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The pot on the stage

Nandini Nair | Updated on August 27, 2014

Knock knock: Meenakshi K reduces an earthen pot from 16kg to roughly 7kg at her home-workshop in Manamadurai

Percussion maestros: (from left) Ghatam makers Ramesh and Meenakshi K alongside ghatam players Sukanya Ramgopal and Sumana Chandrashekar   -  Kamal Narang

Busting myths around the humble ghatam by recognising the leading ghatam maker and players in the country

What can an earthen pot do? Most people imagine it as a moulded clump of clay, but in the hands of the imaginative it turns into something else altogether. It can hum, whistle, hiss, it can clop, canter, gallop. It can clap with the might of thunder, it can whisper with the secrets of a summer rain. The ghatam, which quite simply means a pot, is a percussion instrument that has never quite gotten its due. It is seen as a folk instrument rather than a classical one. Devoid of membranes covering its mouth — unlike a mridangam or a tabla — its range and scope are considered limited. Up to the ’60s even, the ghatam and its players were not seen as versatile enough to perform a pallavi, in Carnatic music. Popular imagination, in India, insists that percussion is primeval, feral even, and has remained largely the domain of pot-bellied men in front-open kurtas.

Recently, however, the ghatam came to the fore with its practitioners busting the many myths around it. The president of India, Pranab Mukherjee conferred Meenakshi K (65), a ghatam maker, with the Sangeet Natak Award 2013 for instrument-making. Meenakshi, a resident of Manamadurai (around 500km from Chennai) however is uninterested, even testy, with all the attention. “Why are all these people here, what do they want? Why are you asking so many questions?” she bemoans. Her son Ramesh, also a ghatam maker, helpfully mumbles excuses for his mother’s dismissals and refusals. Unable — or unwilling, we will never know — to answer questions about her profession, the curious make do with the testimonies of those who know her instrument best.

That is where Bangalore-based ghatam artistes Sukanya Ramgopal and Sumana Chandrashekar come in. Ramgopal is one of the foremost ghatam players in the country having studied under guru Vikku Vinayakram, and Chandrashekar is her student. Both favour Meenakshi’s ghatams and understand its creator’s toil and passion. Meenakshi is a fourth-generation ghatam maker and learned the art from her father-in-law when she married into the family at the age of 14. She specialises in the Manamadurai ghatams, which are heavier than the typical Bangalore or Chennai ghatams. The appearance of a ghatam belies its weight. Once baked and removed from the furnace it weighs nearly 16kg. Through a painstaking process that involves hammering it with a stone, Meenakshi sculpts it into a musical instrument of 7kg. Through a method that has remained roughly unchanged over the last century, Meenakshi places the 16kg pot between her outstretched legs and with a rhythmic series of thousands of taps and knocks evens out its entire surface. This process of beating it down transforms a pot into a thing of music. Fifty years of labour have weakened Meenakshi. Her limbs ache and throb all the time.

For musicians, buying a ghatam isn’t merely about placing an order at a counter for an instrument. For Ramgopal and Chandrashekar travelling to Manamadurai is a pilgrimage. Thirty-one-year-old Chandrashekar who works with India Foundation for the Arts, says, “You go there and walk into a room packed with 300-400 ghatams, out of which 15-20 might be good ones. You test each. It is great fun. At the end of the day you will be tone deaf!” she adds, “It is a humble instrument but when it comes onto stage, it creates magic.” Ramgopal who first visited Manamadurai in 1976 has been there over 20 times since.

For Chandrashekar, Meenakshi is not only a loveable paati (grandmother) who makes a formidable instrument, she is also a mentor and pioneer. With the ghatam considered a male instrument, and the ghatam itself considered inferior to other percussion instruments — a female ghatam artiste is “twice marginalised”. Chandrashekar says, “I didn’t know how to situate myself in this ghatam journey. I looked for stories that connected me to the making of this pot. When I reached Manamadurai and met paati, I felt an upturning of the theory that percussion, especially the ghatam, belong only to the male domain.” When Chandrashekar met Ramgopal and when she asked to learn, it was a homecoming for both. Ramgopal says, “She was my first girl student in 35 years… a 12-year-old girl has recently joined, I am happy about that.”

The ghatam is an instrument born from the elements and pure in its essence. It is made from the earth, forged in the fires, rested in the shadows of the sun and contains the air and sky. It boasts of no pretensions but it will sing only when in the right hands — be they male or female. And it seems a younger generation of female players might be picking it up.

Published on May 09, 2014

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