Thappu (Thappai or sometimes referred to as Sirum Parai), is a circular shaped frame instrument of ancient Tamil origin. Thappu may have derived from the Tamil word ‘Thappai’ which means ‘flat’, to denote its flat structure. Similarly to the Parai, the Thappu, has also been used in the classical (Sangam) periods.

The Thappu is extensively used in temple festivals, religious celebrations, folk music and dance. In the last several centuries, just like the Parai, it 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 Folk dance variation known as Thappaattam (Thappu Dance) where the players evoke contrasting beats as that of their counterpart and or group. The dance contains numerous movement patterns all carried out while holding and playing the drum. The Thappu drums beats are almost identical to the Parai and similarly is so powerful and captivating. Indeed it also naturally makes the person sway, clap their hands or stamp their feet in synchronisation to the beat or actually dance.

The circular wood frame ranges in diameter from 16 – 22 inches and is either hollowed out from a single block of jackfruit wood or is made with several pieces of wood that are curved by heat and joined to shape (using nails and glue). Drum constructed from single block of wood is preferred.

Single layer of cow or water buffalo skin is stretched across one side of the circular frame. It is held against the frame by a platted strap mechanism visible from the open opposite side. A smaller wooden ring is placed in the centre of the open side and the skin is intertwined with the aid of leather straps. When the leather strap is pulled tightly the skin becomes stretched across the frame and inevitably the ring then hangs free. In modern days the wooden ring is replaced with metal ring and the leather straps have been replaced with strong rope.

Alternatively the Thappu can also be constructed where the skin is stretched and glued to the frame. Although capable of producing the same sound as the predecessor it is more delicate as the skin can sometime come of the frame.

Prior to every performance the Thappu is tuned by holding the head extremely close to a small bonfire, made exactly for that reason. The heat from the fire absorbs the moisture in the drum head tightening them considerably.  Fresh leaves are then used to rub against the heated playing surface to cool parts of the drum to fine tune it. The drum produce a high pitched loud cracking sound when struck.
 

The drum is either played with palm and fingers of both hands or with two sticks. The stick held on the left hand is usually long and thin made of the Portia (Poovarasam) tree. Thin bamboo stick is also used as a replacement. The stick held on the right hand is short and thick also made of the Portia tree. Other hard woods such as Jackfruit wood can also be used as an alternative for the short stick.

While standing the drum is hung by a cloth/rope strap from the left shoulder and is held horizontally 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. When seated and playing by hands the player holds the drum tightly between crossed legs. When seated and playing with sticks drum is held vertically on the lap and rested against the chest.

 

Just like the Parai, the drummers and the Thappu drum, were also degraded by people due to its association with death. It was the cause of the rapid decline of this classical instrument as an art form. In recent years the Thappu has been revived to become a symbol of cultural identity.