It was December 2012. Instead of making that usual music season trip to Chennai, I had backpacked to Manamadurai. Ramesh, the ghatam maker, had agreed to take me on as an apprentice after my guru Sukanya Ramgopal had conveyed to him about my desire to learn ghatam making.
It was afternoon when I reached Manamadurai. After having a sumptuous meal that Ramesh and his wife Mohana had prepared for me, I accompanied Ramesh to the workshop, a few yards away from his house. His mother, Meenakshi, was working away all by herself inside the workshop. Everybody else went home for lunch, but Meenakshi’s lunch had to be delivered at the workshop, every day. She would take a short lunch break and get back to work. As I entered I peeped inside and greeted her. She looked at me dispassionately, gestured a welcome and went back to work.
In the ten days that I stayed with the family, Ramesh anna taught me the different aspects of ghatam making. I briefly learnt to mix the clay, turn the wheel, make small clay objects and then finally, attempted making the ghatam. ‘Everything needs practice’, Ramesh said. ‘Like learning to play the instrument, making too needs much practice and perseverance’. Our evenings were spent chatting away under a starlit winter sky and singing film songs. But Meenakshi amma would never participate in any of this. Once work was done, she would retire for the day.
About three days had passed. Meenakshi amma and I had not had any conversation. The next morning at the workshop I quietly sat next to her, keenly observing as she was ‘beating’ the ghatam. All of a sudden she stopped and asked: ‘Why are you interested?’ ‘I play the ghatam. Shouldn’t I know my instrument? I have come to learn from you’. She chuckled. ‘All reporters and researchers think that the men alone make the ghatams. Earlier they would interview my husband. Now they interview my son. But it is actually the women in this family that give life to the ghatams’. My eyes lit up. I said: ‘Yes. I know. That is why I have come to learn from you”. She gently patted me on my back, smiled and said ‘we’ll talk tomorrow’. That was the beginning of an incredible relationship that blossomed between us.
Years of hard work had left its imprints on her body, making her look older than what she perhaps was. I began to fondly call her paati (grandmother). Over the next few years, we had many precious moments - of serious discussions and frivolous banter. Sometimes she would draw me into her Kabir-like double play on the words ‘ghatam’ and ‘udambu’ (body). At other times, she would tease me as I struggled with my Tamil, but would go all out to help me understand what she was saying. In all this, she opened me to her worldview of the clay pot with extraordinary generosity. This, for me, was a worldview that went beyond technique, beyond grammar, beyond the stage, beyond performance and even beyond being a ghatam player. She often smiled mischievously; laughed rarely. And when she did, there was a glitter in her eyes and a profound wisdom that seemed to show an irreverence for the outside world. To her, the workshop was the world. She sat there breathing life and love into the pots she held with such care on her lap. In many ways, I had found a guru.
One day Ramesh anna and I embarked on an exercise to date Meenakshi amma’s birthday. After mapping incidents in her life to larger socio-political incidents, we gathered that she was born circa 1950; in Tirupoovanam, a village not far from Manamadurai. At 12, she was married to U.V. Kesavan and subsequently moved with him to Manamadurai. Apparently, at that time, the ghatam master Salem Vaiyapuri had said: ‘ Kesava, nee Madurai Meenakshiyaye konduvandirukke’ (Kesava, you have brought home Madurai Meenakshi herself). As the daughter-in-law in a household of hereditary potters, Meenakshi apprenticed under her husband for about four years and learnt ghatam making. There is a special technique of ‘beating’ the raw clay pot after it is turned on the wheel. The pot is beaten 3000-4000 times before it acquires its shruti and comes alive. This technique of breathing life into the pot is only passed on to women. ‘Why only women?’, I asked. ‘Because it needs patience’, she said. Meenakshi inherited this skill from her mother-in-law and sister-in-law and then mastered this technique to perfection. As Kesavan’s professional partner, she participated equally in carrying on the family tradition and also passing on the legacy to her children and grandchildren.
In recognition of her mastery over ghatam making, her impeccable work ethics and commitment to perfection, she was honoured with the Sangeet Natak Akademi Puraskar for the year 2013. Accolades began to pour in soon after from the Tamilnadu government and other organisations. But all these sat lightly on her shoulders. She remained self-effacing in her own blissful world of ghatams.
In over 45 years, she had made hundreds of ghatams that travelled to performance platforms all over the world. Three generations of ghatam players will remain indebted to her for her labour of love.
I had once asked her, ‘Ghatam making is such hard work. Why do you do this?’ ‘Responsibility’, she said unflinchingly. ‘If I stop making ghatams, how will you play? No ghatam player that comes to my door shall ever go back empty-handed’.
In November 2017, Meenakshi amma left this world. I am told she went - like a ghatam that breaks - softly and quickly. After a few days of her passing, my mother handed me a book of Shishunala Sharif’s verses. She said: ‘Sharif must have written this song for her’.
The song was kumbaaraaki eeki kumbaaraaki, brahmaandavella tumbi kondiruvaaki . . . (Here is the woman potter, who holds the Universe within herself).
(The writer is a ghatam player)