An all-girls parai team from Chennai are drumming up sensational beats

Watch | An all-girls parai team from Chennai are drumming up sensational beats
| Video Credit: Shiva Raj

Meet the members of an all-girls parai group in Tamil Nadu. These students from a school in Chennai’s Besant Nagar drums up a beat that is impossible to resist

Updated - April 25, 2024 03:16 pm IST

Published - April 25, 2024 02:00 pm IST

The wardens and teachers of Besant Nagar’s Avvai Home TVR Girls’ Higher Secondary School are insistent about preserving the sanctity of lunches and dinners at this school cum boarding. They hope for quiet meals with as little food wastage.

On days when food is delayed by a few minutes though, a concert of cacophony brews. Students like A Kaviya, hold their plates as one would, the parai, and begin with simple beats. Their vaai paadu (vocal rhythms) spill out through spoons and fingers become their kutchi (sticks). “We do not need much. Even a table would do. I have broken pots at home because of banging a tune on them,” she says.

The parai attam artistes from Avvai Home TVR Girls’ Higher Secondary School

The parai attam artistes from Avvai Home TVR Girls’ Higher Secondary School | Photo Credit: S Shiva Raj

During moments like this, the canteen hears booming percussive sounds — thaku-ku-tha, being the most basic of the vaai paadu holding the instrumentalists together. A symphony ensues. A dance breaks out.

Kaviya’s obsession with catchy beats is not entirely her own. The school has meticulously groomed a group of 20 young women to form the only regularly performing all-girls parai attam group in Chennai. For two days a week between 3pm and 5pm, the foray of this school resembles a concert venue as the girls learn new dance routines while playing this ancient percussion instrument.

At the Urur Olcott Kuppam Vizha in January 2024.

At the Urur Olcott Kuppam Vizha in January 2024. | Photo Credit: S Shiva Raj

N Deepan, their parai aatam teacher who has been teaching the girls since 2016, says that three such teams of ‘Avvai Home Girls’ playing the parai, have graduated. The current crew is relatively new and had most recently played at the Urur Olcott Kuppam Vizha in January this year. “Don’t buy their shy demeanour. They are all vaaiadis (chatterboxes),” he says.

Deepan, who runs the popular Nanbargal Gramiya Kalai Kuzhu (Friends Folk Cultural Crew) out of Korukkupet in North Madras, says that he has seen this group blossom over time. His time as an instructor has been different because girls usually do not play the parai. The instrument, for the longest time, was only played by men. More recently, mixed groups of men and women play together. However, it is rare to see a team entirely of girls, playing this instrument.

“Adding a cultural programme to their education has increased their confidence significantly. You should see the number of cups they have won over the years. Everyone knows what to expect from the Avvai Home Girls — a great performance,” he says.

The parai attam artistes from Avvai Home TVR Girls’ Higher Secondary School.

The parai attam artistes from Avvai Home TVR Girls’ Higher Secondary School. | Photo Credit: S Shiva Raj

Sangeetha Shivakumar, part of the core team organising the Urur Olcott Kuppam Vizha, says that the parai attam programme began at Avvai Home in 2016 as part of the Vizha’s cultural outreach. An extensive selection process ensued when an announcement regarding parai training was made. “Several people turned up for the audition. We had to filter over several rounds. There was great enthusiasm,” she says.

She adds that they performed at the festival in 2017. “It was envisioned as a programme for that year alone but on the day of the festival something changed. One of the girls looked terribly sad and asked me ‘Avlo dhana?’.. ‘Is this it?’. That is when we decided to keep the programme going,” she says.

Charulatha, a student of Class XII who is graduating from the school this year, has been playing the parai since Class VII. “I love to dance. I would stand outside the parai class and watch everyone perform because the beats would be extremely catchy. I’ve learnt over time, so much so that I have blisters from playing the instrument. I wear them with pride,” she says.

At the Urur Olcott Kuppam Vizha in January 2024.

At the Urur Olcott Kuppam Vizha in January 2024. | Photo Credit: S Shiva Raj

Students from the group have gone on to play at a number of festivals and events organised by the Department of Arts and Culture of the Tamil Nadu Government. R Monika, a student of Class VIII says that her favourite performances has been the Urur Kuppam Vizha, where there were hundreds of onlookers who chanted enthusiastic ‘hey’s, disco lights, gentle sea breeze and the air of festivity. Charulatha adds that winning second place at the event organised by the TN government is a memory she will cherish. “The judges began dancing with us too,” she says.

Charulatha says that she is leaving school soon and the opportunities to play the parai will significantly diminish. Does this mean she will have to give up playing the instrument? “I have already booked a spot with Deepan anna’s group. We create a ruckus during meal time here despite the scolding. The beat is a part of us. It isn’t going anywhere,” she says.

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