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Interview with Ghatam Sukanya Ramgopal, India’s first woman Ghatam player

How did you first decide to pick up the Ghatam?

I was fond of percussion from my childhood. I used to accompany my sister’s vocal on tableas my instrument. I learnt vocal along with my sister. Then I learnt Violin from Sri.T.H.Gurumurthy, brother of Sri. Vikku Vinayakram Sir. Even though I went to violin class my attention was towards mridangam classes happening in the opposite room. One fine day I went to mridangam class and requested Sri.T.R.Hariharasharma Sir (father of Sri. Vikku Sir) to teach me. He immediately accepted me as his student. With 3 years of rigorous practice and classes I started playing for small concerts. I used to go with Vikku
Sir to listen to his concerts. I was mesmerized by his playing and requested him to teach me ghatam. But he refused and told me that its difficult to produce sound on a mud pot. But his father adviced him “Ghatam doesn’t know who is playing on it whether a boy or girl. She proved herself a good mridangam player in a short time. If we teach her ghatam it’s a pride
for our institution Sri Jayaganesh Thala Vadya Vidyalaya. Let us teach her”. At that time Vikku Sir went to USA to teach in Berkeley University. Sharma Sir challenged his son that he would train me on ghatam when he was at USA. He gave me several practice sessions and taught the fingering techniques and with hard work I was able to play well. After his return from USA, Vikku sir was surprised to watch me playing ghatam so well and he took me as his student. This is how my ghatam musical journey started.

You’ve been trained under the Grammy award winning and vidhwan Vikku ji. Tell us about your learning from him.

I am always a very special student for Vikku sir. He been my greatest inspiration. Even now when I watch him play, I am mesmerized. During my training years with him, I would almost always be at the school. Except my school / college hours, most other times I would be in the school – learning or watching others learn. Vikku sir would teach me the small nuances of ghatam playing. He would play any number of times and I had to observe keenly and learn. When I learnt from him, during the 70s, it was a golden period as many stalwarts visited our school. With them I have had such memorable learning sessions. And sir also had ample time to teach. We used to have group sessions. These sessions inspire me even today. Even today when sir creates any new composition he teaches me.

What were some of the techniques you learnt from Vikku ji that you use a lot?

In Vikku sir’s technique the use of all ten fingers is key. All fingers have to be developed to produce equal pressure. He has developed special exercises to achieve felicity in all the ten fingers. Another speciality is the exploration of the entire instrument – all spaces on the ghatam are played on – the neck, mouth, belly everything. Composing shlokas / verses on
the ghatam is another of his distinct aspects. A particular verse is explored in terms of its sound and that sound is executed on the ghatam. So when you listen to the verse on the ghatam you can actually hear the verse itself. That is another thing I have learnt from him.

How is Ghatam perceived amongst youngsters in India and how are you making it more popular especially among women?

Youngsters are taking considerable interest in the ghatam. There are also some girls playing ghatam now. There was a time when girls were not allowed to step out of the house. Music teachers would come home to teach them. Or they had to learn from parents or siblings at home. It has changed a bit. Today while most girls are still encouraged to learn singing or playing melodic instruments there are some that have taken keen interest in percussion. They are also exploring many other forms of music making. I think social media has been a great aid to learning. There is so much more exposure. Sharing your work
has become easy. New networks are formed. And girls / women find encouragement and inspiration from a larger world. This is a great development.

Could you share some tips for aspiring Ghatam artists especially women

Practice, Practice and Practice. There is no substitute for hard work. Practice consistently and practice sincerely. Listen to master musicians from the past as well as to your own contemporaries. Learn from them and create your own music. Be updated with current trends in the field. More than physical strength you should have mental strength.

Highlight your upcoming projects

I recently completed a wonderful project in Pune, playing with percussion master Greg Ellis, Flamenco dancer Bettina Castanos, guitarist Santosh Chandran, Sitar player Shakir Khan and Tabla player Unmesh Baneerji. It was such a wonderful experience playing with all of them. I run the Sunaadam Trust through which we have been popularising the ghatam. We
organise workshops, concerts and thematic ensembles to bring the ghatam to the forefront. We want to take the ghatam to schools, orphanages and other places. My dream is to play Ghata Tharang and popularise it across the world. Another project is to document the lives and works of ghatam masters. I also want to document all the korvais that I know so that it can be of use to students.

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