Ghatam: Ancient Drum with a Renewed Future

The ghatam is an ancient percussion instrument consisting of a clay pot reinforced with brass, copper and iron fillings.

Some players are so dedicated to ensuring a pure sound from the ghatam that they play with their shirts off in order to avoid dampening the sound.

Different from Other Drums

The ghatam is unique compared to other drums as it doesn’t have any type of membrane placed over the mouth of the drum. Instead, the ghatam players place the drum against their stomach. The surface of the drum is tapped, and the pitch and resonance are changed by applying different amounts of pressure against the stomach.

The drum produces a metallic sound and the pitch of the drum will vary depending on its size.

Preserving History

Ghatams are incredibly ancient with a long history in the Carnatic music tradition. The drums are predominantly made in three locations in South India: Devanahalli, Chennai, and Manamadurai. The Manamadurai ghatam drums are believed to be sturdier and to have a unique metallic sound.

There is only one family in Manamadurai that has been making the ghatam for the last century. U.V.K. Ramesh gave up a job in Singapore in 2000 to return to Manamadurai to continue the family tradition of ghatam-making. Ramesh, along with his mother, are the only two master ghatam makers in the region. Ramesh’s mother, Meenakshi, was awarded the Central Sangeet Natak Akademi award in 2014 for her ghatam-making skill before passing away in 2017.

The art of ghatam-making is likely waning because it isn’t a highly profitable business. The family supports itself by making other clay products that are sold at a local market. To help the family’s continued commitment to the ghatam, a member of the India Foundation for the Arts started an online funding campaign. These additional funds have allowed them to experiment with using an electric kiln while creating the ghatam.

The global campaign raised almost $8,000 thanks to a number of prominent musicians and artists sharing the cause. The global support allowed the family to manufacture a modernized, custom kiln. This outpouring of support will allow the ghatam to be modernized for the future while preserving its legacy of the past.

Electronic Tanpura: Prioritizing Practicality

The tanpura is an Indian string instrument that provides a supporting acoustic sound.

Playing the tanpura requires a certain amount of grace and skill. The electronic tanpura, on the other hand, makes tanpura music accessible to even the most rudimentary player – by turning it into a machine resembling a boom box.

From Musicality to Practicality

The traditional tanpura is a large instrument that is generally played from a seated position. It requires a skill to position the instrument and pluck the strings in the appropriate rhythms. It provides the backbone of much Indian classical music.

The electronic tanpura makes it much easier to keep the beat. This instrument was first invented by G. Raj Narayan in the 1970’s. The device was first demonstrated at the Music Academy Chennai in 1979 and manufactured by Narayan’s company, Radel Advanced Technology.

Technological Transformation

The electronic tanpura has evolved with the technology of the time:

  • In the 1970s it was made using discrete components and transistors;
  • In the 1990s it used sampled recordings on a chip;
  • In the 2000s, mobile apps were created;
  • In 2016, the Sonic Arts Research Center of Queen’s University Belfast created a mathematical model representing a physics-based synthesis of the instrument; and
  • In 2018, the mathematical model was developed into the Android app Pocket Shruti Box whose reviews indicate it is a very useful app for students learning Carnatic music.

The consistent innovation around the instrument show that it serves a valuable purpose for the Indian musical community. While it isn’t a match for the art of the original tanpura, prioritizing convenience over quality, it continues to offer a number of benefits, including its lower cost, easy portability, and straightforward use.

If you’d like to try your hand at one of the many electronic variations of the tanpura, you can test your skills with the Tanpura Drone Generator.