Video Editor: Ashutosh Bharadwaj
Cameraperson: Smitha TK
Deepan and Rajan are 'parai' artists by passion but the art has not been adequate to feed them during the COVID-19 pandemic. Since the age of four, the young men in their 20s have been fascinated by Tamil folk arts and so they made it their way of life.
However, the coronavirus pandemic robbed them of their livelihoods as the lockdown rules prohibited the participation of musicians at weddings, funerals and political meetings. To manage their household expenses, the brothers signed up with the Chennai Corporation to work as COVID volunteers who go door-to-door spreading awareness and highlighting the importance of vaccination.
Juggling Jobs While Keeping Art Relevant
The parai is a hollow drum played by two sticks of different length and thickness.
Deepan lives with his wife, mother and brother Rajan in a small one-storey building in North Chennai. On a regular festival or muhurtham day, the brothers' calendar used to be packed with appointments to play at different events. Their last performance was during Pongal in January 2020, and for the next eight months, they were unable to earn.
"We were eating three meals a day, but due to COVID we could afford only two meals a day. We had to borrow money, mortgaged our jewels,
and sell our 'parai' raw materials to manage the lockdown," Deepan told The Quint.
"The government had instructed landlords not take rent from us during the pandemic. But landowners ask us to pay it completely at the end of the year. So, we had to give up all our savings to pay that off," said Rajan.
Deepan then began working as a social worker with the municipal corporation in Chennai's JJ Nagar, for Rs 12,000 per month. He also drives an auto rickshaw through which he earns Rs 300 to Rs 500 every day.
While juggling many jobs, the brothers have managed to keep their love for the art relevant even during the pandemic, by including local Tamil folk arts in their awareness programmes. Donning the costume that resembles the coronavirus, the brothers have composed a series of songs that urge people to follow quarantine norms.
They created a page on Facebook to offer classes and sell 'parai'. Within a week they received over 10 orders.
"The speciality of North Chennai is gaana songs. I have worked as a registrar, a logistics supervisor, security supervisor and several other jobs
but I get satisfaction only by playing the parai," said Deepan.
Brothers Breaking Caste Perceptions
Parai, believed to be one of the oldest instruments in the world is associated with the marginalised. The instrument has, for time immemorial, been associated with the Dalit community. The word ‘parai’ means ‘speak’ or "tell". For centuries the instrument was used to announce messages and is played at funerals, weddings and child birth functions. These brothers have been shattering the caste perception for years.
"When we look tired at an event, people assume that people like us would’ve gone to do manual labour. They are shocked to hear I am educated and more so when they find out I have a postgraduate degree," said Rajan.
Appeal to Keep the Artists Alive
Many artists have quit the folk arts out of sheer poverty. The brothers have appealed to the government to create job opportunities to keep the art and the artists alive.
"Many artists have quit this due to COVID and if the pandemic continues, these folk arts will be erased from everyone’s memory," said Deepan.
"If the situation persists we may be forced to look at doing manual labour to sustain ourselves. Just when artists like me took up this as a profession,
the pandemic has made our commitment slowly decline," said Rajan.