Like everything else in the pandemic, Carnatic music too has pivoted to a more digital way of being. An on-demand streaming of a ghatam ensemble this weekend continues this trend. Part of an online fundraiser for India Foundation for the Arts (IFA), this novel event features India’s first woman ghatam player, Sukanya Ramgopal, and her students, Giridhar Udupa, Ganesh Murthy, Sachin Deviprasad, Srinidhi R Koundinya and Sumana Chandrashekar. This is part of Ramgopal’s lifelong endeavour to bring the percussion instrument—a mere accompaniment in Carnatic music—out of the shadows. “The artists have suffered a lot during the pandemic. The IFA is doing a great job to support the artists, whether from theatre, folk art forms or music. We thought of helping too with this fundraiser,” says Ramgopal.
It has been decades since she took to the deep-bellied clay pot, breaking through stereotypes associated with women playing a percussion instrument. However, things haven’t changed much since the 1980s when she took up the ghatam. “Maybe they have improved by an inch,” she says.
Her journey with percussion started during her childhood spent in Chennai. Ramgopal hailed from an orthodox family, heavily into academics and music. “My great-grandfather was a great Tamil scholar,” she says. Her sister and she started learning vocal music very early on in life, and Ramgopal also enrolled for violin lessons at the music school set up by the family of the legendary ghatam maestro Vikku Vinayakram.
While there, she was fascinated by the sounds of the mridangam. Vinayakram’s father, T.H. Harihara Sharma, noticed this, and started teaching her the nuances. “I would go to Vikku Sir’s concerts, and be mesmerised by the sawaal jawaab between him and the mridangam player,” reminisces Ramgopal. When she expressed an interest to learn the ghatam, Vinayakram was a bit hesitant. But his father said, “The ghatam doesn’t know if it is being played by a girl or a boy.” And when Vinayakram left to teach in the US, his father taught Ramgopal the finger movements.
However, it hasn’t been an easy journey for her. In a 2019 interview with Malini Nair for the Hindu, she listed some of her struggles. “I was asked at the start of my career by egotistic musicians to sit even further behind on the stage so I didn’t grab attention, and have had my mic turned down,” she said. She also spoke about a Bengaluru concert, where a legendary mridangam player refused to play with her. “I howled for days and so loudly it left even the neighbours worried. But I decided never to let anyone reduce me to tears again,” she told Nair.
Since then, she has formed an all-women ensemble and also taught the nuances of the ghatam to many students over the years. Through all of this, Ramgopal’s endeavour has been to bring ghatam under the spotlight. “It is always seen as an additional percussion instrument like the kanjira, and that the concert can even go on without it. I wanted to change that,” she says. In the 1990s, while performing in concerts, she wondered if instead of each person playing one ghatam, what if one person had six to seven ghatams around her. So, she created a performance around this idea. “It was a dream that came true in 1992,” she adds.
Through the years, she has created compositions that celebrate her teacher Vinayakram’s style. “I tell everyone that I got a golden opportunity to learn the finger techniques and nuances from him. During a performance, we have to reply to the mridangam and other percussion instruments. His technique was so great that it helped in responding spontaneously,” says Ramgopal.
Today, she spreads “Vikku Sir’s baani” through her teaching. She even wrote a book to initiate beginners into the art of playing the ghatam. “Each student is unique. I try and find a different manner to teach the same technique to different students,” she says. One such student is Giridhar Udupa, who started learning from her at the age of 17. It was an honour for Udupa to be able to play with his guru. “It’s not everyday that we see a guru performing with five disciples,” says the 41-year-old. “My guru composed this piece and it’s a unique one.”
Udupa learnt the basic techniques of the ghatam as a child. But when he turned 17, a couple of musicians suggested that he should go to Ramgopal if he wanted to learn the finest techniques. "That was the best moment of my life," he says, "It was heartening to be part of the guru shishya parampara. She took care of me like her own child. Every nuance and technique that I have learnt is due to her."
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