Hundreds of music fans gathered on Friday night at the India Social and Cultural Centre to enjoy internationally renowned percussionist Sukkanya Ramgopal tap out melodies on a set of ghatams (clay pots).
Accompanied by Sthree Thaal Tharang, the all-female musical group she founded back in 1996, Sukkanya demonstrated her unique contribution to the centuries-old tradition of Carnatic music.
“In our carnatic music system, the ghatam is at the fifth place on the concert platform, it is an accompaniment to the vocalist or the instrumentalist who is on the centre stage,” she explains. “People think when the ghatam artist is playing a solo they can go have a cup of coffee. I wanted to attract the audience with something innovative, so I took it to the centre stage.” The five ladies of Sthree Thaal Tharang play mouth harp and percussion and string instruments, alternating between classic carnatic pieces in which the ghatam accompanies and Sukkanya’s original compositions in which it leads. The instrumental ensemble breaks new ground not only by highlighting the musical breadth of the ghatam, but by placing it in the hands of a female artist.
Because the instrument has traditionally been played by men, Sukkanya met with resistance when she first decided to focus on the ghatam. “I was told that it’s very difficult to produce sound from a clay pot and that my fingers will be spoiled. But from my childhood I was always very much into percussion. I was adamant to learn,” she recalls.
After years of training under a master musician, Sukkanya became India’s first and only acclaimed female ghatam artist. Her desire to help pave the way for other female instrumentalists inspired the creation of Sthree Thaal Tharang, which now travels throughout India and the world playing concerts and sharing the lore of Carnatic music. The group is currently en route to Switzerland as part of a musical exchange programme between the Bangalore School of Music and the University of Music, Lausanne.
At Friday’s event, presented by the cultural wing of the Indian embassy and cultural organisation Ragamalika, the musical ensemble treated the audience to a masterful display of each instrument on the platform—the violin, veena, morching, mridangam and ghatam. But Sukkanya stole the show, swiveling among her semi-circle of six clay pots to drum out a tune. Her fingers were often a blur but the notes were unfailingly crisp, as she smiled and spectators gaped.