In 2000, U V K Ramesh gave up a lucrative job in Singapore to return to his family profession of making ghatams used in Carnatic music. The 46-year-old is a well-respected community leader and known for his competency in ghatam making, having been making pots since the age of 10.
“As a young boy, I would always see musicians come home to buy ghatams. They would sit in our house, spend hours playing and talking about music. So very early I realised how important our role was in keeping this music tradition alive. So we continue to make ghatams as a passion and as our service to the field of music,” recalls Ramesh.
Ghatams used in Carnatic music are predominantly made in three centres in South India: Devanahalli near Bengaluru, in Chennai and in Manamadurai, near Madurai, Tamil Nadu. Connoisseurs believe that the Manamadurai ghatam is heavier and sturdier than the others and it is also known for its metallic sound and unique tonal quality.
All in the family
Ramesh's family is the only one manufacturing ghatams in Manamadurai, for over a century. Today, the family has two master ghatam makers who are keeping this tradition alive: Ramesh and his 67-year-old mother Meenakshim, who has been making ghatams for the last 50 years ever since she married into the family. Meenakshi was also awarded the prestigious Central Sangeet Natak Akademi award in 2014 for her proficiency in ghatam-making.
The known history of ghatam-making in the family begins with Ulaganatha Velar. Later, his son, Vellachamy Velar, carried on the legacy, which was later taken up by his sons Andavan and Kesavan. Meenakshi, who married Kesavan, also got actively involved in ghatam-making and has passed this on to her son Ramesh, who is the fourth-generation ghatam-maker.
“My great-grandfather was a great innovator. He was a musician himself and he sang in community bhajans and played some instruments. So he brought together his energies as a musician and as a potter and started to make the pot as a musical instrument. And over the last century, as a family we have continuously evolved and improvised on ghatam-making,” says Ramesh.
Fashioning musical pots
Ramesh fashions the pot on the wheel while Meenakshi gives the finishing touches. It is Meenakshi, who through a particular technique of beating the raw pot, breathes life into the pot. “It is in her hands that the pot becomes a ghatam,” says Ramesh. The supply of clay comes from the surrounding villages within and from the bed of the Vaigai river that flows through the heart of the town. The town is famous for a good range of clay products like pots, pans, stoves and vases, which are used in everyday life as well as for medicinal and ritual purposes. The town also has a potters’ co-operative society through which the finished products are sold to a wide market across Tamil Nadu and Kerala.
While Ramesh’s wife, Mohana, 36, and his sister Parameshwari, 40, also help the family in ghatam-making, along with his daughter, Nityasri, and his nephew, Hariharan, who are both 16.
“Besides this family, in Manamadurai, there has not been another family that has made ghatams. One of the main reasons could be that ghatam-making is not so profitable. Making a ghatam is very time-consuming, requires tremendous amounts of labour and pays very little. In fact, the family earns its livelihood through making other clay products like stoves, pans, vases, toys etc., which have a large market across Tamil Nadu and Kerala,” says Sumana Chandrashekhar, a 36-year-old Carnatic vocalist and ghatam player. Sumana also works as a programme executive responsible for the Arts Practice programme, at India Foundation for the Arts (IFA), a national arts funding organisation based in Bengaluru.
Bridging the gap
Sumana started an online funding campaign for Meenakshi and Ramesh’s family who have recently been experimenting with electric kilns for firing the ghatams. Their pilot efforts have shown that in an electric kiln, where temperature levels can be controlled, the risk of a ghatam breaking is very negligible. The quality of the ghatam too is far better, the process is slightly quicker and the risk of loss is almost absent.
“Making ghatams is my job and I am always concerned about quality. So when I discovered the efficacy of an electric ghatam, I wanted to purchase it. I needed money and the only route I was trying was to get a loan. As you know, that is very difficult to get a loan for something like this. Then Sumana came up with this idea of crowdfunding. She explained to us how it works,” says Ramesh.
“In the larger discussions on music, instrument-making traditions hardly get discussed in detail, except in theoretical and academic ways in seminars,” adds Sumana. She believes that the decisions that the makers take while making the instrument, has a huge impact on the aesthetics of the music that is performed on stage and therefore any musical tradition is always co-authored by the instrument makers and the artistes.
For Sumana and others supporting the cause such projects are significant. They are striving hard to break the hierarchies that exist between artistes and makers and also create a platform for dialogue between them.
Images - Prakruti P Kumar