CHENNAI: This reporter had to strain hard to stop himself from dancing when Dheepan, a folk artist, played a couple of beats on his parai. Those at the Marina Beach at that moment, even those several feet away, whipped their eyes our way hearing the familiar sound of the instrument.
“The sound from the parai is expected to travel a distance of 8 to 13 km,” Dheepan informs. “It is a characteristic of the instrument that has made it an important part of our culture. Early instruments like a Kuzhi Parai, (drum in a hole in the ground) was used to scare animals away. It was also used to signal the arrival of kings and even war.”
It’s easy to feel the love and respect Dheepan has for the instrument. He thanks Arunodaya, NGO, for conducting a summer camp about gaana songs in his ‘area’, Korukkupettai, which was so notoriously famous, that it was referred to fondly as Kollakarapettai! His ‘area’, or any kuppam for that matter, is strongly linked to gaana, he says. “Birthday? Play gaana. Bored? Play gaana! We play gaana for absolutely everything,” he smiles.
But Dheepan’s group has never performed paraiattam for a funeral. “During a funeral, performers have to beat their parai till the body reaches the grave, or else the performers would be beaten,” he rues.
The physical pain though does not hurt Dheepan as much as the mental agony due to marginalisation. “Wherever we perform, people ask us if we want anything to drink. We are all teetottlers, but people assume that parai artists are all alcoholics,” he says.
Dheepan also faces caste discrimination when he travels outside of the city. “When we go to rural areas, villagers brandish knives at us, preventing us from entering their village as they think we belong to the most backward castes,” he avers. But the reality is that Dheepan’s troupe is filled with parai enthusiasts. A Muslim and even women are part of the 15-member strong paraiattam troupe. In the last decade, his troupe has performed for marriages, events, IT parks, at many functions during national holidays and even at the Chennai Sangamam. “These days, work is hard to come by, and even if people do employ us, they don’t pay much. They don’t think too highly of parai artists. They should start paying the art form, not the artist.”
If you’d like to book Dheepan and his troupe, or buy a parai, call 9551746614 or 7871817647. They’re performing at the Urur Olcott Kuppam Vizha this Saturday (Feb 27).
■ The parai is made out cow skin
■ But no animal is killed to make a parai. All parts except the head and tail are used to make a parai
■ The skin of the cow is drenched in water for three to four hours
■ A combination of grounded tamarind seeds and hibiscus leaves are used as a gum
■ The rim of the intrument is made of wood from jackfruit tree
■ Fire plays an important part in tuning the instrument
■ The difficulty in paraiattam comes when you have to beat the drum and at the same time dance
■ Since the dance is not choreographed, artists have to pay attention to their peers
■ Parai artists use their eyes for communication