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Theatre of grief

Poorna Swami | Updated on March 29, 2019

The Passion play: Processions depicting the suffering and death of Christ are a big tourist draw in Spain during the Holy Week preceding Easter Sunday   -  REUTERS/ ELOY ALONSO

Performative mourning is an integral part of several societies around the world, as a means to not only commemorate the departed but also stoke feelings of community and oneness

My great-grandmother had been dead for over 50 years but they were still weeping for her. Gathered in my aunt’s living room one winter afternoon in Delhi, women cried softly as they swayed. Men bowed their heads, looking purposefully solemn. Only a handful of the people there had met my great-grandmother and, yet, they were grieving her. The weeping began when a distant relative sang a beautiful song. Voice quivering, she echoed Zainab’s fear when she returned to an empty home after her loved ones had been killed in the Battle of Karbala. There was no likeness in the stories of my great-grandmother and Zainab, a figure from Islamic history of centuries past. And still, their sorrows and ours were connected.

Many Shia homes in India routinely organise a majlis — a gathering to commemorate the martyrdom of Prophet Muhammad’s grandson Ḥussain ibn Ali in the Battle of Karbala. A majlis could take place after a person dies, on their death anniversary or, most commonly, during Muharram, the month of ritual mourning. With its stirring poetry and melancholic tune, the recitation incites the gathering to mourn their ancestors and others they have known.

For in mourning, people come together.

Just as the women of my family wept for a relative and a historical figure they had never met, humans around the world have given expression to their sorrow in ways that can be described as performative — whether private, or scripted into a fully staged spectacle, or communal in a public place.

Although performative mourning traditions are dying out in many regions, in others they are alive and vibrant.

In Spain, a Christian mourning performed through music is a tourist attraction. During Semana Santa, or the Holy Week preceding Easter Sunday, processions of the Passion meander through cities. Each float is adorned with paintings and sculptures that narrate Christ’s story. Drums and trumpets accompany the procession.

Whenever the procession halts, a musical performance called saeta begins. From a balcony above, a resident looks down at the floats and sings a saeta — a lament about Christ’s suffering and his mother’s grief, sung as a simple melody. The mourning then plays out simultaneously between the private space of her home and the public street.

In Iran’s Shiite tradition, Taziyeh is a theatrical form that is meant to stoke memories of cultural grief, and also serve as a spectacle to encourage condolence. For ten days during Muharram, people re-enact episodes from the Battle of Karbala as part of the Taziyeh. The performances talk of the fight of good against evil, of loyalty and sacrifice.

Once performed outdoors in public spaces, Taziyeh has now shifted to specially designed theatres called takias, which are typically circular. The audiences are seated along the circumference, and the performances are in the central space. Witnessing the death of Hussain, the community is brought together in a grief it has inherited — it is reminded of its origins and allegiances.

In India, as in many other countries, Muharram sees another tradition of performative mourning. People march through the streets, beating their chests in a mournful gesture. Some groups of men even use chains and knives to lacerate themselves, their bodies becoming the symbolic battleground upon which Hussain martyred himself. The repetitive, collective, and public act of beating oneself allows a person to make their grief known, and to make their identity known to those who might be watching. This mourning is as much about the one who mourns as the one who offers condolences.

In some Tamil communities, women mourners break out into impromptu laments known as oppari at the homes of the deceased. Oppari songs aren’t rehearsed performances but impassioned renditions of lyrics that remember a life. They help the bereaved bide time until the body is taken away. In Rajasthan, professional women mourners known as rudaalis are hired to weep at upper-caste funerals. Born into lower castes, rudaali women trade a public display of grief — weeping, rolling and writhing — for income. Their mourning is not simply a cathartic act but also an economic one.

An old Irish tradition, known as keening, saw women wailing over bodies at funerals to lament the dead. The wailing was musical, though far from melodic, and was accompanied by physical gestures, such as rocking, performed in unison. The Catholic Church, however, looked down upon these performances — they were disruptive, instinctive, and propelled by women. The practice of keening steadily died and is now a scarce sight.

But in the 1980s, a Welsh activist movement — the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp — appropriated keening to protest against nuclear weapons.

For 19 years, women camped at the nuclear base in Greenham Common, Berkshire, using non-violent tactics to voice their resistance. Keening, with its deeply uncomfortable sound and primal release, enabled the women to vent their anger and also call attention to the horrors they saw in nuclear arms. A performance of mourning that was once dismissed as unhallowed and hysterical became a voice of protest in troubled times.

Poorna Swami is a writer based in Bengaluru

Published on March 29, 2019

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