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‘Parai’: Keeping Alive the Tamil Leather Drum Tradition Despite War and Displacement

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Story and pix by Dushiyanthini Kanagasabapathipillai

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Heavy leather drums

Parai is an ancient percussion instrument that was played at temple festivals and funerals. In the bygone era, it was used as a tool for making public announcements during special occasions. The artistes from Kanakaraayankulam in Vavuniya North and Mulliyawalai in Mullaithivu District have preserved this particular art form for over seven generations with great care.

In the Vanni District, the parai drum enjoys a prominent position, especially rituals performed within the Tamil community. This particular group of performers, known as Parai Mela Kooththu has a distinct style of playing the parai. The group members have experienced extreme hardship during the war and due to displacement.

Yet, their passion drives them to thrive and preserve their art form.
The group has eight males, and all of them have lost their belongings including their drums when they had to flee their homes in 2009, during the final phase of the war.

“It was heart breaking to leave behind our heavy leather drums in Iruttumadu in the Mullaithivu District. We did take our drums while leaving our homes, amidst bombing and shelling. We travelled on foot, bicycles, motorbikes, lorries, landmasters and tractors, still carrying the drums. One big drum weighs 20 kilograms, and extremely heavy. We carried them throughout our journey wading through water, and crossing stretches of burning sand, while heavy fighting was underway. When we reached Iruttumadu, Mullivaaikkaal in Mullaithivu District, it was a burden we could to afford to carry. We decided to burn our drums there, and burned our souls with it. It was nerve-wracking moment, unforgettable, for the pain that caused all of us” 51 year-old Kaaththamuththu Annalingam from Mulliyawalai in Mullaithivu District said emotionally.

“We went back to Iruttumadu, Mullivaaikkaal where we burnt our drums after returning from the Menik farm for the Internally Displaced Persons. We were in tears. The memory of our loss haunts us everyday” said 39 year- old Sellakkandu Baskaran from Mulliyawalai, a passionate drummer.

Vadivelu Jayakodi beagn playing the special drum as a child. His father and both grandfathers were former Parai Mela drummers in Vanni, where Parai Mela Kooththu is now a rapidly declining art form. It is a legacy that most of the drummers share, a tradition passed down the generations.

“Beating the drum in different ways, helps me to overcome the loss and trauma I went through during and after the war” says19 year-old Murugan Ahilan.

Para Mela Kooththu drummers stand facing each other, and through their performance evoke contrasting emotions which are mirrored in their counterpart.

Hailing from the Vanni region, they perform mostly at temple festivals, including at the popular Vattraappalai Kannagi Amman, and as well as at Hindu funerals.

“Parai Mela folk tradition of Vanni has a history spanning of more than 100 years. It datesback to Vanni settlement period. These drummers play both at auspicious events such as temple festivals, and inauspicious events such as funerals. The auspicious one is known as “mana parai”(wedding drum), while the inauspicious one is called “pina parai” (funeral drum)

Parai Melam is played mostly at village temples in Vanni. The new generation drummers dislike being referred to as parai mela drummers due to the stigma attached to their particular caste. Besides, it is not well-paid job. Yet, this disappearing folk tradition should be preserved” insists Kanapathipillai Arunthaharan, Senior Lecturer of Department of Tamil, University of Jaffna.

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Drum dressed up in cotton and silk clothes

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It weighs 20kilograms

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Youngsters drummers from Vanni

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Beat in a circle

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Blessed drum from Vattraappalai Kannagi Amman temple in Mullaithivu

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These drummers from Vanni have experienced and witnessed brutal war

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Competitive beats between old and young drummers

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They often keep beating the drums to forget the bitter experiences of war

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Blessed Hindu sign of “AUM” on a drum

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Due to stigma and economical reasons the new generation is moving away from being drummers

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Senior drummers Kaaththamuththu Annalingam and Vadivelu Jayakodi beautifully beat, and express different emotions

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Slowly but steadily thriving and reviving

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Kaaththamuththu Annalingam beautifully creates different renditions, and make the fellow drummers to follow immediately

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Stand in half circle, face each other and perform

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A main feature is the frequent stop at junctions, beat the drums softly and hardly to communicate different emotions to the audience

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Beating parai to enthrall audience

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They struggle on their status of oppressed in the society

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Marginalised community with very rich artistic skills

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It’s not easy to live where these drummers have lost their fellow senior drummers, drums and belongings due to war

courtesy: PassionParade ~

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Related:

Mahakavi Subramaniya Bharathiyaar, Journalist, Poet, pioneering Editor of Women’s Magazine & Freedom Fighter – envisioned Murasu ~ The drum beaten to make public announcements as one that roars in the victorious ushering of love, joy, equality and peace.

mp3:

Bharathiyaar’s song in praise of ringing in the sound of Murusau ~ drum, ‘Anbendru Kottu Murase’, rendered by K.R. Ramaswamy

mp3:

‘Vetri ettu thikkum etta Kottu Murase’, rendered by Rahul

mp3:

And “Vazhga Nirantharam’ ~ Mahakavi Bharathiyaar’s song with vibrant interlude featuring an assortment of drums, including Parai

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