Parai is an 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.
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.
Parai Melam (Perum Parai)
The Parai melam is a cylindrical instrument, the 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.
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.
Sirum Parai (Thappai)
Sirum Parai (Sometimes referred to as Thappai), is a circular shaped frame instrument. Thappu may have derived from the Tamil word ‘Thappai’ which means ‘flat’, to denote its flat structure. This variety of the Parai has also been used in the classical (Sangam) periods.
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.
References to the Parai have been made in the below Saiva hymns, Panniru Thirumurai:
பறையின்னொலி சங்கின்னொலி பாங்காரவு மார
அறையும்மொலி யெங்கும்மவை யறிவாரவர் தன்மை
நிறையும்புனல் சடைமேலுடை யடிகள்நின்றி யூரில்
உறையும்மிறை யல்லதென துள்ளம் முணராதே. 1.18.3
அறையார் கழல்மே லரவாட
இறையார் பலிதேர்ந் தவனூராம்
பொறையார் மிகுசீர் விழமல்கப்
பறையா ரொலிசெய் பனையூரே. 1.37.5
பறையுஞ் சிறுகுழலும் யாழும்பூதம் பயிற்றவே
மறையும் பலபாடி மயானத்துறையும் மைந்தனார்
பிறையும் பெரும்புனல்சேர் சடையினாரும் பேடைவண்
டறையும் பழையனூர் ஆலங்காட்டெம் அடிகளே. 1.45.6
வாரேற்ற பறையொலியுஞ் சங்கொலியும் வந்தியம்ப
ஊரேற்ற செல்வத்தோ டோ ங்கியசீர் விழவோவாச்
சீரேற்ற முடைத்தாய செங்காட்டங் குடியதனுள்
காரேற்ற கொன்றையான் கணபதீச் சரத்தானே. 1.61.2