The ghatam is an ancient percussion instrument used in Carnatic classical music. It is used in conjunction with the mridangam. The ghatam consists of a clay pot reinforced with brass, copper and iron fillings. It’s pitch is unique and can only be slightly modified by water and additional clay. It is played with the hands and fingers and can produce a large variety of sounds right from the neck to the body of the ghatam.
The best known female exponent of the ghatam is Sukkanya Ramgopal. Born in Mayiladuthurai in Tamilnadu, Sukkanya initially began training in the mridangam at the tender age of 12 at Sri Jaya Ganesh Talavadya Vidyalaya in Chennai, under the tutelage of Sri T. R. Harihara Sharma. She also learnt the violin under Sri Gurumurthy. However, it was the ghatam that was her true calling. Under the able guidance of Sri Harihara Sharma and later under Sri Vikku Vinayakram, Sukkanya trained rigorously on the ghatam. Born to a postmaster father in an orthodox family, it was difficult to for her to convince her father to allow her to play ghatam which is a male dominated craft.
Sukkanya started her musical sojourn by learning the violin but it was her attraction towards percussion that drew her toward the mridangam first and eventually the ghatam.
“Even when I went to the violin class my attention was always drawn towards mridangam classes happening in the opposite room. One fine day i went to mridangam class and requested Sharma Sir to teach me. He immediately accepted me as his student,” recalled Sukkanya.
After 3 years of rigorous practice and classes, she started playing for small concerts. Sukkanya would accompany Sri Vikku Vinayakram to listen to his ghatam concerts and was mesmerized by his playing and requested him to teach her ghatam.
“It was Vikku Sir who drew me towards playing ghatam, He is my inspiration and also my idol” said Sukkanya.
Over the past 40 years, she has mastered the art of playing the ghatam in Carnatic music. The Ghata Tharang is a unique idea conceptualised by Sukkanya. Her commitment to breaking new ground has inspired her to play the Ghata Tharang with 6 – 7 ghatams of different shruthis, thereby creating melody on a percussion instrument. Sukkanya leads an all-women’s instrumental ensemble called Sthree Thaal Tharang which is regarded as one of the country’s elite ensembles.
For the past 150 years, ghatam remains the accompanying instrument in carnatic music field. It is also used in Hindustani music, percussion ensembles and even fusion music. The ghatam artist plays with many different mridangam artistes and this helps the artist learn different types of calculations, different phrases which works to their advantage while composing a song.
“In the past years, ghatam was used in film music and still is without any language barrier. So this will continue in future also, no doubt” asserts Sukkanya.
In 2015, Sukkanya founded Sri Vikku Vinayakram School for Ghatam. In 2017, she founded Sunaadam Trust, an organization committed exclusively to the teaching and popularizing of ghatam. Sukanya has also authored the first textbook on ghatam learning, ‘Sunaadam: the Vikku Baani of Ghatam Playing’. One of the true torch bearers of the Vikkubaani of ghatam playing, she is also a proficient performer on the Konnakol. Sukkanya is today regarded as one of the finest exponents of Carnatic percussion and has been an inspiration to several women artists.
Even after performing for more than 40 years, Sukkanya feels she is still evolving as an artist and is still a student.
“My guru used to tell me each concert is an exam. There are so many things to learn. I do not know whether I will do it in my life span” expressed Sukkanya.