"I had a flair for rhythm,” the trailblazing percussionist and tabla artist Anuradha Pal told my students at Ahmedabad University, while describing how she came to learn the tabla as a child. A child prodigy who eventually trained under tabla maestros Alla Rakha and Zakir Hussain, Pal gave her first public performance on Doordarshan when she was nine years old. Whilst Pal, now 48, has performed across the world and won numerous awards, it has been despite the challenges posed by the patriarchy, hierarchy and hereditary transmission of Indian classical music. As Pal recently told SheThePeopleTV, “Not coming from a musician family and being a female in a male-dominated field and society without any godfather, meant I was against a stone wall.”
By no means are these challenges confined to Indian classical music. The BBC Proms, a series of Western orchestral concerts held every year at the Royal Albert Hall in London—the highlight of the UK’s classical music calendar since 1895—featured its first solo woman percussionist, Evelyn Glennie, only in 1992.
Gender parity is still far away. A 2005 study of 8,146 community and youth band participants across 25 countries, published in the Bulletin Of The Council For Research In Music Education, found that male performers accounted for 80% of percussionists and wind instrumentalists. Globally, women percussionists are a small group, and in Indian classical music they are a rarity, though the first woman percussionist performed in public nearly 100 years ago.
As early as 1927, Ranganayaki Ammal made waves as the first and only woman mridangam artist to play in the All India Music Conference held at Madras (now Chennai) that year. In the 1950s, Aban Mistry in Mumbai emerged as the country’s first woman tabla player, and, over the course of half a century, built a lasting legacy of rich scholarship and research on the instrument. However, there have been only a handful of women who have made it to prime-slot concert venues. These performers include Anuradha Pal, Sukanya Ramgopal, considered the first woman ghatam player, Lata Ramachar (kanjira), Ranjani Venkatesh (mridangam) and Bhagyalakshmi M. Krishna (morsing).
Aspiring women percussionists often face reluctance from predominantly male teachers to take them on as students. Ethnomusicologist Erica Jones completed her doctoral research, In Search Of Agency: South Indian Percussion In A Globalised India, in 2017, while she learnt to play the mridangam with veteran teachers in Chennai. “Women are discouraged from learning percussion and expected or encouraged to learn voice, veena, and violin—the acceptable instruments for a woman,” she writes. “Gender is a complex part of the patriarchal performance space…. Percussion is one place where it is harder to negotiate and break through gendered norms. It is a male dominated instrument and there are few women who chose to learn, perform, and negotiate their gendered presence within these spaces.”
Indeed, in vocal music and stringed and wind instruments, the gender imbalance is far less. The Indian classical music scene is largely dominated by vocalists. In the mid-20th century, women vocalists began to emerge as lead performers. In Carnatic music, the triumvirate of female vocalists, M.S. Subbulakshmi, D.K. Pattammal and M.L. Vasanthakumari, became as popular, if not more so, than their male counterparts. While women playing stringed or wind instruments such as the veena, violin and flute began to get prime performing slots as solo performers a few decades later, women percussionists still struggle.
The observation of strict hierarchies leads to an unwillingness on the part of vocalists and male percussionists to share the stage with a female percussionist in Carnatic music. Concert organisers typically ask the mridangists, nearly all of whom are male, to green-light the choice of supporting percussionists (upa pakkavadya) for a concert. “One percussionist who went to the concert venue was asked to not perform that day as the mridangist, a man, said he would not play with women percussionists,” says Venkatesh.
Venkatesh, 45, comes from a family of Carnatic musicians. She moved from Ballari in Karnataka to Bengaluru with her grandmother when she turned 18. This allowed her to attend college as well as seek more opportunities to attend concerts even as she learnt to play the mridangam.
Venkatesh, who credits the growth of her musical career to the support and encouragement of her teachers and husband, says she has faced her share of challenges. “If the vocalist is a female artist,” says Venkatesh, “organisers consider me (as the mridangam artist for the concert).” The organisers’ reasoning is that it is “easier for women travelling and lodging together”.
Given that the number of male vocalists on the circuit is far greater, this constrains opportunities for women accompanists.
Even the opportunities that arise are not free of gender bias and preconceptions. Pal recalls in a television interview the time when she was asked to perform with a maestro she does not want to name. “He said, ‘The first part, the slower part, you play, and the faster part, the dhrut part, somebody (else) will play. And I said, ‘Why? Can I not play as fast?’ He said, ‘It doesn’t feel nice to make a female work that hard.’”
In 1995, Ramgopal formed an all-women percussion ensemble, Sthree Taal Tarang, which provided a platform to demonstrate their artistry as well as find common ground with others. Pal formed Stree Shakti a year later, an all-female Hindustani and Carnatic band whose first edition featured Ramgopal and Ramachar. Stree Shakti continues to perform across India and at global music festivals with an evolving cast of female musicians.
The current generation of leading women percussionists, including Venkatesh and ghatam player Sumana Chandrashekar, acknowledges the inspiration of the pioneers and the affirming role of all-women ensembles. Chandrashekar, 42, began her musical training as a vocalist with Rupa Sridhar, a Carnatic musician based in Bengaluru. Around 2009, Chandrashekar felt “a deep urge to play the ghatam”. With her teacher’s encouragement, she began learning from the ghatam maestro, Ramgopal.
Chandrashekar is outspoken about the challenges women percussionists face, whether it’s learning, performing or teaching. “I have heard ‘a woman guru is great to learn vocal music from. But for learning percussion, one must go to a male guru’. So there is this sense that a woman percussion guru is not guru enough. That says a lot about how a patriarchal society views women.”
Many of the leading women percussionists, including Venkatesh, Krishna and Ramachar, have come from musical families and began their training with their parents. Others, like Pal and Chandrashekar, are the first in their families to train as professional musicians.
While those from a musical family have had to work harder than their male counterparts to prove themselves, those without this advantage of heritage have it even harder.
All-women ensembles have been one way for women percussionists’ talent and work to be recognised. They also provide a sense of community and mentorship to upcoming artists. Yet, there is the danger of being boxed as performers only for women.
“Even after decades of having exemplary women percussionists, the fact that we are still talking of women percussionists as a niche community testifies to how society continues to stereotype women,” says Chandrashekar. “We have not yet been able to create an ecosystem for women to flourish in roles outside of what is already prescribed by society,” she adds.
Research by Deborah Belle, professor emerita of psychology at Boston University, US, shows that gender schemas—generalisations that help us understand the complexity of the world—are very powerful. Such schemas lead to assumptions, such as men are more competent for a job even when men and women possess the same experience.
The first step to overcome such schemas is understanding and acknowledging the existence of such bias. “Eternal vigilance, I think, is the only solution,” she told the university newspaper while discussing her years of research.
As Prof. Belle says, we need to recognise the inherent gender bias in the classical music percussion world and act upon it. As with any fight against inequity, the question that arises is, who will do the hard work of effecting change?
“I believe that far-reaching changes can only happen from within and not from the outside,” says Chandrashekar. “Firstly, women percussionists, as a community, should aspire for a changed environment. They must believe that they can bring about the change and must be willing to work towards that goal.”
More importantly, it is up to all music lovers, whether audiences, critics, corporate sponsors or event organisers, to contribute our voices, time, energy and money to this fight for equity. We need to remember Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai’s exhortation that “we cannot all succeed when half of us are held back”.
Chitra Srikrishna is a Carnatic music vocalist and adjunct professor of music at Ahmedabad University.