“This ‘Dhak’ is our identity. Whenever I strike the dhak, its sound reminds me of the teachings I got from my grandfather. This is not merely an instrument I play, it is the source of my bread and butter, peace for my restless soul, and a medium of prayers to the God”, said Monu Das the dhak (Bengali origin of drum) player from the Pyari Das Lane of Dhaka’s old town.

Carrying the Dhak on his shoulder Monu feels as if he is carrying the legacy of his forefathers. The feeling of Monu is perhaps true. He is not only carrying the legacy of his ancestors but also the legacy of an instrument that has been associated with the people of the Bengal Delta from the medieval period.

Like Dhak, numerous percussion instruments carry the stories of people, their beliefs, traditions, and cultures. In this article, we will explore the stories behind these instruments and the phenomena like, caste and colonialism that played their roles in shaping their stories today.

A brief history of percussions

There are several musical instruments under the ‘Percussion’ category and some of them even date back to thousands of years. The oldest evidence of the percussion instruments claimed to be found in Ukraine. The Mezin archaeological site revealed ancient artifacts dating back 24,000 years, including mammoth bones (scapula, femur) and a reindeer antler hammer. These items, adorned with red ochre and displaying consistent surface damage, have led some to speculate that they might have functioned as percussion instruments (Bellia, 2021).

Regarding this, Dr. Md. Ziaur Rahman (Sayeem Rana), the Associate professor of the Department of Music, University of Dhaka, and a renowned musicologist of the country said, “Percussion instruments were mostly used to create sounds to hunt animals, sometimes they were the mode of celebration after a successful hunt. These instruments played a great role in performing various rituals of the ancient people. Then we see wars, to motivate the soldiers and to intimidate the enemy troops percussion instruments were used, especially, in the cavalry section, they used to carry the band together while marching in the war.”

‘Dhak’ of Bengal Delta

The Dhak, a significant percussion instrument in Bengal, traces its origins to ancient times. Its history is deeply rooted in Bengali culture. As mentioned before, Dhakis (person who plays Dhak) like Monu Das deeply feels the beats of Dhak in his heart.

In Bangladesh, the dawn of the Durga Puja (Major religious festival of the Hindu) begins with Dhak’s beat. Dhakeshwari, a deity of Dhaka, is claimed to be Durga’s incarnation by the Sanatan religion. According to some of the legends, capital Dhaka got its name from Dhakeshwari. Another legend says, when the Mughals arrived the city they marked the area of the capital as far as the sound of Dhak was heard.

Generally, the Dhakis of Bangladesh are from the Rishi sect, a marginalized group of the Sanatan religion having the surname ‘Das.’ Mostly they are known as Monidas and Robidas. Dhakis living in Brahmanbaria use ‘Rishi’ in their name. However, there are Muslim Dhakis too and they use the surname ‘Malakar.’

Why do Rishis are said to be marginalized?

According to the Hindu belief, there are four branches of caste based on social hierarchy. Brahmins top the caste and they are associated with the task of leading and doing the rituals of Sanatani belief. Followed by the Brahmins there are Kshatriya and Vaishya who are to perform the duties of warriors and business respectively. Then come the fourth and the lowest caste ‘Shudra’ who are ordered to do the manual labor.
“Lower caste Hindus were traditionally skinners, leather workers, and musicians; they are also known by the derogatory terms ‘Muchi’, ‘Chamar’, or ‘Charmakar’. In the Hindu world, among these one of the largest are the ‘untouchable’ or ‘Dalit’ communities.” (Rishis of Khulna | SEHD, n.d.)

Most Dhakis of Dhaka live a very humble life. They earn money in the Puja season. Bands earn 30 to 70 thousand Taka or somewhere to that amount in the season. Many Dhakis are leaving their ancestral profession and joining some others for their livelihood.

However, the shadow of caste-system grasped the percussion instrument players of India differently. Dhak, Tabla, Mrdangam, Parai, and Thavil are a few of the hundreds of percussion instruments. Parai is a round-shaped instrument, and on the other hand, Thavil is a barreled-shaped instrument.

The reason behind this description is linked to an incident that took place in the state of Tamil Nadu in 2016. Valayapatti A. R. Subramaniam, a Thavil player who was honored with a Padma Shri (the fourth highest civilian award of India) refused to share the stage with a Parai player. Why? In Subramaniam’s words, Parai is played at funerals and Thavil is the instrument he plays at auspicious events, especially at folk arrangements and in the temples. So, not only the caste, but the use of the instrument at an event made it to a level of hierarchy.

The Parai is also called Thappu. The name was given during the period of Vijayanagara, a 14th-century empire of southern India. This empire has a historical record of racism and
the persecution of the so-called lower caste, so the empire changed the name to Thappu which means misfortune or bad luck.

The hierarchy of the instruments has mythological backings as well. Mrdangam is quite similar to Dhol, and is said to be a divine instrument played by Ganesha the son of lord Shiva, and also played by Nandi who is the carrier of Shiva. Nandi used to play this instrument at the time of Shiva Tandava (the dance of lord Shiva).

This is why the Mrdangam is one of the instruments that stands top of the hierarchy of percussion instruments, especially in the state of Tamil Nadu. On the contrary ‘Thavil’ belongs to the middle class, and ‘Parai’ to the Dalits (the lower caste system of Hinduism). T.M. Krishna, a Carnatic music vocalist, author of the book ‘Sabastian and Sons’ and the recipient of the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award in 2016, talked exclusively with MuSophia.

“The so-called upper-class Brahmins play Mrdangam and take all the credit and pride in making this instrument something of a higher rank, however, they feel shy to talk about the making process. Why? Because the skin of cows and goats is required to make these instruments, and Dalits had to do that. If they talk and accept these facts then the whole narrative of ‘Brahmin protecting the religion’ won’t make sense to them.”

Colonialism and change in African rhythm 

Music transcends borders so does the morsel of oppressors to people and their belongings. The so-called efforts to make ethnic subjects of identity fit for the elites have traveled through the riverine Bengal and reached the continent of Saharan Africa not in the form of caste system only but in the form of colonization.

Victor Kofi Agawu, a renowned Ghanaian musicologist and scholar of ethnomusicology, has used ‘tonality’ to understand the force of European colonizers on the music of Africa. The term ‘Tonality’ was first introduced by Alexander Choron in 1810. It means the arrangements of pitches and/or scales in an order where a dominant tone or characteristic is noticeable (The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1998).

Prof. Agawu believes that the European regime has affected African music. In his book titled ‘Tonality as a Colonizing Force in Africa’, he argues, “The dùndún drumming originates from the Yoruba people of Benin. These drums, also known as hourglass drums, are renowned for their capacity to imitate spoken language and explore a broad range of tones. A drummer can drum in speech mode without actually speaking. (Agawu, 2016).

In an interview with the MuSophia, he said, “See, colonizers had a purpose, their purpose just not confined to ruling and doing business rather to sustain their autonomy in the foreign soil and no medium can serve this purpose other than music.”

AI is shaping the industries of the world. The music industry has already seen its effects. Kofi Agawu thinks AI can play a vital role in this modern era.

Alongside Dundun, Djembe and other percussion instruments have also gone through this transition. The transition of African identity from singing with a high-pitch tone to a tone of the hymn of the churches and these percussion instruments were used to compliment the hymn-type songs rather than representing the ‘African Rhythm’, a term that was coined in the 1950s by A.m. Jones, Allen Merriem and Gilbert Rouget.

One of the most well-known instruments in West Africa is the djembe drum, which is thought to have been created in the 12th century by the Mandinke tribe in what is now Mali. The djembe body is carved from a single hardwood log; historically, the djembe head was made from rawhide, mostly goatskin., but today, other skins, such as antelope, cow, kangaroo, or horse, are also used. Traditionally, only men—known as djembefola—played the djembe. Women rarely played the instrument (Djembe Drums – Powell-Cotton Museum, 2023). Traditionally the rhythm of Dundun and Djembe historically accompanied cultural events like births, harvests, rites, courtship, marriages, welcoming events, and Ramadan.

We are living in the era of Artificial Intelligence. Today any sound, tune, even voice of an artist, anything can be replicable or can be created. So, what transition can we witness in this modern era? Can we put an end to the caste system with AI-generated music? Or the world is going to witness a new type of techno-colonization?


1. Bellia, A. (2021). Angela Bellia, Percussion Instruments in the Ancient World: Towards an Archaeology of Musical Performance, in Saura-Ziegelmeyer A. (ed), Percussion Instruments: Organology, Perceptions, Multi-functionality, Pallas, CXV, 2020, pp. 19-23.

2. Olivannan, G. (2016, January 20). In Tamil Nadu, musical instruments the echo caste drumbeat. Times of India Blog.

3. Bhasthi, D. (2022, October 25). The caste of Karnatic music – Himal Southasian. Himal Southasian.

4. A, S. (2018, January 13). Teaching young new beats of ancient ‘parai.’ Times of India Blog.

5. Rishis of Khulna | SEHD. (n.d.).

6. The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. (1998, July 20). Tonality | Harmony, Scales & Keys. Encyclopedia Britannica.

7. Djembe Drums – Powell-Cotton Museum. (2023, May 25). Powell-Cotton Museum.

8. Agawu, K. (2016). TONALITY AS a COLONIZING FORCE IN AFRICA. In Duke University Press eBooks (pp. 334–356).

Author: Md. Imran
Former Newsroom editor, Ekhon TV
Featured Image: Kaahon Achieve
Reference: Some of the references are hyperlinked into the write-up and mentioned in the bibliography section.
This Article is written by a guest author. You can also write for musophia.com. Mail us a sample of your write-up.
Some of the references are hyperlinked into the writeup.
Fact Check: We strive for accuracy and fairness. If you see something that doesn’t look right, inform us!
Previous articleBangladeshi musicians to sing for devastated Gaza
Next articleChime band vocalist Khalid passes away at 56
This article is written by a guest author. You can also write for us. You can send your article via our contact form or directly via email.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.