The dying art of professional mourning

In parts of India, the services of a trained mourner are called upon at funerals to create an atmosphere of grief and bereavement. One such mourner was invited to Switzerland as part of an artistic performance. 

Jayalakshmi Gopalan is an Oppari performer, a dying southern Indian tradition of singing at other people’s funerals. She has been invited to Switzerland to perform at the Belluard Bollwerk International festival in Fribourg where she shared her talent with

Gopalan comes from a family of astrologers who are not comfortable with her singing at funerals, as it is something usually associated with lower castes. 

She has to learn as much as she can about the deceased from their relatives to personalise the songs and generate strong emotions among the mourners. 

To ensure an authentic performance, Gopalan remembers the deaths of her own family members to bring herself to the same emotional state as the bereaved. 

Oppari performances used to be preceded by the beating of the drum, or “parai”, by the low caste members of the Paraiyar community. It’s where the English word “pariah” comes from. Beating the parai to announce a death is also a disappearing custom, due to its negative connotations with caste hierarchy.

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