The hoary authenticity of South India’s classical arts is indisputable. The old stone of the South is often surprisingly old, free from Islamic and Hellenistic influences, and has continuous traditions right from the days before the Pallavas; Tamil poetry has a continuity that reaches back to the first century; and Carnatic music and dance, too, go very far back.
In such a cultural climate, two kinds of mistakes are easy to make — to frown upon art of real excellence because it is only four centuries (or not even a century) old and to take what one has known from childhood for something immemorial. I have not made the first kind of mistake at any time, but late last year I was guilty of the second.
Many in North India may not have seen and heard the peculiarly Southern ghatam, the only percussion instrument known to our classical music made entirely of earth. At times, speaking in English of Carnatic music, people refer to the ghatam lightly as “the pot” but though I disapprove of such flippancy I cannot deny the accuracy of the description. For all the marvellous rhythm it can produce, the ghatam is only a pot, a large earthenware pot strikingly similar to the one in which we store drinking water in Southern households.
Well, despite its familiarity, the pot is an ancient and a wonderful thing. Excavating the remains of long-dead civilisations, people come up with pots of all sorts and conditions and all Indian languages of sufficient antiquity will prove that 2,000 years ago they had earthen pots and used them much oftener than we do in these degenerate days of plastics and stainless steel. Naturally, then, I presumed that the ghatam was one of those musical instruments that have comedown to us from remote times, and that probably it was still its pristine self, and had undergone no change (as other Indian musical instruments have), for how can one change a large, round pot of backed clay? And so, when ghatam Vidwan Umayaiparam Viswanatha Iyer, one of the foremost exponents of the instrument and an artist belonging to the most orthodox school, assured me that the ghatam entered the kutcheri stage only some 70 years ago, I could not help feeling something of a fool.
He told me that Polaham Chidambara Iyer was responsible for introducing the ghatam as a rhythmic accompaniment at kutcheris and that Umayalpuram Narayana Iyer and Pazhani Krishna Iyer, by their superb virtuosity did much to advance the claims of “the pot” — he himself belonged to the Umayalpuram family, and had learnt the art from his celebrated cousin, the late Sundaram Iyer.
Though unquestionably a pot, the ghatam is not moulded or baked mechanically, like pots meant for domestic use; much sedulous care goes into its shaping and finishing, and secret ingredients are worked into its fine-textured clay. Panroti and Manamadurai are the centres at which the pots are made, and their manufacture is an industry of limited scope needing expert skill, for though there are many playing the ghatam today, the demand is still small. A good pot sells for about Rs 10.
The size of the pot and to a lesser extent the thickness of its walls determines its pitch, and each exponent has a stock of several ghatams of different pitch, to suit the sruti chosen by the vocalist. It is when the ghatam and mridangam players at a kutcheri get the opportunity to play solo, against each other — expounding the rhythmic possibilities of a given taalam — that the ghatam comes into its own. Competing with the much more versatile mridangam which can, unlike an earthen pot, vary the timbre of its punctuations, theoretically the ghatam may seem hopelessly over-matched, but then the sheer mastery of the playing fingers can lift it above all such limitations, and they can lift it literally too, tossing it into the air to be caught with a perfectly-timed slap, as no drum can be tossed.
However, it is not by such exhibitionist methods, but by authentic virtue and mastery of intricate rhythmic patterns, that the ghatam Vidwan finds expression for his impetuous verve. Each tap of the fingers must be crisp, clean and sharply defined, even when the tempo is so heady that the pot fairly throbs in the player’s hands, and this clarity and evenness of touch is no less important when the tempo is slow. Listening to Viswanatha Iyer, I was impressed by the quietness and lack of mannerisms of his play, his profound but unostentatious concentration on rhythm, the economy of his movements and the crispness of his sure touch. After a while one no longer watches the player, but gets lost in the changing shapes of the rhythm that are being built before one’s mind.
(this was published on 15 March 1964 in the sunday statesman)