“This Is A Music” screens at noon on Saturday, June 11th at the Downtown Library
The film This Is A Music: Reclaiming An Untouchable Drum covers a lot of ground. Part musicological documentary, part call to arms for a social liberation movement, it is filled with interesting social anthropology, stirring musical performances, and surprisingly moving moments of humanity. Imagine a National Geographic special, but with more warmth and heart.
Dr. Zoe Sherinian, a two-time Fulbright scholar and the Chair of Ethnomusicology at the University of Oklahoma, wanted to make a film that could be shown to educate viewers about the folkways of Southern India.
“My goal is to provide more multimedia educational materials for fellow scholars in my field,” Sherinian says. “I like to teach about India in a way that more fully represents the culture of the majority of Indians, which is a folk culture.”
However, the film’s scope encompasses more than just music; it also discusses grassroots attempts by the drummers to re-appropriate their folk culture and art as sources of pride rather than shame.
This Is A Music follows Sherinian as she travels to Munaivendri, a small village in Tamil Nadu, India, and joins a local group of drummers who play the “parai” drum. The group, called Kuriji Malar, accepted her quickly into the group, and she began to learn both the musical and cultural significance of the parai drum. When she first arrived in Munaivendri in 2008, the members of Kuriji Malar were shocked. Not because a white woman from America wanted to join a folk drumming troupe in Southern India, or because she wanted to make a film about their semi-professional ensemble, but because of the name she called the drum they would be teaching her to play.
She called it “parai,” the technical name, but was quickly informed that the drummers did not like using the term. They preferred the term “drumset,” due to the perceived derogatory nature of the word “parai”.
“Parai” is a loaded word in India. Although it means “to announce” (one of its many purposes in traditional village life), parai has taken on an offensive connotation, especially to the purveyors of its music. Since the drum is made of calf-skin or buffalo skin, it can only be played by members of the “untouchable” caste in India, the “paraiyars.” The name of the drum lends itself to the term for the untouchables, and also is the basis for the English word “pariah.” Parai has historically only been used to degrade the musicians who play the drum, so the word has attained a similar status to certain racial slurs in the Western world. It is ironic that the only people who are allowed to play the drum are considered subhuman, and yet play a pivotal role in so many aspects of village life such as harvest festivals and funeral rites.
Over the course of This Is A Music, viewers see the members of Kuriji Malar in their daily lives, in rehearsal, and finally performing at a nationally recognized folk festival, the Chennai Sangamam folk festival. It’s uplifting to see their amazement upon arrival at Chennai Sangamam, as they see all the other musicians and performers who they will perform alongside.
“They were so impressed with the respect that parai drumming received,” Dr. Sherinian says. “Unfortunately, upon returning to their village after their great success at the festival, they were still outcasts. They were cautious to express this newfound sense of pride publicly for fear that their upper caste patrons would resent it and refuse to hire them.”
Perhaps the most interesting (and certainly the most ingratiating) aspect of This Is A Music, though, is the passion with which is was made. Early in the film, there is a shot of Sherinian sitting cross-legged beside one of her colleagues as she interviews him. At one point, she has a huge smile on her face as she listens, and it becomes clear how much she enjoys her life’s work.
Go up and talk to Sherinian after the screening on Saturday. The vibrancy and excitement in her voice as she talks about the film will make you smile, too.