Friday, 30 June 2017


Dr M Lalitha and M Nandini

Pambai, a pair of drums, is an integral part of folk ensembles and temple festivals.

The inspiration for this week’s column came from the festival at our father’s native place Madurai. We offered prayers to our Kuladeivam and witnessed the temple festival, where they played the twin drums. Fascinated by its sound we decided to know more about the instrument.
The instrument is known as Pambai/Pampai, which is a pair of drums cylindrical in shape. Also known as Pamba, this instrument with four faces, conjoined and kept one on top of the other, comes under the category of the Avanaddha Vadyas. In the pair, the longer one having a deeper tone is known as the Periya (big) Kottu while the smaller one, the Siriya (small) Kottu.
Different materials are used to make this instrument. The Periya Kottu is made of maram or wood and is also referred to as the Veeru Vanam while the Siriya Kottu is made of Vengalam or brass and is also known as the Vengala Pambai. In some simpler varieties, both the instruments are made of wood. Both the heads are covered with goat skin, attached to a wooden ring with holes through which pass cords joining both faces.
Periya kottu is around 18 inches in length while Siriya Kottu is around 15 inches. As the performers tie this instrument to their waist, they feel comfortable playing them in a standing position. It is also sometimes played in a sitting posture.
The Pambai is played with a stick and sometimes with both stick and hand. Set to a fixed pitch, slow, fast and complex rhythm patterns are produced.
Pambai is used in village temple festivals, as part of an ensemble of folk instruments and as an accompaniment for karagam, poi kal kudhirai, mayilattam and kavadi performances. It is an important instrument used during the thiruvizha in Madurai Thalaiyari Gurunathan temple and Ayyanarpuram for Goddess Angala Parameswari. It is one of the important instruments played during the Panguni Uthiram festival in Palani, held during the month of March. The Pambalas community of southern Andhra Pradesh are said to be the experts in playing this instrument.
Mention about this instrument has been made in the Sangam literature, where the sound of the Pambai is compared to that of the hound dogs.
In the book titled ‘Alaya Vazhipaatil Isai Karuvigal’ by Kausalya R., there is an interesting story associated with the instrument. It is mentioned that during the reign of King Tirumalai Nayakar, an artist called Andi was playing this instrument on the path frequented by the king; hanging it upside down from a tree .
When the king asked Andi why he was playing the instrument in a peculiar way, he replied that there was no place to dry the skin of Pampai. The king pointed towards a rock, now known as Andi Parai, for the purpose.
This instrument is on the verge of extinction. Measures need to be taken to save this musical tradition.

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