The Sound of the Fury

How an ancient art form became a symbol of resistance

The founders of the Neelam Kalai Kuzhu are fourth-generation Tamil migrants in Mumbai, who are based in Dharavi. nikhil latagajanan
01 August, 2019

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.

The founders of the Neelam Kalai Kuzhu are fourth-generation Tamil migrants in Mumbai. Since the 1960s, many Dalit and other oppressed-caste families began migrating to the financial capital from Tamil Nadu, particularly the district of Tirunelveli. They were fleeing caste atrocities, as well as seeking employment, since land back home was concentrated in the hands of the dominant castes. Tamil Nadu was known for its leather industry, and Dharavi, where most members of these communities settled, became a major centre for tanneries.

In 2014, Raja Kutty, who runs a shop in Dharavi, started the Jai Bhim Foundation along with his elder brother Suresh Kumar, his sister-in-law Vennila Kartikaran and his friend Nithyanand. The JBF’s aim was to raise awareness about caste discrimination by popularising the writings of the anti-caste intellectuals BR Ambedkar and Periyar.

On 17 January 2016, Rohith Vemula, a doctoral student at the University of Hyderabad, committed suicide following a discriminatory discipline process that led to his expulsion, sparking nationwide outrage. The JBF was part of a joint-action committee that organised a peaceful protest rally in Dharavi. The rally, which was reportedly attended by some five hundred people, was attacked by activists from the Hindu-nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Several protestors were hospitalised with injuries.

According to a social-media post by Ajmal Khan, one of the protestors injured in the attack, the police refused to intervene despite being present at the scene. “To lodge a complaint against the attackers, the protesters had to camp outside the Dharavi police station.” It was only when they refused to leave that the police agreed to file a complaint under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. However, soon after the crowd dispersed, the police released the RSS activists it had detained, who filed a complaint of their own, against Raja and other organisers of the protest. The matter was eventually resolved through police mediation, but Raja and two others continue to attend hearings in a case filed against them, for organising the protest without obtaining a no-objection certificate from the police.

The clash changed how the founders of the JBF perceived their role in the anti-caste movement—simply organising events on the birth anniversaries of social reformers was not enough to get the people on their side. To better reach the masses, they formed the Neelam Kalai Kuzhu as a cultural wing. Ideology and culture, they realised, could not be seen separately. Art could bring people together, and its role was not limited to entertainment. It could be used to generate mass awareness. “Art and culture was there from the time of Buddha, Charvaka, Sant Kabir to the present time of Annabhau Sathe,” Raja told me. “Everything came to us through the culture only.”

Since the elders in their community had never played the parai due to the stigma attached to the instrument, the members of the NKK picked up the basics from artists based in Tamil Nadu, and began developing their own techniques. As they engaged in their weekly practice, people would gather to listen. While people are often unresponsive to direct political engagement, the music worked to break the silence. The audience often responded to their anti-caste message with questions, leading to long conversations.

Raja said that the NKK had decided not to carry on the traditional system of playing the parai at religious rituals and funerals. Instead, the group wants to change the parai into a symbol of resistance. “We work with the ideologies of Dr Ambedkar, Periyar and Marx, and we aim to spread our ideas through this medium of music. For us, the parai is a tool to unite people and make them aware about social realities.” The Hindu Right was using culture to spread hate and communal divides, he added, and the NKK was looking to do the polar opposite, using the parai to promote social justice.

The NKK’s efforts echo similar attempts made to liberate the parai from its caste-based roots. In 2006, Manimaran, a former child labourer who had learnt the instrument at an orphanage, decided to no longer perform at funerals. A year later, he formed the Buddhar Kalaikuzhu, a group that performs parai attam and conducts classes. Many of its students belong to dominant castes. “I played at so many funerals that the music itself began to hurt me,” Manimaran told the Indian Express, in 2016. “I wanted to enjoy playing the instrument.” In 2011, V Shakthi, a software engineer based in Coimbatore, formed Team Nimirvu Kalaiyagam, to perform, popularise and teach parai attam. Raja and Suresh rued, however, that much of this rehabilitation was being personally funded by enthusiasts, without much collaboration. They were also concerned about whether these movements were furthering the anti-caste struggle that is central to their work, rather than focussing on individual fame and success.

Besides cultural performances, the NKK organises occasional group discussions. People in the neighbourhood—both adults and children—gather to read books by social reformers, share thoughts and plan future activities. The children in the group have begun setting up a community library. The Tamil founders of the group have approached other communities in Dharavi to join their cause. They now work alongside Telugu-speaking people, as well as those from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Maharashtra. They want to increase female participation, but women have been hesitant to join, since the group practises in an open space and often faces local opposition.

Though the NKK members’ families moved to Mumbai to escape caste discrimination, caste never left them. It plays a critical role in Dharavi as well. The slum is divided into different parts, each with its particular caste and identity politics. Many of the dominant-caste Marathi-speaking residents are supporters of the RSS. The NKK’s founders alleged that under the influence of the RSS, the local police repeatedly refused them permission to hold events. Raja said that some members of the group had noticed suspicious people following them. During the campaign for the general election earlier this year, the group’s members heard that the RSS had despatched assailants to attack them, and chose to temporarily suspend its activities.

A noise complaint was recently filed against the group. Since then, they are not allowed to practise in the open ground in their locality, which also hosts the local RSS shakha—branch. As a result, they now gather at the Bandra Kurla Complex. The NKK’s members continue their attempts to expand the discourse around caste, despite having to balance their activism with providing for their families. The difficulties they face, Raja told me, only motivates them to stand firm and continue their struggle for a cultural revolution against injustice and discrimination.