History & Culture

Striving to 'parai' relevant to young audiences

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Members of Team Nimirvu Kalaiyagam strive to safeguard the heritage of parai, even as they find ways to keep the art form relevant to young audiences

When software professional and parai music trainer V Shakthi launched Team Nimirvu Kalaiyagam (TNK) in Coimbatore in 2011, his mission was not just to safeguard the traditional folk dance parai attam, but also to promote it.

Striving to 'parai' relevant to young audiences

Members of TNK gave a lecture-demonstration at the event organised by The Master Class recently that also showcased silambam by Ganapthy M and yoga by Prabhakaran K, to coincide with Pongal. Saravana Kanth, a software trainer and parai attam practitioner based out of Sivakasi, says, “Parai attam, which uses a traditional drum [called parai] and rhythmic dance movements, is one of the most ancient folk arts of Tamil Nadu. We at TNK make an attempt to popularise it in small towns and big cities. There used to be 156 different adi (drum beats) to denote different occasions and emotions, but over many centuries, it has become just music played at funerals.”

“It is this class demarcation and marginalisation that we are fighting,” says Meenakshi S, who is pursuing her PhD in English Literature at the University of Madras. “I have chosen parai as my research topic and have come to realise that it is not only a dance form, but a revolution. I underwent training in this folk art for a year, amidst a lot of discouragement from my own family,” she says.

Behind the myth

“It is believed that Shiva and Parvathy themselves had written down the notes for the adi and the adavu (dance steps) for parai attam,” says Muthamizh Bharathi, an IT professional based in Chennai. Like Meenakshi, Bharathi had also undergone the course offered by TNK and is now a trainer.

Striving to 'parai' relevant to young audiences

“Members of TNK perform only at the celebratory events, and adapt to any stage, both outdoor and indoors. We don’t perform where alcohol is served. Members of the audiences are not permitted to join us and dance, but they are welcome to dance along when we play freestyle. Ultimately, the aim is to maintain the sanctity of the art from and redeem it,” says Bharathi.

What is Parai?
  • The parai is a drum that is about 35 centimetres in diameter. It consists of a shallow ring of neem wood, covered on one side with buffalo skin glued to the wooden frame.
  • The instrument is played with two sticks: one long, flat bamboo stick called Sunddu Kucchi (high pitch, 28 cm) and a short, thick stick called Adi Kucchi (base note, 18 cm).
  • This traditional percussion instrument is suspended by a shoulder strap. It is held vertically by pushing it towards the dancer’s body; this allows the drummer to play while standing, walking, or dancing. There are five basic rhythms in the dance form: Othayadi, Thenmangu, Saamiyaattam, Thullal and Uyirppu, but it may vary from region to region.

“Together we maintain self-discipline and follow our professional and ethical codes. Audiences would not dance along with classical dancers or clap along when a mridangam is being played,” points out Meenakshi, adding, “Parai artists expect the same kind of discipline. We stop playing if we are disgraced or disrespected.”

“The performers perform wearing blue jeans, black T-shirts and heavy anklets over red shoes. “It is a statement we make, a message, a revolution. All aimed at popularising the art and taking it close to the youth,” says Kanth.

Striving to 'parai' relevant to young audiences

TNK is also working on collaborating with other artists. For example, Bharatanatyam or western dance is performed to parai beats. Learning this dance form is definitely not an easy task, says Meenakshi. It requires immense physical strength and fitness levels. “The beat of parai can stir your soul, shake you up and has the ability to stimulate your nerves. This could be one of the reasons why it is often played at funerals. It is believed that when someone dies and parai is played, if he or she does not move then it is confirmed that the person is dead. Apart from this, parai has nothing to do with funerals,” says Meenakshi.

Ancient beats

    In Tamil, the word parai, means ‘to say’ or ‘announce’. Historically, important announcements were made after playing this instrument to get the attention of the villagers. It was hence used by rulers in ancient times.

    The members of TNK hail from varied backgrounds. Trainers visit Government schools, orphanages and special schools to train children free of cost. They say that the response of special children has been remarkable. “Parai, Kalai, Iyarkai, Makkal (Parai, Art, Nature, People)” being the mantra for TNK members, they say that it is not just an instrument. It is an emotion.

    Learn Paraiattam

    TNK offers a six-month course in Parai Attam, which is open to people in all age groups. The classes are conducted at Chellammbal College for Women in Guindy, during second and fourth Sundays of the month, and it costs Rs 500 per month. 9944952893

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    Printable version | Jan 28, 2020 7:05:14 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/parai-attam-the-ancinet-folk-dance-of-tamil-nadu/article22449763.ece

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