others accused the Minister’s supporters of paying the women to grieve.
But in reality, the women were practising a lesser-known and dying tradition of the Tamils of both India and Sri Lanka called ‘Oppari’. An ancient form of lamenting it is often a mix of lamentation and eulogy for the dead. Performed by women Oppari seeks to not only express one’s grief but to also share the grief and sorrow of the deceased loved ones.
“Many communities use oppari as a means to express their sadness at a person’s death. The song does not follow a set pattern; rather, the lyrics are sung impromptu, mostly improvised, and speak about the life of the person who has died. Opparis are rich in wordplay relating to names and events associated with the deceased person. Colourful local idioms also decorate the lyrics. However, these days the tradition is dying out.” one description of the tradition read.
It is common to see oppari singers singing, wailing and even beating their her chests while performing the tradition. Sometimes families even hire women to perform Oppari at the funerals of their loved ones. However, misunderstanding or through ignorance of the tradition many had criticized the video on social media without understanding the cultural importance of the Tamil tradition.