Conquering clay pots

percussion artiste

Conquering clay pots

It was neither a rebellion nor an attempt to draw attention. It was just answering that inner call, the prompting that pointed out to her the path to what was to be her calling in life. “I was always attracted to rhythm, even as a child, tapping on the nearest hard surface. Naturally, I gravitated towards percussion instruments,” says the renowned ghatam artiste Sukanya Ramgopal.

Talking to this extraordinary musician with an ordinary, no-airs countenance, the first thing that strikes the mind is the sheer grit that has seen her surmounting many hurdles to get to where she is today in the realm of Carnatic music, particularly in playing on the humble clay pot — the ghatam. “I have learnt vocals and the violin. But percussion fascinated me. I decided to learn the mridangam, notwithstanding my parents’ misgivings. I enrolled myself in Harihara Sharma’s school in Chennai, well-known for its tutelage in all percussion instruments,” she says.

Harihara Sharma was the father of the maestro T H Vinayakaram. She learnt mridangam for a year, at the same time watching Sri Sharma teaching other students. The ghatam held a special attraction for her and it was not long before she summoned courage to approach Sri Sharma to ask him to coach her in this instrument. As if a girl from a conservative family venturing into a male-only field of percussion was not enough, but here she was, wanting to learn the ghatam! Sri Sharma had his reservations, but her pertinacity paid off when he spoke to his son Sri Vinayakaram, who memorably said, “Why not? Music does not know any barriers of gender.” And the rest, as the cliché goes, is history.

Path to acceptance
Reminiscing about her more-than-four-decade journey in the field of Carnatic music percussion, Sukanya expresses happiness at having achieved her goal of learning and performing on this instrument. But, at the same time, it has been fraught with obstacles, most prominent of which has been discrimination based on gender. “It is inexplicable. Many musicians, both the main and mridangam players, are not ready to accept a woman upapakkavadyam artiste on the stage. Even more hurting is the same kind of mindset that some lady vocalists exhibit. I really am unable to guess why. Maybe they feel that I would eclipse them in eliciting audience appreciation,” rues Sukanya.

On the other hand, there are many musicians who have no issues whatsoever with having her as part of their group. But, as she philosophically adds, the charm lies in countering opposition with poise, patience, dignity and erudition, which she has done with aplomb. Maintaining rhythm is one thing, but coaxing melody out of this seemingly intractable instrument is no mean task.

Vigorous palm beats on the main body of the pot, the alternating soft and hard thumb flourishes on the thin neck, the discretionary opening and closure of the mouth with the palms to produce the resonations and yet, to maintain the complex time cycles that characterise Carnatic music — all require immense practice and concentration.

Calloused palms are not uncommon among ghatam artistes. Perhaps, Harihara Sharma had these things in mind when he first encountered Sukanya’s request. But after Vinayakaram came back from a year abroad, he was amazed with the way in which Sukanya had learnt the nuances of this instrument from his father. Taking her further did not prove difficult for him.

On her own

In this highly mathematical art of percussion where it is not possible to teach every pattern and combination of beats, the korvais and koraippus as they are called, how did she develop her skills? “I listen to all music (especially the percussion turns), incorporate the finer points, and create my own pieces,” she explains. This point is to be seen in her solo turns,   where she not only faithfully adheres to the path of the lead mridangam player, but also shows flashes of her creativity unobtrusively.

Sthree Taal Tarang, an all-woman percussion ensemble of mridangam, ghatam, Khanjari, morsing and ghata tarang, where she singlehandedly plays on five ghatams tuned to different pitches, is one of her notable forays. Training a select band of students at her school named after her mentor, Sukanya Ramgopal has been conferred with many awards and honours. Today, she holds her head high as a much-sought-after woman ghatam practitioner, moving ahead with fortitude.

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