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The instruments of change

In the traditional world of Indian classical music, three women are striking new notes. One ghatam player, one tabla player and one sitar player are breaking the gender norms of Indian classical music.

art and culture Updated: Nov 27, 2010 20:57 IST
Sumati Mehrishi
Sumati Mehrishi
Hindustan Times

It isn’t easy to say this, but the world of Indian classical music can sometimes be not so much traditional as utterly hidebound. Especially when it comes to gender.

Though women have managed to break through in many spheres and make names for themselves, there are still many areas that are classified as ‘men only’ for several reasons, ranging from ‘it’s always been the province of men’, to the physical strength that women possess – and the lack of it in comparison with their male counterparts.

But a girl’s got to do what a girl’s got to do, and when you have a passion and the persistence to follow it to its ultimate fulfilment, you will break all the barrriers in your path and succeed. In many cases, spectacularly.

Just as these three women have done, playing traditional instruments from the Indian classical music scene, but instruments that were not traditionally meant for women to play.

Meet the people who followed their hearts – and in the process turned the cacophony of discord into sweet notes of approval.

Ghatam Sukkanya Ramgopal
The ghatam

A woman may become an excellent percussionist, but she cannot undo her shirt buttons and perform on stage.” There’s no doubt that this comment by a world-renowned ghatam player about women percussionists is true. But it sounds ludicrous, nasty and very sexist. Because while it’s true that the ghatam’s sound emerges best when it’s placed against the percussionist’s bare belly and played, that tone can be replicated in other ways. As Begaluru-based artiste Ghatam Sukkanya Ramgopal has proved.

“I have burnt hours – no, years – working to get the same sound and I do not need to whine over the fact that I can’t play the ghatam wearing an unbuttoned shirt,” says Sukkanya.

Sukkanya is not the first person from the South to be named after a musical instrument, but it was not this musical instrument that she originally learned. In the 1960s, when she was expected to concentrate on her violin, Sukkanya yearned to step across the hall into the percussion classes conducted by ghatam legend Vidwan Vikku Vinayakaram instead.

“The urge to find room in those classes was strong and troubling,” says Sukkanya. “My mother and siblings supported me. But my dad minded the shift. His first worry was that percussion would make my soft hands rough. Then, the thought of a woman playing an instrument meant for men bothered him.”

Sukkanya’s own guru, Vidwan Vikku Vinayakaram, worried too. “Vikkuji believed I would not have the strength required to play the instrument,” says Sukkanya. “Thankfully, my mridangam guru and Vikkuji’s father, Harihara Sharma, showed a lot of faith in me.”

Sukkanya’s family had faith in her too. When she married, 40-odd ghatams were packed with her wedding trousseau – to be welcomed by her mother-in-law.

Gender laws are the least of Sukkanya’s worries. In a scenario where musical instruments are subject to a tight hierarchy, Sukkanya plays the ghatam – the last instrument necessary in an ensemble that consists of veena, violin, mridangam, morsing and ghatam. Plus, male vocalists don’t usually want to be accompanied by a female percussionist. In response to these problems, Sukkanya plays the ‘ghatatarang’ – an ensemble of six ghatams tuned to different pitches. As you read this, she is touring China and Singapore with Sthree Thaal Tharang – an all-woman percussion group.

The group isn’t Sukkanya’s way of escaping the gender barrier. “It’s just a way to create more opportunities for experimentation and performance. It’s a great feeling to be performing with women. Also, concert norms don’t treating male performers any better. It’s tough for men as well.”

Anuradha Pal
The tabla
Her music commands reverence. Her taps and sounds are so crisp, you want to shut your ears to the buzz in the auditorium as Anuradha Pal, tabla exponent, appears on the stage. She’s wearing a bindi and lip gloss, her silk pastel kurta sleeves are folded and her dupatta sweeps the floor.

You want to shut your eyes because Anuradha is so strong as a performer, so perfectly placed in the competitive percussion world, that you really want to forget for a moment that she is a woman. You just want to focus on the music.

At a concert in February this year, Anuradha had said she was “never really promoted” by her guru, Ustad Alla Rakha Khan, the percussion legend and father of Ustad Zakir Hussain.

Was that because the guru had illustrious sons as disciples? “I don’t know, but I was never ‘promoted’. That’s about it. Intense hard work helped me create opportunities for myself, in terms of the right kind of concerts, venues and organisers,” says Anuradha.

Now the head of a band called Stree Shakti and a regular performer with another band, Recharge, Mumbai-based Anuradha says she found it difficult to find a guru at first.

“The struggle stories, I have them all. But it would be nice if people cared more about how I managed learning,” she says. “I was 10 years old when I realised that there was no one ready to teach me. I worked towards getting the sound even before I had Ustad Alla Rakha Khan as my guru. But my family was a blessing. My father understood my dedication.”

When people shower more praise on Anuradha Pal as a woman than as a percussionist; when they gaze at her in the green room, mouths gaping at the heavy bag full of drums that she carries, you understand why the artiste does not like talking about being a gender-bender. “Once I was told by a senior during a rehearsal that I would be best suited to play the vilambhit (the slow part) of the piece, whereas his brother would be given the drut (the fast part) to play,” says Anuradha. “I asked him what he really meant. He cheekily said that he wanted to save a woman from all that hard work. Why? Is it jealousy or outright nastiness, or what?”

Female percussionists are expected to be super strong. “Instead,” says Anuradha, “it is really about using strength the intelligent way. Playing percussion instruments can be mentally and physically exhausting. But perfection comes by understanding the sound scientifically.”

Aruna Narayan Kalle
The sarangi

Sarangi artistes are known to enjoy doing things the hard way. Their instrument isn’t what you would pick from mere love of music. The backs of the tips of the fingers have to be rubbed on tough strings to get the sarangi’s basic sound. As a result, sarangi artistes usually have heroic tales to relate of how they have endured pain to achieve what they have.

But Aruna Narayan Kalle, the only world-renowned woman sarangi artiste, makes no song and dance about it. Settled in Toronto, the Mumbaikar says, “Yes, it’s painful. But the instrument demands it.”
Daughter of sarangi guru Pandit Ram Narayan, Aruna picked up the instrument at the age of 18. “I was learning Hindustani vocal music till then. The sound of the sarangi attracted me and my father was happy to teach me,” says Aruna. “Though I picked up the sarangi pretty late in life, my father made it a point to teach me the right techniques. Being a woman doesn’t mean I had an easier time. And, though I started performing in the 1970s, I am trying to achieve the same sound quality as my father. I still do not believe I am close to that.”

It has taken artistes like Pandit Ram Narayan decades to make the sarangi ‘respectable’. The instrument had a touch of notoriety about it, since it had been used to accompany the nautch girls of yore. Now, that status is changing, and the instrument is moving into lounge, fusion and jazz circuits. But Aruna sticks to the traditional. She has collaborated with artistes from the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. “There is a lot of drama happening in the Indian concert scene, but I am not comfortable with that,” she says. “I like doing traditional stuff.”

First Published: Nov 27, 2010 19:21 IST