Imagine a pit covered with the skin of an ox. The hairy surface is on top and the hairy tail of the ox is still connected to the animal hide or skin. The cover is nailed to the ground at several places. And the ox tail becomes the drum stick. This is not a fantasy drum. It seems this was one of the earliest ways our ancestors in India made drums. It was called the bhoomi dundubhi or the earth drum.
In countries like Indonesia and Malaysia, they made another kind of earth drum. They dug a deep hollow in the ground, covered it with planks on which women jumped in tune with the music.
Our early ancestors had very clever ways of making drums. Sometimes, what they did was cut down a tree, and scoop out the wood inside. Just like the man at the ice cream shop takes out a scoop of ice cream from the container. The tree trunk became hollow. Then they covered it with animal skin, and hey presto! the forest came alive with the sound of the tree drum. The earliest drums probably stood like trees and were played on one side.
If you want an idea of what the tree drum looked like, you must look at the standing drums from Andhra Pradesh. They are called the ronza and runza but are made of brass instead of wood. Some of the tree drums found in Africa and Mexico are as high as three metres! How do you think they are played?
Wood drums are used even today. The kharram is played in Assam, the dhol is played in Andhra Pradesh. But these drums are not kept on the floor and are not so large.
It is in Kerala that you may be able to see a descendant of the tree drum. Here coconut and palm trees are found in plenty. They are cut, made hollow from inside and then covered with leather.
There was another kind of drum — the mud or clay drum. It not only looked like a mud vessel, it was a cooking and storing pot too! When our ancestors had to use them as drums, they would cover the vessels and start their rhythms.
They even had the same words to describe the cooking vessel and the drum in several Dravidian languages.The words para, pare and pirai are used for drums as well as storage pots.
The drums were made in familiar shapes — circular pots, shallow pans and long- necked jars. In India today, you can spot the pot-like dardura, the pan-like tasha and the jar shaped tumbaknari.
Our ancestors liked mud because it was easier to make shapes out of it than out of wood. It was easier to use, but also easy to break. Though wood and clay drums continued to be made, in time, humans started making metal drums.