Parai attam: Drumming up change was not easy, but it’s happening

Parai Tamil Nadu
Parai, a percussion instrument, used to be played during funeral processions and was performed only by Dalits

On a February Friday, in an unassuming alley outside a marriage hall in Madurai, two kids break into a jig in tune with the beating of the drums. Inside the hall, the coy bride is waiting for her groom, her heart beating hard. As guests start crowding the venue, both her heartbeats and the sound of the drums grow louder. By now, even passersby couldn’t help but stop to catch a glimpse of the drummers playing the ‘once-forbidden’ Parai — one of the oldest percussion instruments.

Until recently, Parai could be heard mostly during funeral processions in Tamil Nadu and played only by Dalit men. A hollow drum made of a wooden ring, with cow skin stretched on one side and played with two unequal sticks, Parai is usually accompanied by a folk dance — aattam; hence, the name Parai Attam.

The folk art for time immemorial has been associated with the Paraiyars, a sub-sect of Dalits in Tamil Nadu who used to play it historically. But Parai performances at marriage functions are in stark contrast with the caste and gender stigma associated with it.
Although parai is said to have been played by women too in the Sangam era, their association with the instrument was discouraged because of the funeral processions.

However, in recent years, a transformation is being seen and playing parai seems to have entered the mainstream, with its performance in almost all political and social functions, including marriages. What's more, women too have come a long way in breaking the gender stigma associated with it.

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