It is perhaps fitting that we meet in the shadow of Ambedkar at the BR Ambedkar Manimandapam in Chennai. Manimaran keeps his instrument on the side — wiping his forehead with a piece of cloth — as we take our place below a tree that has overshot a concrete sidewall in a way that almost supplies the metaphor for his life. His wife and sons — who are accompanying him — take their place at the far end of the open chamber, hiding themselves behind pillars. “I ran away from home when I was 11 years old and worked as a child labourer in Hyderabad, Bangalore and Mumbai. At 16, I somehow managed to escape to Chennai,” he says. He does not know who his father was and his childhood, he says, has been too traumatic to remember.
Manimaran, 40, started playing the parai — believed to be one of the oldest instruments in the world — when he was still with his family. He started going to the performances of Gana — music genre associated with the marginalised in Chennai — when he was five or six years old, playing with tumblers, spoons and buckets. “Everyone from my family played the parai and so I went with them. They played at funerals. We would start at night and go on till the morning. When the players got tired, I would replace them and that is how I learned,” he says.
The parai — much like Bharatnatyam — has a caste-aligned history in Tamil Nadu. The instrument has — for time immemorial — been associated with the Dalit community. Resembling a flat board, cut from the wood of a neem tree and in the shape of an arc, the parai is a hollow drum played by two sticks of different length and thickness. Usually accompanied by a dance called attam — the performance called parai attam — the instrument has been around for centuries and has been played in the courts of the Cholas and the Pandiyans. The word ‘parai’ itself means to ‘speak’ or ‘tell’ and for centuries the instrument was used to announce messages.
At the age of 16, Manimaran arrived in Chennai and started sweeping the streets and marriage halls to make money. It was then that the orphanage Nesa Karam rescued him from a life on the streets. There — under the tutelage of Alagarsami Vadhiyar of Sivagangai — he received his first formal training lessons in parai. “The people at the NGO recognised my talent. Although Vadhiyar forced me to play the thavil, my heart had already settled on the parai,” he says.
At Nesa Karam, Manimaran also recorded his first musical performance. In 1997 — when he was 21 — the orphanage released an album titled Salai Orapookal. The eight songs in the cassette were written by Manimaran and it was his first foray into writing. “I didn’t exactly write the songs down. I used to just sing whenever I’d remember my painful childhood,” he says as he looks at his sons, sitting in the distance. By this time, Manimaran had started to make a name for himself in Chennai. The Carnatic singer Unnikrishnan publically acknowledged his admiration for the lyrics used in the songs.
Following his first album, he managed to release two more — Vizhitiru Vizhirtiru (about social awareness on child labour and abuse) and Kalakal Gana (released with the help of Gana Ulaganathan — another famous Tamil singer). But despite the highs his musical career had begun to hit, the practical realities of life never let Manimaran off the hook. Though he began teaching music to children at the orphanage, he struggled financially. Any help that would otherwise be forthcoming for another artiste was blocked by his Dalit identity. Consequently, he resorted to driving an autorickshaw. Without a family to care for, for nearly two years he made the autorickshaw his home. But all that changed during his final days at the orphanage where he met Magizhini. “She worked at the NGO and we fell in love. She is a singer and has sung a couple of hit Tamil songs as well. Most of the songs that I have written have been sung by her,” he says.
Other than the ancient history of parai, its symbolism is acquired from within a modern context. That the parai is only played at the funerals is inaccurate. It is played at other occasions as well — like childbirth and marriages. But caste has almost always been factored as a reason — and not a mere happenstance — when someone chooses to play the instrument. If not for his Dalit roots, Manimaran would have never even come close to the parai.
But the going is not by any means easy. In 1987, during a protest in Cuddalore, a Dalit scholar was murdered for suggesting that parai could be played by people who were not Dalits. Such is the depth of discrimination which Manimaran is attempting to fight.
He stopped playing at funerals 10 years ago and in 2007, formed the group Buddhar Kalaikuzhu — that began taking the parai attam to stages elsewhere. The journey, however, wouldn’t be simple. “I played at so many funerals that the music itself began to hurt me. I wanted to enjoy playing the instrument. So, I said to myself that I won’t play at funerals. But since I’m a Dalit, artistes have always been against me. I have only studied till the sixth standard and that gives people another reason to judge me. My son is the first one in the family to have sat for the class 10 board exam,” he says.
Of the 300 odd songs that Manimaran has written, almost half are on the issue of child labour. Because of his personal history, his music fails to exit the shackles of grief of his tortuous childhood. Things have, however, changed over the last couple of years. Manimaran recently toured Sri Lanka with his group — where he taught people about the instrument and its history. In Chennai, he now conducts a two-hour class every Sunday at one of the premier open theatres of Chennai, Spaces — at Elliot’s beach — for free. It is heartening to know that of the 40-odd people attending his classes, a significant number belong to the upper caste. “His music has a rhythm that goes to your pulse. You feel like dancing. It is not just a question of my letting him have the place for free. I think everyone should,” says art and culture critic, Sadanand Menon, the founder of Spaces.
For his two sons — Samaran (14) and Iniyan (13) — however, Manimaran envisions a different future. “I don’t want them to play the parai. Not because I find it troubling — they already know the instrument — but because I want them to choose for themselves, find their own instrument, their own love for music. Ever since I was little, I witnessed only funerals and the drudgery of labour and work. I want my sons to have a future, unlike me. They don’t have to be afraid to look back at their childhood. I want them to celebrate life — not death,” he says.