MARCHING TO HER OWN BEAT -"keeping time" with Sukkanya Ramgopal, the Ghatam artiste.
Updated: Nov 18, 2020
Alexander Graham Bell was supposed to have said “When one door closes, another opens, but we often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door that we do not see the one which has opened for us.”
Thankfully though, Sukkanya Ramgopal the talented and well-known ghatam vidwan or maestro did see another door when one fateful day a gate was literally closed in her face at a Bangalore music festival at which she had arrived to perform. The male mridangam artiste had refused to perform with a woman ghatam accompanist, and so the organizers had hurriedly requested her to withdraw on that day while promising her another slot on another day. “My dejection was overwhelming. I have never cried as much as I did that day. I had trained under the best, worked so hard, and had the support of my family, and yet I could not gain ready acceptance from other musicians.” It was then that she decided to start her own all-female percussion group, the Sthree Thaal Tharang.
Sukkanya’s interest in percussion began as a child in Chennai. Whenever her sister sang, she would drum along on anything and everything that she could find, in the manner she knew best, without any training in percussion. Like numerous other girls from Indian homes, her education in music began with vocal music. Soon her interest shifted to the violin, and she began lessons with Gurumoorthi, the violinist and brother of the world renowned ghatam virtuoso Vikku Vinnayakram. But this shift proved to be fortuitous because as she sat learning how to play the violin it was the rhythm of the mridangam that drifted from the classes conducted across from hers that truly captured her imagination. Her heart and soul were set on percussion. Emboldened by the support that she had from her family, she approached Kalaimamani T.R. Harihara Sharma, the father of Vikku Vinayakram for lessons, and he accepted her as his student without as much as a second thought. She was such a fast and talented learner that within three years he had her playing for small concerts.
But it was when she accompanied Vikku Vinayakram to concerts just to listen to him play when she discovered her true calling. It was then that she realized that it was the ghatam that truly “mesmerized her”, to use her own words. She was enthralled by the skill with which he could make a simple clay pot sound so beautiful. To date, she is convinced that there is none other who can match his mastery of the instrument. Her mind was made up and she approached him for lessons. He was initially reluctant to accept her as a student because of her gender. He felt that the ghatam was an unsuitable instrument for a girl to play. He dissuaded her by telling her that it would require a great deal of strength to draw the right sounds from the ghatam because it was made from clay. He showed her the wear and tear on his own palms.
Undaunted, Sukkanya persisted. Her mind was set on learning how to play the ghatam. It was then that Vikku Vinayakram’s father convinced him that it would not make a jot difference to the ghatam that the hands that played it belonged to a female. In fact, he was convinced that it would be novel and unique to have a female playing the instrument. He then took up the challenge of training her. Harihara Sharma guaranteed his son Vikku Vinayaram, who was leaving for the University of Berkeley for a one-year teaching assignment, that by the time he returned to India, Sukkanya would be able to play the instrument well. And thus began her arduous training.
Sukkanya recalls the hours spent practicing the same sollu or rhythmic pattern in the presence of her teacher who sat listening while resting on his easy chair. After hours of practicing the same patterns, and when she thought he had fallen asleep, she would stop for a minute or two, overcome with fatigue. But the minute she stopped, the teacher would sit up and ask her why she had stopped and would tell her to continue. The practice was grueling and hard and the teaching was constant and selfless but it all paid off by the time Vikku Vinayakram returned from the US. He was so impressed with her skill that this time around he readily agreed to take her under his wing. She fondly remembers this period under Vikku Vinayakram as the “golden period” in her musical journey. He gladly and generously taught her everything he knew about playing the ghatam. Not much into verbal communication as a teacher, he encouraged her to watch and learn. He was willing to play the same rhythms as many times as she needed to learn, and it was by learning in this manner that she so completely acquired his style of playing that she has even been dubbed as the “Female Vikku Vinayakram.”
As the great-granddaughter of Dr. U. V. Swaminathan Iyer, the Tamil scholar, and researcher, she attributes her devotion or bhakthi to her teachers to the beliefs that her great-grandfather instilled in his descendants. “My forefathers were devoted to their teachers, and I am no different. I get emotional when I think of my teachers like Harihara Sharma Sir and Vikku Sir who dedicated their time and effort selflessly and tirelessly to my learning. There are no words to express my gratitude to them.”
Although, Sukkanya has had the opportunity to play for some of the biggest names in the industry, like Balamuralikrishna, Dr. S. Ramanathan, DK Jayaraman, and Mandolin U. Srinivasan, her mastery over the ghatam through her punishing practice and the untiring efforts of her teachers has not translated into complete acceptance by the karnatik music fraternity. Most musicians whether they be male or female still find it difficult to swallow the fact that a woman can play the ghatam just as well as any man. And, for this reason, the invitations to play and accompany musicians, whether they be vocalists or instrumentalists, male or female, have always been halting and reluctant. Ironically, Sukkanya says that the mindset of the older generation was far more encouraging than it is these days. The bias she feels is so strong against female percussionists that, “Even women balk at the idea of a woman ghatam accompanist.”
However, the silver lining of this gray and unpleasant cloud was that their rejection of her mastery blossomed into what is today the Sthree Thaal Tharang, her own group of female percussionists. Her experience with Ghata Maala in Vikku Vinayakram’s school where a melody was played by different students playing a ghatam of a different pitch or shruthi gave her the idea to play the ghatams of various shruthis all by herself with the accompaniment of other female artistes on the mridangam, morsing( an Indian version of a jaw harp), veena and violin. The concept is somewhat similar to the Jal Tarang, which is really a set of ceramic or metal bowls filled with water at various levels to produce the sapthaswaras or the seven notes, Sa Ri, Ga, Ma, Pa, Da, Ni. Striking the edges of these bowls with sticks makes the music. Similarly, Sukkanya plays different ghatams that are at different pitch levels so that she can produce the sapthaswaras and hence a melody. Since most known compositions traverse all three octaves, she typically composes her own unique melodies in different ragas and talas because it is easier and more effective to play a melody in a single octave on the ghatams. One of her memorable compositions is the Tribute to The Lord of The Seven Hills or Thirupathi Venkateswara. She has also published a book on the Vikku Vinayakram style of playing the ghatam.
Despite the uphill climb for acceptance as a ghatam artiste, her love for the art has only grown over the years resulting in her enthusiasm to create more music with her group. “Contrary to what people believe, the art of playing the ghatam requires more mental strength than physical strength and she is convinced that women have the patience and tenacity to master it. I am happy to share my knowledge with anyone willing to take up the challenge."