Interview with Ghatam maestro Sri Vikku Vinayakram

Vikku Vinayakram

Can you talk about the future of Ghatam and Ghatam artists?

Ghatam used to be an instrument that struggled in the earlier days. It had to go through hardships to come to where it is now, in the main spot. Earlier, very few people had Ghatam and it wasn’t a main instrument. In that situation only I took this instrument. My dad wanted me to come to a position with the Ghatam like how Ravi Shankar Ji had with the Sitar. I fulfilled his wish.

I used to work at All India Radio. Many years of my career were with M.S Subbulakshmi. She is the person who opened the opportunity for Ghatam abroad. We played at the UN concert in 1966. I can never forget her! From the beginning, Ghatam was mainly supported by female artists. The kutcheri wouldn’t happen without Ghatam for artists like M.S Subbulakshmi, M. L Vasanthakumari, D.K Pattamal. In fact, only ladies made the instrument.

It used to be a side instrument. I got a big chance to play Ghatam with Shakti, that plays western Jazz music, during my stint at All India Radio. Ghatam replaced Mridhangam at that point. I left my radio job and was with them for few years. My son, Selva Ganesh plays for Remember Shakti now.

I played for Planet Drum, an album by Mickey Hart, which also won a Grammy Award. I was the first person from South India to have won a Grammy. Seven countries drummers played together and that’s what won me this award.

Slowly, Ghatam came to the main spot over the years. I then realized that this should be showcased as a main instrument and be played as a fully fledged kutcheri. That’s how I started playing four together.

Right now, Ghatam is one of the most important instruments and there are a lot of solo artist performances. One of my female students Sukkanya Ramgopal, plays kirthana with Ghatam along with accompaniments.

The future of Ghatam looks very bright according to me!

How do you combine spirituality and music?

God is in music, according to me. Before a concert I always pray. I believe it’s like an exam and results come from the audience. In those couple of hours, we don’t think about anything else apart from the music itself. We dwell in the music and get submerged in it. Music helps bring rain, cure diseases and more.

I used to be very home sick during my travels abroad. I would simply play music and feel better.

Concert formats have changed a lot since the time you first started. How have you adapted to the change?

During earlier times, the concerts used to be for four hours. It would start at about 4:30pm and go on till 8:30pm. The audience used to listen carefully. In fact, there never used to be mics.

There was no tape recorder or CD or mic, everything was done live. Ghatam never had a mic.

Now we can keep mics inside the Ghatam itself to be able to take videos. We can play concerts at home itself and don’t even need to go out to watch a concert.

Right now, there is so much development. Audiences these days are more focused on the food (Laughs) and this is more like an entertainment. Sincerity lacks in this generation and time unlike older times.

There is so much opportunity now and young talents are given a chance to showcase their talent.

Earlier, very few students used to learn music in the form of a Gurukul if they did not show interest in studies. In the current scene, more people are interested to come forward and learn music. There are so many colleges for music and also learning through Skype, etc.

I am still not comfortable with internet for music. When someone asks me to teach via Skype, I say I’d rather come and teach in person. (Laughs)

You have collaborated with many artists from the North and also International. Tell us about your experience.

I started out playing for MS Subbulakshmi ji, then later Shakti Group and left there abruptly due to family issues. Later, I started working with North Indian artists like Amjad Ali Khan, Shiv Kumar Sharma, Hariprasad Chaurasia, Zakir Hussain, Pandit Jasraj and many more since I played for the Western Jazz Music.

I would like to quote an instance here. I traveled with Hariprasad Chaurasia for a concert in Germany. We landed in Frankfurt and had to go to a place 3-4 hours away. At the airport, I wasn’t sure how to use the bag trolley and hence it went rolling down a slope and my Ghatam broke completely. I was really upset and was clueless how I’d play the evening concert. Hari Ji asked me not to worry and to just speak Konnakol during the concert. I was still very upset without my Ghatam. The concert was in the late evening and we reached the place at 5pm. Hari ji was nice enough to tell me that they will go ahead with the concert for one and a half hours and I can just sit on the stage with the Konnakol. But with the grace of lord, I got super glue and some threads and somehow fixed it and played the concert. I just want to highlight Hari Ji’s beautiful gesture which we don’t usually experience down south unfortunately. Similarly, Zakir Hussain Ji has done a lot for me too.

In the International scene, I have played with Planet Drum by Mickey Hart and we got Grammy Award for the same. I got the award to my place here in India as I was not able to go. It was a melody group with artists from seven different countries.

We did a tour for the same through different costs of America. I would like to quote an incident here. When we reached the airport, I was caught and asked what the Ghatam was. I tried to explain in different ways but they did not understand. So I decided to play a small tune and they were extremely happy and thrilled to see how much sound a mere pot can make.

Usually, during all my concerts I wear a traditional south Indian attire called Panchakajam. I was a bit scared considering I’m in a far away land and hence I prayed to the lord and left it to him. The head of the band made it clear to everyone that each person can wear the traditional and popular outfit from their country and also told others that nobody must wear their shoes and come next to me as a token of respect to what I was wearing. The concert was fun and a grand success.

Apart from Music, what are your interests?

For me, music is everything! Within music itself, I come up with different concepts. Now I’m working on something new like playing slokams. By doing this, if I have the thalam ready, I can single handedly doing a entire concert with just a couple of accompaniments. My grandson, Swaminathan will say the slokam and I will play it.

Your advice to the future percussionists

Music is a very blessed talent which not everyone would get easily. There were such great musicians like Mandolin Srinivasan, MS Subbulakshmi and others, who though are no longer present, their music is remembered and listened to. It will never be wiped out! For instance, lord Mahalakshmi will come and go away whereas lord Saraswathi won’t come easily but once she has come, will never leave you. So if you have the talent, you must make the best use of it and never let it go! You need to have an aim and work hard towards giving it your best. Only failures make you go up!

What are your future projects?

Currently, I am working on the Bhajan Namasankeerthanam in Ghattam. I am also working on a project with Salem Ravi where he tells the story of Kanchipuram mahaan’s Mahimai and I will play the slokam.  Having played everything else, including fusion and western, I want to now play something spiritual.

A brief history on the legendary percussionist

Vikku ji’s exceedingly long and successful chosen field spanning about sixty-one years proves that he is a one-of-a-kind artist.

In the year 1955, his father Sri Harihara Sharma introduced Vikku ji to Ghatam as there were too many mrigangists around at that time and scope to make a decent living was not easy considering the family’s financial status. This transformation for Vikku ji from mridangam to ghatam was not only for him but also for the instrument itself.

He was made to get up at 4AM every morning and was given water in which the previous day’s rice was soaked after which he was made to go to the prayer room after which the father used to close the door from outside. Vikku ji would have to practice one particular set of beats till the lamp died down for want of oil. This had taken about four hours too many a time. Sharma imparted on his son the beat calculation. Since the basics were laid by his father, he was able to imbibe the nuances of playing the ghatam easily. Moreover, he was used to only hearing beats since his childhood.

In March 1955, he played his first concert at Dhakshinamoorthy temple, Chennai for which the honorarium was Rs. 1. Due to persistent poverty, the family was forced to look into Cinema as well. At that time, Gantasala, Chalapathirao and Raheswararao were some of the music directors who were ruling. Vikku ji was in demand as ghatam was indispensable instrument as it’s sound heightened the total outcome of the song. He also performed with the music troupe of MK Thiyagharaja Bagavathar.

During those times, it was believed that the metallic sound of the ghatam was more suited for female voices than male voices. Sulamangalam sisters, P. Leela, U.R Jeevarathnam, T. V Ratnam, to name a few, offered Vikku ji chances in their carnatic and light music concerts. He later became a permanent artist in the concerts of M.L Vasanathakumari, Radha Jayalakshmi, K.B Sundrambal and later D.K Pattamal.

Since his dad believed that his career would go up the notch if he played for male singers, through his close friend Sattur Subramaniam Iyer and also violin maestro Sri T.N Krishnan, got him maximum chances.

Vikku ji was also in the troupe involving Lalgudi and Umayalpuram organized by the Indian Council for Cultural Relations. They toured Eastern Bloc Countries like Russia, Yugoslavia, Hungary and Poland. In fact, they also organized a program called ‘Layavinyasam’ to popularize ghatam in rural areas of India.

In the year 1966, he performed his first American UN concert tour which was attended by the representatives of all the countries and was arranged by Sri C.V Narasimhan. He accompanied the nightingale of India M.S Subbulakshmi and Sri T.K Muthy on the mridangam. He has also taught Ghatam at Berkley Center of World Music.

Later, his career was enhanced where he performed with renowned artists like L Shankar(Violin), Zakir Hussain(Tabla), Hariprasad Chaurasia, Shivakumar Sharma, Briju Maharaj, Sultan Khan and Pandit Durgalal and they took the world by storm.

Vikku Vinayakram ji is the recipient of prestigious awards. Some of the awards received by him include

  • Padma Bhushan in 2014
  • Padma Shri in 2002
  • Sangeet Natak Akademi award for Carnatic music in 1988.

This interview was featured in our June 2017 issue: http://bit.ly/2sN8e5v