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.