Year of the Woman

Sukanya Ramgopal's lone battle to play the ghatam

A woman playing ghatam challenges notions of femininity

A woman playing ghatam challenges notions of femininity   | Photo Credit: V.V. Krishnan

‘Frankly, I don’t think people are any more welcoming of a woman percussion player now than when I started out’

Sukanya Ramgopal has been asked more times than she could care to remember what it is like to be the first woman ghatam player in the Carnatic music tradition.

Of course it has not been easy, but the 60-year-old has dealt with it well and long enough to answer the question with a touch of humour. “I think I should thank all the male musicians who did not want a woman ghatam player as their accompanying artiste!” she says with a hearty laugh. “It compelled me to innovate and bring ghatam to the centre stage.”

Doubly marginalised

As her lone female student Sumana Chandrashekhar puts it, Sukanya is ‘doubly marginalised’ in the Carnatic music space — the ghatam is classified as an upapakkavadya (an accompanying instrument that is secondary to mridangam) and she is a woman playing it. Visually too, a woman playing ghatam (literally a pot) on stage challenges ‘all notions of the slender female body’ and defies ‘all conventional descriptions of a woman’s delicate fingers.’

But Sukanya has clearly been able to break out of the margins and stereotypes successfully.

With musicians wary of a woman playing the ‘manly’ ghatam in their concerts, Sukanya has devised a unique reinterpretation of the instrument. In 1994 she designed a performance concept she named ‘Ghata Tharang’, which involves playing six to seven ghatams of different shrutis to give it a broad melodic dimension. A year later she started Stree Taal Tarang, an all-women instrumental ensemble.

These experiments have taken her to stages across India and abroad and won her multiple accolades and has led to some particularly interesting women-centric collaborations. For instance, Sukanya has performed a stunning jugalbandi of sorts with flamenco artist Bettina Castaño.

Reminiscing about the days when a woman aspiring to learn ghatam was ‘strange’, Sukanya says that her guru Vikku Vinayakram was initially reluctant to teach her, but her persistence won him over. The music school started by his father Harihara Sharma, Sri Jaya Ganesh Talavadya Vidyalaya, was in Triplicane, Chennai, where Sukanya lived. There she learnt mridangam first but was soon drawn to ghatam. Her guru, who at first said that the instrument is ‘too hard for a girl’, was impressed with her dedication and prowess.

But the tough part came when she had to step into the world of kutcheriswith all its hierarchies and prejudices. There were many instances of music sabhas, vocalists and even percussion artistes refusing to have a woman ghatam player on stage.

Reluctant to get into details or drop names, Sukanya says that the situation is no better now. “Frankly, I don’t think people are any more welcoming of a woman percussion player now than when I started out. In fact I would even say that the older generation of artistes were a little more generous compared to many today.”

Mega ensemble

This undercurrent of hostility is perhaps one of the reasons why Sumana is the lone woman student among the 20-odd students at Sri Vikku Vinayakram School for Ghatam that Sukanya runs in Bengaluru. While there are few ghatam learners, there are fewer women among those. When Sukanya put together an ensemble of 83 ghatam artistes in Bengaluru recently, to mark her guru’s 75th birthday, there were only four women on stage, including herself.

In the hope of enthusing more people, particularly women, to take to this earthy instrument, Sukanya has also written a book, Sunaadam, The Vikku Bani of Ghatam Playing, a learner’s guide. “Let’s hope things get better,” she says, with genuine optimism.

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Printable version | May 22, 2020 7:46:58 AM |

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