Morning office-goers, schoolchildren in crisp uniforms, shopkeepers and bystanders stop to stare at a funeral procession winding through Thiruvalla, a midsize town in central Kerala, flush with expat remittances. A well-modulated voice announces over the microphone: “It’s the last journey of the dearly beloved son of this town....” He then gently informs the townsfolk, some just waking to the day, that the deceased looks so peaceful: “Looks as if he is just sleeping.” The glass-panelled hearse allows onlookers a glimpse of the body as the procession passes ever so slowly. The man at the mike loops them in with some generous sentimentality: “This son, who had loved this town so dearly, and in turn was loved, is now going away forever....” He then breaks into a funereal dirge in Malayalam: “Nearer, my God to thee....” Once the coffin is placed in the home, the announcer, Niranam Rajan, positions himself in a corner of the pandal with his team and proceeds to the second part: provoking emotion and sympathy with songs and stories till the last leg of the journey to the grave.
It is a full-package day for Niranam Rajan, 53, a well-known kathaprasangam (story-narration) artiste, now a funeral manager. He has done close to 2,000 Christian funerals and is now expanding into Hindu and Muslim last rites too. Rajan says he strayed into this profession by accident when a relative passed away. He volunteered to sing at the funeral, but his motives were questioned: for the folk art that is kathaprasangam is usually confined to festival grounds, marketplaces, street corners and town and village squares; people haven’t thought it befitting a solemn occasion such as a funeral.