A five-year-old struggles to lift his drum, despite the one kilo instrument being too heavy for his little hands. Nearby, a woman slings it across her shoulder, keeping a sharp eye on her baby, asleep in a stroller under a tree. A student, a bank employee and school boys gather beside them… This motley group of 60 has congregated on a school ground on a Sunday morning in Coimbatore, to learn to play the parai, a musical instrument that has long been associated with death rituals in Tamil Nadu.
The instrument, made of neem wood and buffalo hide, is played with two sticks: a short thick one and a long thin one with the drum balanced on the elbow. Artistes are spread across the State, a majority of them from Thanjavur, Madurai, Dindigul, Theni and Ramanathapuram.
“Even today, in rural pockets of Tamil Nadu, the parai and the artiste playing it are looked down upon,” says G Srinivas, who, along with P Chandrika and Suresh Krishnan, runs the Nigar Kalai Koodam, which holds parai classes in Coimbatore. The 29-year-old works in the IT sector, and spends two Sundays a month training students from all walks of life. “Percussion instruments such as mridangam and tavil are commonly played inside temples. However, the parai is not allowed entry,” he adds.
The politics surrounding this instrument is what drew Sri, as he is popularly known, to the parai. “I am from Thanjavur. One evening after school, I got hold of a parai from a person playing it and tried to beat it,” recalls Sri. His grandfather, who was watching him from across the street, dragged him home, and gave him a dressing down. “He told me not to touch it ever again,” he says.
The parai is often associated with people from socially-disadvantaged communities explains Sri, who has done years of research on the instrument. “It was earlier played extensively at funerals, and hence was considered inauspicious,“ he states, adding, “Even now, artistes are often pushed around at events they are invited to play at.” They are made to play for long hours for as little as ₹500 for an event, and given instructions to play without footwear and shirts to denote their position in society.
Nigar’s students, however, play in jeans, T-shirts, and shoes. “We want to change this narrative,” Chandrika says, adding that they want more people to play the parai simply for the love of it. “It should be seen as just another musical instrument,” says the 26-year-old. She learned to play it in college where she used it as an accompaniment when participating in social street plays. “It has an unmistakable sound,” says Chandrika. “When we stand in a crowded street and want to get people’s attention, a few beats of the parai will do the trick.”
Chandrika, who is now pursuing a PhD in organic Chemistry, says she has always been a rebel; which is why she chose parai as her voice. “My parents did oppose me, but I ensured I got good grades,” she smiles. The team plays at celebratory events across Tamil Nadu dressed in red and blue T-shirts, talking about the instument’s history on stage so more people understand it.
Today, there are several such groups in Tamil Nadu, taking parai to the younger lot. Among them, is M Gurunathan’s Ellai Illa Kalai Kuzhu or Infinite in Chennai. Hailing from Kulithalai near Tiruchy, he says the jallikattu protests in 2017 boosted the interest in parai. Gurunathan has trained hundreds of people over the past 20 years, and is now pursuing a PhD on Instruments of the Soil. He says started playing parai to overcome an “inferiority complex” during his college days at Chennai’s Pachaiyappa’s College. The instrument taught him the world, he states. “Parai is used in therapy for special children,” says the 38-year-old, adding that he has trained over 50 such children so far. “The rhythm helps them move their arms freely,“ he explains.
He now travels constantly to teach students across Tamil Nadu, and takes online classes for those abroad, from Canada to Singapore. “I connect physically when they travel to India, and follow up with online classes,” he says, explaining that he has structured theoretical and practical lessons, with modules referencing masters in the art. He charges around ₹1,200 for eight classes.
Drums for America
N Muthupandi and his brother N Rajkumar, who handcraft parai in Dindigul, are among the handful of such artisans in the region. Muthupandi says that he has shipped 80 instruments to the US over the past couple of months alone. “There has been a huge demand among Tamils in the US, especially in the last five years,” he explains, adding that his business too has improved as a result.
Gurunathan says that he knows of Tamil diaspora in Canada, France, Australia and the UAE actively learning to play parai. “Wherever Tamils go, they take their arts with them,“ he points out. “They reach out to trainers here, and visit us for a few days a year just for this. There are also instances of trainers travelling abroad to teach at Tamil associations.”
This new parai wave is finally celebrating the artists who have been playing these drums for generations. “We perform at villages in the same attire,” says Sri, adding that men and now women play side-by-side, heads held high. “People’s mindsets are bound to change when they see this. Ultimately, the credit goes to youngsters coming forward to embrace this instrument,” he says, adding, “This is only the beginning.”