In Celebration Dance

A song for the bride

The bride is teased with lyrics full of wit and humour   | Photo Credit: Kombai Anwar

At a recent wedding I attended, a group of girls wearing simple white costume gathered around the bride. They clapped their hands and moved in perfect coordination, while a couple of similarly attired girls stood aside and sang a catchy Moplah song. They were performing Oppana, traditional dance of the Moplah Muslims in the Malabar region of Kerala. Clad in the conventional attire of Moplah Muslims — which is kachi, a length of white fabric like the mundu but with a tie-and-dye border, and kuppayam, a short blouse, and a thattam covering their heads, the girls enthralled the invitees with their performance. Later, the bride’s mother said that though they wanted to invite professional dancers, the girls in the family decided to perform it like how it used to be done traditionally.

According to The Garland of Encyclopaedia of World Music: South Asia, The Indian Subcontinent, edited by Alison Arnold, music and dance are integral to Moplah festive occasions. Oppana — meaning ‘proximity, sitting together’ — is the most popular dance, performed separately by women and men on occasions such as weddings and celebration of a girl’s first menstruation.

Kerala Folklore Academy Yuva Pratibha Award winner Junaid Mettammal says that Oppana is an ancient art form but there are no written records regarding its history. It used to be a means of entertainment in Muslim homes in the olden days and has no religious connotation.

The performers in a women’s Oppana move around the seated bride, attired in all her wedding finery, their steps synchronised with the clapping of their hands. Earlier, the dancers sang the songs themselves, the pattern being the person leading the group singing a line first, which is repeated by others. The tempo of the song, which is slow at first, progressively becomes faster and goes through a variety of meters.

T. Zabeeda, an avid fan of the dance form, who has taken part in several performances, says that traditionally six or eight dancers take part in an Oppana. “The traditional practice is that the dancers sing the songs themselves. Now the scene has changed with singers standing on the side while the dancers are performing. In its traditional form, music is minimal with the rhythm dictated by the claps of the dancers, which alternates between 1, 2 and 1,2,3.”

Emotional yet funny

The songs are both emotional and teasing in nature, touching upon the parents’ bitter-sweet feelings of seeing their daughter embark on a new life as well as the anticipation of the newly weds about their marital life. The lyrics of a popular Moplah song penned by the renowned composer, O.V. Abdulla goes thus:

Flowers are blooming, smiling in delight,

The full moon is shining like a radiant bride

The beautiful dreams of the bride will be fulfilled today

The bride is the queen of the gathering tonight


The marriage house resounds with laughter

The groom’s heart expands in happiness

On this happy evening, beautiful guests arrive

To enjoy the fun and music reverberating in the air

The word Oppana is said to be derived from the Arabic word, ‘Hafna,’ which means to put the palms together. It could also be the abbreviated form of the Tamil word, Oppanai, which means sitting together. According to Mettammal, Oppana is the name of an Isal, or metric structure of Mappila pattu, folk songs in the Malabar region composed in an Arabic-Malayalam dialect and set to distinctive tunes. The oppana isal is further divided into several subsections, such as oppana chayal, chayal murukkam and murakkam,

Impact of cinema

In its early form, the dance used to be performed at homes in the regions around Kozhikode and Malapuram.

It started getting popular in the 1950s with cinema playing a big role. Films showing Oppana dance set to catchy tunes — Kuttikuppayam, Subeida, Maniara and more recently, Achuvinte Amma, to name just a few — caught the imagination of the public and went a long way in sustaining interest in the dance form. Even though Oppana was prevalent in Tamil Nadu, it is not much visible in the State now.

But in Kerala, Oppana is a well-loved form of artistic expression. Former Education Minister of Kerala, Chakkiri Ahmed Kutty, introduced it in School Kalolsavams (festivals) in 1975. Since then it has remained one of the most popular items of youth and school festivals throughout Kerala. The selection criteria for Oppana now is done on the basis of the ability of the candidate to dance rather than sing, says Metammal.

“Traditionally, more than the dance, the song was important. The focus may have shifted to dance today, but the heart of the performance is the song. Today, when weddings have moved from homes to commercial venues, the flavour of this traditional form of dance seems to have got diluted.”

“These days, even at marriages, professional troupes are called in to perform, while earlier it used to be a family affair with friends and relatives taking part in the performance, which made it memorable,” says Zabeeda. However, the existence of professional troupes and the inclusion of Oppana in school and youth festivals indicate an avid interest in the dance in Kerala, she concedes.

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Printable version | Jul 26, 2021 6:06:46 AM |

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