No One Cries for the Dead: Tamil Dirges, Rowdy Songs, and Graveyard Petitions

No One Cries for the Dead: Tamil Dirges, Rowdy Songs, and Graveyard Petitions

No One Cries for the Dead: Tamil Dirges, Rowdy Songs, and Graveyard Petitions

No One Cries for the Dead: Tamil Dirges, Rowdy Songs, and Graveyard Petitions

Synopsis

At South Indian village funerals, women cry and lament, men drink and laugh, and untouchables sing and joke to the beat of their drums. No One Cries for the Dead offers an original interpretation of these behaviors, which seem almost unrelated to the dead and to the funeral event. Isabelle Clark-Decès demonstrates that rather than mourn the dead, these Tamil funeral songs first and foremost give meaning to the caste, gender, and personal experiences of the performers.

Excerpt

I first attended a Tamil funeral in December 1990. Although it was more than a decade ago, I have vivid memories of that day. I had been in a village in the South Arcot district of Southeastern India, for a little over three months when the headman of the nearby untouchable compound walked up and down the main street making the following announcement. “Today, Monday the seventh of the month of Mārkali,” he proclaimed to the beat of his drum, “Perumal’s mother is dead. the burial will take place at four o’clock this afternoon on the village cremation ground.” Only after hearing this did I understand that the piercing wails just now beginning to rise from the neighborhood were sounds of mourning. Restless and curious, I followed the clamor to its source and saw the women of Perumal’s household, arms linked, huddled in clusters on the ground beside the dead woman lying on a cot just outside the door. Swaying and moaning, they wept, beating their breasts as they cried out in mournful songs. the mood of bottomless sorrow expressed in their “crying songs” was irresistible, and I was soon moved to tears.

The sudden arrival of the paṟaimēḷam, an all-male troupe of untouchable drummers, drew me out of my initial empathetic reaction. Drunk and apparently oblivious to the commotion the death was causing, these men positioned themselves directly across the street, ready to drum. the . . .

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