The parai, an instrument made from the skin of a dead calf is often hailed as the mother of all percussion instruments. Once solely associated with funerals, the instrument has now entered temple festivals and weddings and has even become a symbol of resistance at political rallies and protests. But even as the parai itself gains recognition and popularity, its makers - Dalits - remain marginalised.
"My family has been making parais for 50 years now. We have played the parai in several events including wedding festivals and even deaths. I am very proud of what I do. Some people see this as a derogatory job. This is because we use the skin of the cow," says Tiruvenkatam a Parai maker from Dindugal district in Tamil Nadu. "People in my own village look at it discriminatorily. We get the skin from states like Andhra and Kerala, spread it out and make the parai. We play it in other countries and states. But till today we are stopped from playing it in our own village temple."
Even seasoned artists like Manimaran, who is the founder of the Buddhar Kalai Kuzhu and receipient of the Kalaichudarmani award, say that the community is yet to get equal opportunities.
“We are glad that the Parai has got world wide recognition. But if you ask if the artists involved have been recognised, then there is a sense of disappointment. To make a Parai, you have to skin a dead cow, treat it and follow a long process. Till the music instrument is made, they want one particular community to be involved. Once it is ready, the community that makes it or the orginal users do not get awards or opportunities to play it on international platforms. This can't be social justice," he says.
Even those who take up the parai from other communities, often face discrimiation for choosing the instrument.
"When I first took the Parai home, my father threw it on the road. When I asked him why he said we (Vanniyar) can't play on this. My father and I fell out because of this and I didn't talk to anyone at home for two years," says Gangadaran, a Vanniyar Parai artist. "I am actually an auto driver. I just wanted to learn this as a part time job because I was really passionate about it. But nobody understood this. Noone knows that this is a great art," he adds.
But even as these artists fight to improve the status of the instrument and its makers in the eyes of the dominant caste, Dalit intellectuals and leaders say that the community will not progress unless they let go of these derogatory occupations. They group the Parai with menial tasks like manual scavenging, digging of graves and removing animal carcasses.
"There is no link between the Parai and Dalits, it has been forced upon us by the dominant castes just like other menial jobs such as removing animal carcasses. Instead of studying and taking up respectable jobs,the parai is forcing youngsters to drop out and play at funerals for a living. Till the Dalit community beats the parai, we will never progress," says Ravikumar, the Villupuram MP.
So what is the way forward for this instrument that Sangam literature featured in its pages as an essential part of human life?