One afternoon, a 17-year-old musician with a faint moustache ducked out of his home in Kerala and headed for the railway station. He needed to board three trains to reach Manamadurai, a small town in Tamil Nadu. Just one family, in this one small town, could produce the percussion instruments he needed to practise and perform. A few others had set up shop in southern India, but their wares were too lightweight to produce the tone he desired.

After that first trip in 1999, Vazhappally R Krishnakumar returned to Manamadurai again and again. The triple-train journey of 490 km had its hazards. When one instrument broke into pieces, the sting lingered for years.

When one instrument broke into pieces, the sting lingered for years.

In July 2018, Krishnakumar performed at an intimate concert in Bengaluru. By this time, the 36-year old percussionist had become a well-known player of the ghatam – the clay pot that often enlivens classical Carnatic concerts and has increasingly crossed over to classical Hindustani, world music, and jazz events. Krishnakumar, whose delicate teen moustache had surrendered to a thick beard, had secured top ranking from All India Radio, performed in various venues overseas, and arranged local concerts for seven ghatams played at once. In fact, he owned nearly 100 ghatams, all crafted by the same family.

He was still far from achieving the glory of the “God of Ghatam” — 75-year-old Vikku Vinayakram, famous for entrancing American audiences in the mid-1970s while touring with guitarist John McLaughlin in the band Shakti. But Krishnakumar and Vikku shared a loyalty to Manamadurai.

For the 8 July Carnatic recital, where he accompanied the celebrated violinist Mysore Nagaraj and his son Karthik, Krishnakumar brought along a ghatam stashed in a hard case lined with maroon velvet. He had acquired the instrument six months earlier. But there was something different about this clay pot. Instead of emerging from a heap of smouldering twigs and hay — an age-old baking method that was maddeningly unreliable — this ghatam was fired in a modern customised kiln.

If the instrument is not there, the artist can’t exist

Ghatam player Vazhappally R Krishnakumar
Ghatam player Vazhappally R Krishnakumar

The new kiln was the culmination of an extraordinary global campaign to rescue a musical instrument. Crowdfunding has offered the ghatam a second lease on life. The fundraising drive also demonstrated that sturdy bonds between musician and instrument-maker can be significant. “Usually, the maker is on the margins, and only becomes a supplier,” notes Bengaluru-based ghatam player Sumana Chandrashekar, who initiated the campaign. “An intimate relationship needs to exist between the maker and the artist.”

That intimacy can fuel a sense of mutual achievement, despite any physical distance. On his last visit to Manamadurai in January, Krishnakumar had no need to ride three dilapidated trains. At 10.30 pm he climbed into his silver Skoda Octavia sedan and drove all night through the hills of Kumily and skirted the Vaigai River. This river and its tributaries have long yielded the special clay so crucial to the quality of the Manamadurai ghatam. In the morning he reached the familiar courtyard, greeted familiar faces, and hunkered down to a five-hour selection process. He acquired 15 ghatams — keeping two for himself and the rest for his students.

No professional musician will visit Manamadurai to choose just one ghatam. There is an understandable psychology of scarcity, the chilling reality of one family, one town. But there are also musical reasons for owning multiple ghatams. Outsiders may perceive just a standard clay pot, but each ghatam has its own shruti, or pitch, that players match to the requirements of a featured vocalist or other instrumentalists. And despite its robust appearance, the ghatam has been known to crack during some concerts, summoning the need for a spare. As fingers, palms, and heels of the hand strike the belly and neck of the pot, a vigorous display carries its own risk.

ghatam sumana

***

Will there be enough ghatams for the next generation of players? This is the question that has haunted musicians in southern India for years. “If the instrument is not there, the artist can’t exist,” notes Krishnakumar. The uneasiness extends abroad. Following their more recent discovery of the ghatam, players in Japan, Poland, the US and elsewhere don’t wish to contemplate its demise. A leading online supplier to the US, Ultimate Guru Music, sources ghatams only from Manamadurai.

In 2014, the uncertainty showed plainly on the faces of two people who had spent decades bent over these clay pots: UVK Ramesh and his mother, Meenakshi K.  Since the age of nine, Ramesh had emulated his grandfather and also improvised with the clay, as he fashioned each ghatam on a wheel.  The circumference had to be just right. “It wasn’t about numbers, more about the feeling of the pot,” the 48-year-old potter explains.

His mother, a workaholic fondly called Meenakshi Amma, developed a particular talent at whacking a damp ghatam with a wooden spatula to reduce its water content before the instrument was placed on the fire. Three thousand whacks per ghatam — this became her trademark. The pots obliged, shrinking from 16 kg to about seven kg. Density was crucial to producing the proper sound. Musicians hovered in the back rooms, resolutely thumping each instrument. “From morning to evening, anyone would become mad,” recounts Sukanya Ramgopal, a pioneer woman musician in the field.

Ghatam maker Meenakshi K, fondly known as Meenakshi Amma
Ghatam maker Meenakshi K, fondly known as Meenakshi Amma

Three thousand whacks per ghatam — this became Meenakshi Amma's trademark

Both Ramesh and his mother felt obliged to continue the legacy of patriarchs Ulaganatha Velar, Vellachamy Velar and Kesavan. Four generations of family service could not be abandoned. The ghatam had entered the Carnatic repertoire in the mid-19th century, a far more sophisticated cousin to the clay pots clutched during folk music jamborees in Punjab, Kashmir and Rajasthan. Bullock carts piled with clay still made their plodding way to Ramesh’s house in Manamadurai, on journeys ranging from five to ten kilometers.

Mother and son worried about the lack of opportunity to teach their skill to others — or whether anyone else would really want to learn. It remained unclear whether such labour-intensive, traditional methods could survive the modern age.

One thing was clear: no one else in town was rushing to produce ghatams. “There isn’t much profit in making a musical instrument,” says K Veluchamy, president of the Manamadurai Pottery Workers Cooperative Cottage Industrial Society. Aside from the meager returns, the 300 families who belong to the cooperative don’t have the musical knowledge required to test each ghatam’s shruti. “The chances of getting glory because of making ghatams is very small,” he scoffs. “There is not that much respect.”

There isn’t much profit in making a musical instrument.

Over the years, Ramesh’s family had placed each batch of ghatams on a large bed of twigs, together with an assortment of flower pots, water jugs, medicine containers, and other clay items produced by various potter families in Manamadurai. They covered these items in hay, topped by a mud paste to contain the flames and the smoke of the communal fire. Avoiding days that brought rain or wind, the potters would typically light the fire at 5pm and monitor the baking process until 3 am. Yet the temperature could not be controlled, and inevitably 50 percent of the ghatams were not baked evenly. They came out cracked, or partly raw, unworthy of any concert stage.

In a batch of 80 ghatams, then, imagine three thousand whacks, multiplied by 40 damaged ghatams, entailing 1,20,000 useless whacks, not to mention the long hours spent mixing the clay from five types of sand, kneading it, shaping it on the wheel, and drying it in the shade. For some observers, the wasted labour was heart-breaking. And yet Ramesh and Meenakshi Amma carried on.

Not because of profits. They sold each ghatam for merely Rs 800-1,000, eking out Rs 100 per instrument, at most. (Converted into euros, such prices would seem painfully low: the sale price would not exceed € 12, with profits barely rising above one euro per instrument. Converted into dollars, Ramesh’s profits on one ghatam would not be enough to buy a hot dog on the streets of New York.) Entreaties to raise prices fell on deaf ears. The family preferred to earn a living from other clay wares. This was not about commerce, but sustaining a musical tradition.

In 2014 they opened their home to Sumana, who began playing ghatam four years earlier and sought a deeper understanding of the instrument. She stayed for 12 days, straddling the roles of researcher, apprentice, and family confidante. She was also working as a programme officer at the India Foundation for the Arts, thus uniquely placed to brainstorm with Ramesh and Meenakshi about finding a better way forward. Sumana and her ghatam guru, Sukanya, ended up approaching the Sangeet Natak Akademi in New Delhi to fund the mother and son to train five young people from Manamadurai over the course of a year. While supporting the proposal, the institution also decided to bestow a prestigious award on Meenakshi — who cast off her clay-smeared garments and appeared resplendent at the ceremony in a red sari with gold border.

But the push for a kiln was the most significant move. During a 22-month stint employed as a welder in Singapore in 2004/2005, Ramesh had glimpsed the potential of industrial machinery. His hunch was that a kiln would yield more ghatams that were evenly baked and musically valuable, thus reducing much of the wasted effort. In fact, back in the 1980s, a Vedic mathematician and veena player named PK Srivathsa had reached the same conclusion, leading him to design a special kiln for the ghatam and tinker with the clay. “We need to consider the ergonomics, the economics, and the aesthetics,” Srivathsa intones, seated at a cluttered desk in south Bengaluru. To strengthen the clay, Srivathsa experimented with a vegetable polymer solution and added unusual ingredients such as blue cactus. But after producing 15 ghatams in an industrial site on Kanakapura road, he abandoned the effort due to tepid response from manufacturers. When it comes to South Indian musical instruments, “the evolution is quite slow,” he observes.

As for Ramesh, he turned to the Engineering and Industrial Services Company in Chennai, which had recently supplied a kiln to the pottery program at Chennai’s Government College of Fine Arts. Next, it was time to see whether a little public warmth could help regulate the temperature for the ghatam. Sumana and Ramesh launched the crowdfunding campaign in July 2016 on Ketto.org, setting the goal at Rs 5,00,000 (approximately € 6,195).

Back in Manamadurai, Meenakshi Amma was apprehensive. “My mother told me to be cautious,” recalls Ramesh. “She said, ‘You are taking too much of a financial risk’.” The family would need to invest about Rs 5,00,000 of its own savings, including Rs 1,00,000 from the Sangeet Natak Akademi award, beyond the target set on Ketto.org.

It isn’t about numbers. It's more about the feeling of the pot

Ghatam maker UVK Ramesh
Ghatam maker UVK Ramesh

Fortunately, the campaign “took on a life of its own,” recounts Sumana. It was an unusual bid for support in the music world, where crowdfunding has generally been used more as a tool to finance a debut album or host a festival. One person who stepped up was Giridhar Udupa, a ghatam virtuoso who has collaborated with Hindustani and jazz musicians across India and Europe, in addition to appearing with such Carnatic stars as Bombay Jayashri. Giridhar, who maintains a close relationship with Ramesh and regularly makes his own pilgrimages to Manamadurai, publicised the campaign on Twitter and encouraged friends to donate. Others shared the link on Facebook. Contributions flowed in from Japan, Germany, China, Singapore and Australia. In the US, donors emerged from unlikely places like Baltimore and Albuquerque. One American explained that his family had owned agricultural land in Manamadurai, and after eating rice from the region as a child, he felt he owed something to the place.

Leading vocalists such as Shubha Mudgal, TM Krishna and Kailash Kher joined the crowd. Theatre directors including Anmol Vellani and Nirmala Ravindran also contributed, as did visual artists, such as Saba Hasan. Organisers from the online portal Indian Cultural Forum contributed Rs 25,000, thanks to a staffer who agreed to forgo one month’s salary. In India, where practitioners of various art forms often appear burrowed in their own silos, it was a striking example of crossover generosity.

The crowdfunding campaign ended in September 2016, slightly exceeding its target. About 20 other donors sent funds directly to Ramesh. Delivery of the kiln was delayed by a few months, due to disruptions caused by the Indian government’s new demonetisation policy. Aware that Manamadurai was a residential area, not an industrial estate, engineer Karthik Raja conjured up a kiln that operates on reduced horsepower. Still, Ramesh had to install new wiring and buy a transformer and stabiliser to handle the increased load. The night the kiln arrived, the potter recalls that he couldn’t sleep. It was more exciting than the time his family got their first television, and he could finally watch his favorite Tamil movie hero Vijayakanth cavort in his own home.

ghatam sukanya

Yet post-installation in April 2017, it was hardly smooth sailing. This was a Case of the Exploding Ghatams, a little-known chapter in the story. “I knew there had to be trial and error,” Ramesh says calmly.

The first time he loaded up the kiln, he placed the ghatams vertically, covering the neck of each instrument. Boom. The ghatams shattered. Next, he tried a circular approach, placing the ghatams on their sides. Cracks galore. Ultimately, he figured out how to arrange them in a semi-circle, with an equal distribution in weight. This technique was definitely an improvement — out of 20 pots, he only lost three. Over a stretch of eight hours, the ghatams must now be fired in four stages: first 250 degrees, then 500 degrees, and ramped up to 700 or 800 degrees in the final two stages. These days, Ramesh and Karthik continue to test which temperatures, over what period of time, will produce the specific pitches demanded by musicians.

So far, some of the top players say they are satisfied with the results. “He gets a very good tone. I am very happy,” says Vikku, from his celestial perch in Chennai. However, the new technology has also ushered in demands for customisation. Vikku, who celebrated his 75th birthday last December, says he wants lighter ghatams, easier for him to toss in the air and catch (a favourite concert flourish). Giridhar, now 37, wants heavier ghatams that he can pound with greater force. “It takes a lot of energy and stamina to play on the Manamadurai ghatam,” he says.

Ghatam player Sumana
Ghatam player Sumana

The Ketto campaign to save the ghatam took on a life of its own

When Meenakshi listened to the sound of the new ghatams last year, her family noted the intense pleasure on her face. “It was like a new child was born,” says Ramesh. All too soon, she died last November. A longtime sufferer from diabetes and high blood pressure, Meenakshi had insisted on working the day that she passed away, even though she was feeling ill.

It takes a lot of energy and stamina to play on the Manamadurai ghatam.

To enhance recognition of the unique qualities of the Manamadurai ghatam, Ramesh persuaded the local authorities in Tamil Nadu to file a petition last year for Geographical Indication. A GI tag is also aimed at warding off fakes, although this doesn’t look like a problem for now.  Meanwhile, Ramesh hopes the local government will see fit to provide subsidies for his electricity bills, which have surged as a result of the new kiln.

“It’s more efficient than the method we had before. My life has become a little easier,” says Mohana Ramesh, his 36-year-old wife, whose tasks include kneading clay and hauling raw ghatams to dry. “I’m proud that so many people were willing to contribute,” adds the mother of two teenage daughters. “I didn’t expect that.”

Even the 29-year-old kiln designer was inspired to buy his first ghatam from the family and took a few lessons from Ramesh’s nephew. He finds it difficult, but persists in daily practise with a little help from YouTube. This clay adventure has already led to a deep sense of achievement. Says Karthik: “I tell my friends and clients, ‘People from around the world will play an instrument from my kiln’.”

***

In the realm of Carnatic music, the ghatam has never been top dog. It has a long history of subservience to the mridangam, considered the king of South Indian classical music. The ghatam is not strictly necessary to stage a concert, as is the mridangam; it can be excluded if another secondary percussion instrument is on hand, such as the kanjira, or the morsing.

While most players seem to accept this as a fact of life, they also revel in the many avenues opening for their music — whether recording for films, invited to accompany the superstars of Hindustani music, appearing at prestigous Carnatic venues, or globetrotting to jazz festivals. AR Rahman, Lucky Ali, and Amjad Ali Khan are just a few leading figures who have flung open a door. Giridhar keeps about thirty ghatams stashed overseas, including five in Poland and four in Denmark. Ghatam vidwan V Umashankar counts ghatams in Amsterdam, Paris, and Bonn, among other locations. “The ghatam is now accepted and recognised across genres,” observes R Mahadevan, co-founder of Radioweb.in, a portal for Indian classical music, and a curator for various installations at the Indian Music Experience, a museum in Bengaluru devoted to music history.

Practitioners also boast that it is the only instrument that can withstand all weather conditions. Neither heat nor cold nor rain will consign a ghatam to oblivion.

For many years, however, conservative families perceived the ghatam as an inappropriate instrument for female hands. The excuses were legion: young ladies should not touch the sacred clay pot while menstruating; they should not develop rough hands or bulging forearms; that child-bearing might be disturbed by a vibrating instrument clutched to the womb.

Neither heat nor cold nor rain will consign a ghatam to oblivion.

Both Sukanya and Sumana have contested these stereotypes, winning respect from their fellow ghatam players. Last year, on 10 December, Sukanya galvanised no fewer than 82 ghatam musicians to join a massive concert in Bengaluru to celebrate Vikku’s 75th birthday. The overwhelming majority were men. The audience seemed riveted by the rhythms, despite those who predicted that a concert without vocalists or mridangam would be boring. Most of the players held Manamadurai ghatams, and Ramesh was duly honoured after the concert.

Will more female players come forward to embrace the ghatam? At the Sri Jaya Ganesh Tala Vadya Vidyalaya, a prominent music school in Triplicane, some 10 female students are thrumming the clay pot, alongside 40 male pupils. But in Kerala, Krishnakumar is still waiting for his first female student to turn up. He says he will teach anyone who expresses interest. In Manamadurai, Ramesh also believes that both women and men are entitled to play. No one is excluded from his courtyard.

In scrolling images, from top: Ghatam musicians Sumana Chandrashekar, Giridhar Udupa, Sukanya Ramgopal; TH Vikku Vinayakram at Naada Pravaaha, photo courtesy Prakruti P Kumar

Margot Cohen writes about culture in Asia. She is a former correspondent for The Far Eastern Economic Review.

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