Parai (Perum Parai or Parai Mealam), is a cylindrical shaped instrument of ancient Tamil origin used extensively in the classical (Sangam) periods. Parai, in Tamil, literally means to ‘speak’ or to ‘tell’. Historical evidences describe the Parai as an ancient instrument performed in the courts of Sangam period and is associated with the Chera, Chola, and Pandiyan rulers. The Parai was used to announce important messages and orders of the great Tamil Kings to the people.

The Parai is extensively used in temple festivals, religious celebrations, folk music and dance as well as auspicious events such as weddings. In the last several centuries the Parai has also been used by the drumming community to provide inauspicious ritual services such as accompanying funeral processions. At funerals the drumming is of a very fast beat to evoke Sudalai Muni or Sudalai Aandi (Lord Shiva), who favours the Koothu beats, to liberate the Athma (soul) of the deceased.

There is also a Koothu (Folk dance) variation known as Parai Meala Koothu where the players stand facing each other and evoke contrasting emotions to be expressed by their counterpart. The Koothu contain numerous fundamental dance and movement patterns which resemble the Nirthiya (Pure) dance patterns of classical dances such as Bharathanatiyam. Its beats are so powerful and captivating that it naturally makes the person sway, clap their hands or stamp their feet in synchronisation to the beat or actually dance.

The cylindrical shell ranges in length from 30 – 40 inches with a diameter of 10 – 20 inches at either side.  Unlike other instruments the shell’s diameter at either side are identical. The shell of the Parai is hollowed out from a single block of wood and is left to season for several months if not years before the drum is constructed. Layers of animal skin are stretched across hoops traditionally made of hemp (a fibrous plant) or bamboo and attached to the two sides of the shell using hemp or leather straps. In modern days the hemp hoops have been replaced with thin wood from any plant and the leather straps have been replaced with strong rope.

Both the left and right face of the instrument consists of goat skin stretched over the hoop. Water buffalo skins are also a suitable replacement and are often seen on the larger versions.

The instrument is either played while sitting, or hung by a cloth strap, called Nadai, from the left shoulder and is held vertically against the left side of the player. This simple harness allows the drummer free movements so that the instrument can be played while standing, walking or dancing.

 

Prior to every performance the Parai is tuned by tightening and/or loosening the leather hoops intertwining the straps.  In modern versions the leather tuning hoops have been replaced with metal rings that do the same job.

 

The right head is played with a long thin stick made of the Portia (Poovarasam) tree. The stick is slightly curved at the end. Thin bamboo stick is also used as a replacement. The left head is played with a short, thick stick also made of the Portia tree. Other hard woods such as Jackfruit wood can also be used.

 

Due to its association with death, the drummers and the Parai drum were both considered impure and degraded by people who saw themselves as being high class. Indeed it was the root cause of the rapid decline of this classical instrument as an art form. This is purely based on ignorance as people are often unaware of its historical and religious significance.

 

In recent years the Tamil community has reclaimed the Parai with pride to become a symbol of cultural identity and is now celebrated as the traditional drum of the Tamil people as a whole. The Parai should not just be enjoyed as entertainment but it should be cherished, protected and encouraged.