On a Sunday morning at the usually crowded Bandra Kurla Complex in Mumbai, the loud beating of drums began echoing through empty streets. It was a group of youths from Dharavi, the largest slum in Asia, who had gathered for their weekly practice of parai attam.
The youths, part of a group called the Neelam Kalai Kuzhu—Blue Arts Collective—began by chanting a Tamil slogan:
Parai ongi olikatum
Idhu uzhaikum makkalin viduthalaikai
Engal parai mulakam savukaga alla
Uzhaikum makkalin valvukaga
Onki adipathil kiliyatum
Paraigal alla suya sathiya perumai pesuvor mugathiraigal
Let the parai sound loudly
For the freedom of the working people
Our parai shouts not for death
But for the life of the working people
By beating loudly
Let the veils of proud casteists be torn apart
Parai attam refers to a performance of the parai—a hollow drum made of a wooden frame, with cow skin stretched over one side, played with sticks of unequal size and thickness—accompanied by a folk dance. The parai is said to be one of the oldest percussion instruments in human history. It has its origins in ancient Tamil society, where it had several uses: gathering people, broadcasting announcements and warnings, celebrating weddings and festivals, as well as invoking divine spirits during funeral processions.
Over the years, it was the last usage that came to be identified with the instrument. Under Brahminical orthodoxy, the parai was considered a funereal instrument played only by Dalits. “You play the tabla, you play the mridangam, but you beat parai,” Avatthi Ramaiah, a professor in the centre for the study of social exclusion and inclusive policy at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai, told me. “The word itself suggests how much prejudice there is behind it.” The stigma associated with parai attam was passed down the generations. Most Dalits stopped playing the instrument during the Self-Respect Movement led by the social activist Periyar E Ramasamy in the early twentieth century. In 1987, during a protest in the Cuddalore district of Tamil Nadu, a Dalit scholar was reportedly murdered for suggesting that people from other castes could play the parai.