The parai: Then and now, the instrument plays a key role in anti-caste struggle

Manimaran, a parai artist and founder of Bhuddar Kalai Kuzhu, describes the political, social and cinematic history of the instrument and how it is a symbol of caste annihilation.
Manimaran with parai
Manimaran with parai

The parai in the last few decades, has through persistent fight, become a symbol for social justice. For years now, there has been a movement to refuse the “impurity” attributed to it by caste society and instead celebrate it as an instrument of caste annihilation. A percussion instrument made from cow-hide, caste society declared it an object associated only with death over the years. Within their notions of the supposed “untouchability” of Dalit communities, those who have for generations done the caste-based work of beating the parai at funerals and the parai itself have been sidelined as “inauspicious”. This violence also erases the actual widespread use of the parai from temple festivals to weddings to important occasions at home, signifying joy, revelry and community.

This fight to reclaim the parai has been a long one and is ongoing. Manimaran and his Buddhar Kalai Kuzhu—a folk artists’ collective in Chennai— have made immense contributions to this effort. The collective is named in honour of the Navayana Buddhism that Babasaheb Ambedkar founded and the Tamil Buddhism of Iyotheethass Pandithar, an important anti-caste activist in the 19th century.

The last three years have hit the Buddhar Kalai Kuzhu and other folk artists hard. The Model Code of Conduct came into play in Tamil Nadu at the same time as festival season during the 2019 General Elections. This meant that no loudspeakers, no large gatherings were allowed after 8.00 pm. Temple functions, a regular source of income, tend to begin only after 8.00 pm. No exception was made. The need for repeated lockdowns and COVID-19 restrictions for nearly two years now have worsened their financial crisis. Manimaran now drives an auto to try and make up for the lost income. Further, Uber and Ola have inbuilt terms that take away a large chunk out of the money he makes. Despite government restrictions, people who held funerals for COVID-19 deaths, insisted on parai artists. Manimaran says that though parai artists were expected to work in such circumstances, they did not have early access to vaccines. 

In an interview with TNM, Manimaran speaks about the rich musical, social and political history of the parai. Manimaran is also a well-known figure because of his parai training camps across Chennai.

 “Will not play at funerals”

In the anti-caste movement, there is an argument for the refusal by parai artists to play at funerals. Manimaran explains the historical fight behind this stance and its current politics. The Parai Marrupu Porattam, led by the Scheduled Caste Federation, began in Cuddalore district and spread all the way to Coimbatore. "Marrupu" meaning "to deny". Many thousands of parais were broken and burnt. The movement was particularly strong in the northern regions of the state. It was a part of the Izhi Thozhil Ethirppu Porattam—protests refusing to do caste-based jobs, which began in the mid-1940s and lasted until the '80s, he tells us. The movement also spread to Eelam, says Manimaran.

The movement believed that the next generation should not be engaging in caste-based jobs, emphasising the focus on education instead. In one instance, at the Kathaaiyee Amman temple festival in Cuddalore district, parai artists from outside were brought in to perform since artists in the region had refused to play. When the local artists questioned the move, saying this was insulting to the reasons for their boycott, there was violent backlash and even a police shoot-out. On August 15, 1987 a young man called Pandian was killed by the police. There is a memorial bust to him at the Kattumannarkoil bus stand which is felicitated every year till date, on the 15th of August.

This movement was essential, Manimaran says, as is the celebration of the parai as a symbol of caste annihilation and social justice. It was because of the movement that many youngsters went on to become college graduates. “I could never deny its importance or the need for such a movement in that period,” he says. The parai is an instrument that belonged to everybody before a caste society sidelined it as “impure”, he reminds us.  Manimaran, the Budhar Kalai Kuzhu and many others like him, fight to overturn that. But that fight cannot be dislocated from the historical and continued violence that a caste society does to the parai and artists who play it.

His refusal to play for funerals also comes from this political history. Manimaran points out that even today, only a certain sub-caste of Dalits are expected to play at funerals. There are no labour laws governing the hours that they are made to work. They have to play for however long and whenever they’re told to. The payment system is still casteist—an exploitative amount that the dominant community will set. “The funeral space was our first schooling in parai and I played there for many years, but there was only humiliation and pain in these spaces, that’s why I decided to stop and it's why I encourage others to stop [playing at funerals]. If dominant castes want the parai beaten at their funerals because it is the ‘culture of the land’, I ask them, why can’t a generation of your youngsters learn the parai, then? Let our youngsters study," he says. 

The cost of his resistance has been high. “People, most often, won’t openly cite our refusal to play at funerals and cause backlash, but they’ll block our access. We won’t get invites to perform for other occasions. Some artists themselves will ask festival or event organisers to not include us. Underlying all this is the fact that they find it unacceptable that we’re taking a stand on this," he notes.

Cinema, lost thalams and popularising parai

Manimaran speaks extensively on how cinema has affected parai and its music. He largely sees its contribution as beneficial, but points out that there continues to be elements that need course correction.

There used to be a time, some decades ago, when cinema wanted the beats of the parai but not those who played it. They wouldn’t be shown properly on screen, maybe just their hands or a shot of their legs. Now, particularly in the films of Pa Ranjith, they take centre-stage. The glorious climax scene of Kaala had the Buddhar Kalai Kuzhu playing on screen, Manimaran tells us. It’s common these days to see the hero get an intro-song with parai artists among the people with him on screen. But there are missteps too. He recalls how Karthik Subbaraj’s Rajini-starrer Petta had an insulting dialogue that went, “Oru coolie ku, rendu coolie ya vangikanga” (You can get paid twice instead of once). Rajini's character says this with scant respect at a funeral he is at, where he goes on to commit a murder in front of everyone. But he also notes that the director had been among many who had consciously raised funds for folk artists during the COVID-19 lockdown.

Such disparaging dialogues can also be seen in other films like Master. Though Vijay gets a stylish intro with parai artists performing around him, a character at one point says, “Kaasu vangeerkingala, sathamaa adinga!” (You were paid, right? Beat it louder!).

Manimaran says that film music composers now are conscious of crediting parai artists who perform in their songs. Santhosh Narayanan, Anirudh all mention the names of the artists in the song credits, he says.

One effect of cinema music and parai, he tells us, is that popular songs go on to popularise certain thalams. Only those end up being used over and over again to the point that others are being lost. Even the specific purpose of a particular thalam is dissolving.  For example, he talks about how cine-music has made the “otha addi” widely known to the point that it’s asked for weddings, but this is actually a thalam used at funerals by parai artists in Chennai.

Parai thalams have huge regional variations, and each thalam has specific functions, explains Manimaran. It was a means of communication. A particular thalam would let the area know that the idol has now been placed on the temple chariot during a festival. The thalam used for the god Madurai Veeran will be known only to parai artists in Madurai and it would be absolutely different for the thalam that, say, parai artists in Chennai would know and play for goddess Mariamman. 

Many thalams are being forgotten, mainly for the need to know and play the ones cinema songs demand. Or their original names have been replaced by the title of the film song that popularised it. Such as the thalam used in the famous song “Ottagatha Kattiko” from Gentleman. "Before this song came out, my master taught this thalam to me as ‘chakku mukku nakkujina’. The thalam is much older than the song, it probably existed even before the filmmakers were born. Now it's identified by the song’s title even among parai artists. Still, cinema is a powerful and far-reaching medium. It has taken this thalam to so many people," says Manimaran. 

For the books he has written and his ongoing research, he says that he continues to search for thalams from various regions and retain records of them.

Parai training camps

Manimaran and his Buddhar Kalai Kuzhu have been conducting camps in Kanagai Nagar, T Nagar and Porur in Chennai. Locals come for the two-hour classes, he says.

They also have a one-year course that people can join, which have both practical and theory exams. The reading material is provided by them, which includes Manimaran’s book Isaiyin Mugavari Parai. The camps are conducted without fees.

Manimaran tells us there has been a marked shift in more people desiring to learn how to play the instrument. Many consciously want to break away from the casteist ideologies of elders in their family. There are also those who only come to learn the parai as they would another instrument, like a guitar, with the mere view that this a traditional instrument. Those people, he says, don’t quite see the connection between learning to play the parai and social justice. They don’t understand why they need to learn the history of the Parai Marrupu Poratam, for example.

Even during these times of COVID-related restrictions, the camps have been kept open following safety protocols.

Note to Readers:

As mentioned earlier, COVID-related lockdowns have depleted work opportunities for many folk artists like Manimaran. If you wish to contribute to the Bhuddar Kalai Kuzhu, payment details are provided below: 

Manimaran .A

State Bank of India
Madurantakam branch
IFSC : SBIN0000870

Google Pay: 7708776653

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