Stirring the pot: Meet Sukanya Ramgopal, the first woman to play the ghatam

Malini Nair | Updated on July 26, 2019 Published on July 26, 2019

Offbeat: Ramgopal heads the Sthree Thaal Tharang, an all-woman instrumental ensemble K BHAGYA PRAKASH   -  K_BHAGYA PRAKASH

She is among the best-known percussionists in India today

At the ‘girl-seeing’ ritual, the question was routine: Could she sing? What was unusual was her response: “No, but I can play the ghatam”.

The groom’s party retreated in some confusion. A bhajan, violin or veena would have been nice. But a woman playing a percussion instrument? Even in 1980, it was a rare feat. And here was a spirited, bright-eyed girl who played, of everything in the drum league, the ghatam. The deep-bellied pot parked on the lap, held close to the torso — often shirtless to extract a deep boom — was played with a robust muscularity. It wasn’t ladylike.

This is all very well but she would have to it give up after marriage, it was declared. She refused. Months of hand-wringing followed at home. But the young man who had ‘seen’ her had been smitten. He returned with a proposal and, yes, she could carry her beloved ghatam with her to her new home.

Forty years of a companionable marriage later, Sukanya Ramgopal, 62, India’s first woman ghatam player, is still indignant. “Why should I have given it up all for marriage? I had struggled so much, learnt so much, played so much.” It has been a tough journey for her, and it still is, but she has decided to write her own rules now.

Ramgopal is among India’s best-known percussionists today, heading an all-woman instrumental ensemble, the Sthree Thaal Tharang, that features the ghatam, violin, veena, morsing and mridangam. She is also sought after for her effervescent multi-ghatam tarang performances, featuring only women percussionists.

“Male musicians have for decades said we don’t want to play with women artistes, so I said let us do something without men,” she says with a hearty guffaw.

At her home in a quiet Bengaluru apartment are ghatams, packed wall-to-wall. She is vivacious, a tall, strapping presence whose battle against sexism is a subject that crops up often in the conversation.

The ghatam — along with the tavil and the kanjira — is seen as dispensable at Carnatic concerts, an upapakkavadya, at the bottom of the “hierarchy” as an accompanying instrument, parked behind the singer or instrumentalist who is flanked by the mridangam and the violinist and then by the tanpura players.

“I was asked at the start of my career by egotistic musicians to sit even further behind on stage so I didn’t grab attention, or have had my mike turned down,” she says.

For anyone with her talent — and the ghatam is vastly entertaining as well — it was hard not to outshine others. She recalls a concert at the Music Academy in Chennai where she accompanied a veena player and was not allowed to perform the taniavartanam (a rhythm interlude in a concert). The crowds, eager to hear the prodigiously talented woman ghatam player, had chanted for her till the lead musician relented.

These and many other mortifying experiences followed but what broke her was an incident at a Bengaluru concert. A legendary mridangam player had refused to play with her — either she goes or I do, he’d declared.

She returned home devastated. “I howled for days and so loudly it left even the neighbours worried,” she remembers. “But I decided never to let anyone reduce me to tears again.

A young Sukanya Ramgopal   -  IMAGE COURTESY: SUKANYA RAMGOPAL


At Thyagaraja Vilasam, her childhood home in Chennai’s old Triplicane area, Ramgopal had grown up listening to music. By age six, she had instinctively perfected the art of keeping precise taalam at concerts.

Six houses down from her home was the Shree Jaya Ganesha Tala Vadya Vidyalaya, the music school set up by the family of the ghatam genius, Vikku Vinayakram. Ramgopal was sent to learn the violin there.

But Vinayakram’s father, the great percussionist TH Harihara Sharma, noticed that the little girl was riveted by the mridangam class across the courtyard. He got her started on the mridangam. But the family kept this a secret from her father.

The youngster was allowed to carry Vinayakram’s ghatam to his concerts. “He was already a star and I was mesmerised by his playing. The sawal jawab, the flair. So I asked him if I could learn the ghatam,” she says.

Vinayakram has admitted in interviews that he had misgivings taking on a female disciple. “He told me it is a very difficult instrument; one had to struggle to make music and then I was a girl. Others in the field told him: Don’t waste time on her, she will marry and leave music. The only woman mridangam player that time was struggling for opportunities to play,” she says.

Again, it was Harihara Sharma who backed her. “The ghatam does not know if it is a man or a playing it; let us train her,” he told his son.

But soon after, Vinayakram left to teach in the US and, again, it was Harihara Sharma who oversaw her practice.

“Sir (Harihara Sharma) would sit in an easy chair as I practised for hours, my shoulders and fingers aching and eyes shut so I didn’t have to see any disappointment on his face. Sometimes I would think he had dozed off and he would mutter ‘I didn’t ask you to stop’,” she remembers.

When Vinayakram returned he was astonished to see the teen playing the ghatam without once missing a beat, taking every challenge he threw at her. “He was stunned but opened up completely and taught me everything he knew. I absorbed all the artistry he shared with me,” she says. These were the years before Vinayakram hit global fame with the band Shakti and he had the time to expend exclusively on Ramgopal.

Her teachers also encouraged her to play at small concerts, ignoring conservative organisers. Slowly, word spread about a young girl who was a wizard with the ghatam and she became a part of the vidyalaya’s percussion ensemble.

Marriage brought Ramgopal to Bengaluru but her career was soaring across the south. She played with the biggest names of the time — R Vedavalli, M Balamuralikrishna, TN Krishnan, Bombay Sisters and U Srinivas, among others. But over time, she realised that her role as an accompanist would always be limiting and limited.

‘I didn’t have to deal with the depression of it all my entire life,” she says. “I couldn’t let down those who backed me, waste their investment and mine. So, I decided to showcase myself.”

For the 35 years she had been waging a struggle, Ramgopal was also in search of a dedicated woman student to take her work forward. Then Sumana Chandrashekhar, 38, the unmissable ghatam player in a turban-kurta-dhoti ensemble so unusual in the Kanjeevaram-centric classical circles, walked in through the door seeking a teacher about a decade ago.

“She called me in, just like that, taught with immense warmth and generosity, answering every question I had, and there were many,” says Chandrashekhar. “And I discovered a versatile instrument that works for all genres, even jazz.”

There are half a dozen women who play the ghatam now with varying skill. But the field remains dominated by men. “The gender issues Ma’am faced haven’t disappeared; only the messages aren’t so direct anymore. Even now the idea of a woman playing the ghatam is more like a novelty to draw crowds,” Chandrashekhar says.

What irks the establishment the most in her case is her unique appearance. For the headgear, no-sari look she was told to get out by a Bhajana Samaj at a performance dedicated to the deity Murugan. But she couldn’t have had a more fiercely protective supporter than Ramgopal.

“I told the organisers we don’t insist that men who routinely sit on stage in shirts and t-shirts wear the panchakachham (traditional dhoti drape). I walked out along with Sumana. I don’t think Murugan has an issue with women’s clothes, so why should the devout,” Ramgopal asks.

Chandrashekhar has an interesting theory about the ghatam. She points to its shape and the fact that it sits like a child on the lap. it is actually a woman’s instrument, she holds.

Also, the ghatam was initially supported on stage by women musicians such as MS Subbulakshmi and ML Vasanthakumari because male artistes thought it not ‘serious’ enough, Chandrashekhar points out.

“So you see, the ghatam is actually the woman of percussion music,” she says triumphantly. Her guru nods, an indulgent smile on her face.


Malini Nair is a journalist based in Delhi;


Published on July 26, 2019
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