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Parai – The Music of the People

Be it a silent street of a small village or a noisy neighbourhood of a town, we would’ve seen children making music instruments of empty paint cans and buckets to express their moods. We all would’ve done the same when we ourselves were children. Even as adults we are not beyond using the tables or plates for the same, tapping them to the beat of our favourite tunes. It is from this same impulse to express ourselves, to express our moods, our emotions, the Parai (பறை) was born.

Parai literally means ‘speak’ or ‘to make sound’. From this etymological interpretation, we can understand that without the need for to speak or to make a sound, parai wouldn’t have come into existence.

Parai is a percussion instrument. The frame of the instrument is made up of three arcs of neem wood, secured by metal fasteners to form a circle of about 35cm. The bull/cow’s neck hide is stretched over this wooden frame and glued by natural resin. The percussion sticks used are two in number and named after the quality of the sound they generate. The thin slender percussion stick is called “sunddu kucchi” (high pitch) and the other thick relatively shorter stick is called “adi kucchi” (base note). The sunddu kucchi is about 28cm long and the adi kucchi is about 18cm long. They are usually made of bamboo.

The instrument needs to be warmed up under indirect heat before playing. The properly heated instrument can conduct sound up to 3 kilometres away. The practitioner can hold this instrument while standing and start the percussion. They usually dance while playing the parai, with singing as an additional option.

To understand the evolution of parai we must understand the evolution of the Thamizh society itself as parai was, still is and always will be an integral part of it. Every society existing now was once a community of hunter gatherers. The Thamizh people too were hunter gatherers once. Back then our primary source of food was the meat that we obtained through hunting. After consuming the flesh, we dried the skin of the animals on the tree branches which we later used as clothes to protect us from the cold. Since we hunted every day there was lot of leftover hide hanging in the trees which would’ve produced sounds in the wind, swinging and scratching against the branches. We would’ve approached this phenomenon with caution as we would’ve approached anything in the wilderness back then. But, soon we realise that the animals that hunt us are also equally afraid of these sounds. So the Aadhiparai (ஆதிப்பறை), literally ‘the first parai’, was born. It is used to protect ourselves from the predators. Using the hide to cover pits dug on the ground or to cover other vessels, we tried to amplify the sounds produced by striking the hide. We soon understood the nuances of using different animals’ hides to produce different types and levels of sounds. Slowly we learnt to control and coordinate the sounds produced by parai and thus as time passed, it not only served to protect us from the predators but also became an instrument of celebration – the celebration of a society one with nature.

As we evolved into an agrarian society, parai too evolved with us. Once used to scare away animals, now it was used for a wide range of purposes in the Thamizh society – to warn the people about floods, as a call for farmers to sow seeds and to harvest crops, as a call for and a part of religious gatherings and festivals, to prevent wild animals from damaging the crops, to ease the tiredness of those working in the fields, to celebrate marriages and to announce the death of a person and to mourn them. Thus parai became a part of every facet of the life of Thamizh people.

Then, as many societies do, we too divided into two groups of people – the people who work in the fields, and the people who depend on their labour. Soon rulers emerged to govern and protect these people. With kings, kingdoms emerged and with kingdoms came wars. And parai too evolved. We didn’t use just weapons in the battlefield; we used parai too – Porpparai (போர்ப்பறை) was used to announce war, to call soldiers to arms and to cheer the soldiers during wartimes. When the soldiers returned victoriously form the battlefield it is again the parai music that welcomed them home. Even today, in the bands of all the three divisions of our army, it is the percussion instruments (like parai itself) that are used predominantly to raise the spirits of our soldiers.

In those times, Thamizh people had divided their land-based on geography into five thinais (திணை) and each thinai had its own unique type of Parai: Thondagapparai (தொண்டகப்பறை) or Veriyaatupparai (வெறியாட்டுப்பறை) belonged to the Kurinji (குறிஞ்சி) thinai, Yerukotparai (ஏறுகோட்பறை) belonged to Mullai (முல்லை) thinai, Nellaripparai (நெல்லரிப்பறை) belonged to Marudha (மருத) thinai, Aaralaipparai (ஆறலைப்பறை) or Sooraikondaparai (சூறைகொண்டபறை) belonged to the Paalai (பாலை) thinai and Naavaipparai (நாவாய்ப்பறை)belonged to the Neidhal (நெய்தல்) thinai. And the people were identified only by their thinais – people from kurinji thinai were called Kundravar (குன்றவர்), people belonging to mullai thinai were called Aayar (ஆயர்), people living in marudha thinai were called Uzhavar (உழவர்), people belonging to paalai thinai were called Eyinar and Maravar (எயினர், மறவர்) and the people of neidhal thinai were called Paradhavar (பரதவர்).

But with the advent of the Aryans, who later became the Brahmins and their religion Hinduism, everything changed. Like many other societies infiltrated by them, the Thamizh society too started dividing people by their birth, giving place to the discriminations of a caste system. Along with its other inhumane effects, the caste system not only discriminated against the people now called Shudras and untouchables, they also restricted the parai to these now marginalised people. The Parai which was originally an integral part of the Thamizh society, lifestyle and culture and was played and enjoyed by everyone on almost every big occasion now became an untouchable itself. And we have carried that stigma to this day.

Removing this stigma around Parai and unchaining it from a caste identity is in the hands of us – the people. Only by opening our hearts and homes to Parai, will it become what it once was – the people’s instrument. The Parai is ours. It is a part of our identity. It is a part of us. Every one of us.

Reclaim Parai. Reclaim yourself.

Written By Chandrika & Sri Translated By Siva Wright

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