A Parai Drumset

Graduate students from India organized a Diwali celebration at the university last weekend. One of the programs was by a professor of "ethnomusicology". She'd spent several years in South India doing research on Dalit/Adivasi ("aborigine") drumming and is making a documentary on the tribals and their culture.

We got to talking to her after the program. The art form, apparently, is becoming more professional. It used to be the kind of music that village people would get to play at weddings, parades and funerals. Forty or fifty years ago, the tribals had to show up when commanded to do so and take whatever they were offered. Otherwise, they might get beaten. But now, young tribals are moving out and seeking better oppportunities. So, there's a movement afoot to preserve these cultures before they vanish. There's a huge native arts festival every February in Chennai (the state capital). Everybody who's anybody (the Chief Minister on downwards) shows up. The tribal musicians are now rather well-respected and highly sought after. If you want them to play at your function, you call them on the cell phone and negotiate an hourly rate. They cost more, much more, than a band of Carnatic musicians.

The tribals don't call their music by its traditional name "parai" any more. "Parai", of course, has a rather negative connotation -- it is the root of the word "Pariah", a Tamil word that made its way into English. So if you want tribal music at your wedding, what do you now ask for? You ask for a "drumset" -- an English word that has now made its way into Tamil.

Ironic that the class-conscious British would borrow the Tamil word, and that the upwardly mobile, assertive tribals would turn to an English word to paper over their discomfiting history.

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