Chennai-based Sound Mani makes sound effort to revive lesser-known instruments
Meet Manikandan, who has been reviving lesser-known instruments by taking it to the masses through performances, documentaries and music workshops.
Damuchuku damuchuku, dandanakku, dandanakku plays Manikandan, rhythmically on his parai, for a pumped-up audience at the Dubai 2022 Expo. "Listen carefully and clap after every beat,"he encourages the crowd.
The 22-year-old sound engineering graduate from Chennai recently bagged the opportunity to showcase his skills on an international platform. "I was frowned upon by my family and kicked out of the house for wanting to play the instrument. I’m now earning a livelihood, supporting my family, and going places, all because of the parai," shares Mani, over a call from Dubai. Play, preserve, pass on.
Fondly called 'Sound Mani' in his social circle, he performs over 80 native instruments, including those from the Sangam era. However, the Erode native’s musical journey began with parai 20 years back, as a kid.
"I enjoyed watching people play parai during village festivals. I would forget all my sorrows and dance with them. My parents discouraged the idea of even holding or touching it. I was told that it was meant to be played by the marginalised community. And, the way people treated those who played parai disturbed me and made me think. I got to learn the instrument after a long time and pursue a profession, in 2018," recalls Mani, who graduated from MGR Government Film and Television Institute, Taramani.
While he joined the course expecting something entirely different, it equipped him with many aspects of sound, he shares. While the stigma towards the instrument persists, Mani, in all possible ways, is giving it a new lease of life among today's generation.
"As a kid, I made my own parai, covering both sides of a rice sieve by using a chart and would beat it with a stick. My mother would tear and throw it outside. Today, along with the many types of parai, there are other instruments resting at my house. Even my family knows to play parai. I'm glad that I’ve been able to change their mindset, and I hope to bring that transformation in society too," details Mani, who started the Parai Circle, where he conducts workshop sessions for all people around the globe, during the pandemic.
For someone who's picked up the art of playing all kinds of instruments by merely observing, Mani is going the extra mile to share his knowledge with other music lovers. He conducts online classes for students from countries like Oman, Dubai, Canada and the US; and has also been performing around the world.
As a service, he offers free classes to students from government schools and in-person workshops for those interested. Speaking about his pandemic-birthed project called the Parampara Trust and its purpose, he explains, "I allot a small portion of my fees from programmes and classes for struggling folk artistes who've gone out of business in the last two years. Through the government-registered trust, we've helped over 4,000 pambai, parai, therukoothu artistes from Erode, Tirupur, Coimbatore and Salem."
Music for the masses
Besides this, to turn the spotlight on the treasure house of instruments available in Tamil Nadu, he started a YouTube channel. It has over 75k subscribers with a crore view. Kinaram, one of his 16-minute documentaries, portrays the life of Arunachalam, the only artiste from Tirupur who plays this instrument that’s mentioned in Sangam literature.
"Take udukai, I was one of the few to bring out its healing properties. Around four lakh people learn the instrument, and I personally teach 2,000 students. In my collection, I have pidil or kottankuchi violin (often used by gypsies), magudi (used by snake charmers), kokkarai (made of cow horn and used by soldiers), munnarivippu kuzhal (used by honey gatherers to communicate in forests), siruparai (kurinji parai), mooku kuzhal (used by tribals). The instruments were designed in a way that playing them would increase the strength of breathing - like a conch; a 96-year-old man near our house plays it even today during the Tamil month of Purattasi," he details.
Playing an instrument is equivalent to exercising and prolonging the lifespan, emphasises Mani. "Our humble peepee is marketed today as kazoo. Our own isai kinnam, made in Thanjavur and Kumbakonam, is sold as a Tibetan bowl for an exorbitant price. A whole business of music therapy has been built out of it. We need to realise its importance. And, introducing kids to these instruments at an early age can activate their tongue movement," suggests Mani, who connects with instrument makers for bulk orders from his followers.
"Sometimes I get instruments from abroad. I also design most of them for myself by observing master craftsmen at work, literature references on the measurement of the instruments and through videos as I cannot afford to buy them. If instruments are not played then even the makers will disappear and run out of business," urges the Kalaivalarmani recipient.
Mani's motto is music for all. And he believes that everybody who has a heartbeat can feel the rhythm. "Recently, on Shivaratri, I explained some of the instruments to MP Kanimozhi Karunanidhi and Durga Stalin. I have the passion and capacity to maintain even 1,000 instruments at my house. I would love to have exhibitions and my idea of one is where I can explain the instrument to people and let them play it. That’s how you build awareness and not merely by letting them watch behind the glass doors. All our native instruments need to be identified and celebrated," he sums up.
(For details, visit YouTube channel @Sound Mani or Instagram @soundmani_official)