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Arunima Maharshi

IWB Blogger

Expert Ghatam-Maker Meenakshi Talks About Her Detailed Craft That Requires Beating The Pot 3000 Times

  • IWB Post
  •  June 13, 2018

All of 15, Meenakshi got married into a family of traditional potters, and today at the age of 63, happens to be not only the expert Ghatam-maker of the country, but also the first instrument-maker in the country to receive the Akademi Award.

An hour’s drive from Madurai, Tamil Nadu, Meenakshi’s hometown Manamadurai is famous for its ghatams, a high-quality musical instrument commonly used in south Indian Carnatic concerts. It was from her husband and father-in-law that she learnt the craft, which is said to take six years to master, and longer if you’re not a traditional potter. Meenakshi and her family could be the only ones producing the unique type she specialises in – Manamadurai.

The Akademi booklet lauds Meenakshi as “perhaps the only ghatam maker who has the entire know-how for quality ghatams.” It adds, “Hundreds of ghatams made by her have travelled with performers all over the world.” Hung high on the living room wall alongside a garlanded portrait of her late husband (below), a large gilt-framed photograph shows Meenakshi receiving it from the president of India. It was also Meenakshi’s first experience of travelling by aeroplane!

Meenakshi Ghatam Meenakshi GhatamTalking about Ghatams, where many percussion instruments are taken from the Earth, water shapes it, fire bakes it, and the sun and air dries it. “But as a part of its making, you have to beat it 3,000 times,” tells Meenakshi to the People’s Archive of Rural India. The mud for each instrument travels some distance, they collect it from five or six ponds, which is then dried for a day and mixed with fine sand from the Vaigai River later. In the final stage, graphite and lead is added to improve the tone, and stamped on it for six hours, it is kept aside for two days. When the clay gets stronger, they cast the pot.

“The tricky part is tempering the ghatam to improve the tone,” Meenakshi spoke, whacking the sides with her right hand. With her left, she rotated a round stone inside the pot. “That’s to see the wall does not collapse. And to make it smooth.” After four decades of moulding mud, her hands hurt all the time. She shares how the pain shoots down from her exhausted shoulders to her fingertips. But a minute later, picks up the wood and stone and adjusts the pot on her lap. That’s how her day goes!

Meenakshi Ghatam

Meenakshi Ghatam

For long an accompanying instrument, solo Ghatam recitals are now not uncommon. Meenakshi has attended a couple in which her made Ghatams were played. But there is no financial help in this business. Governments do not patronise the craft. And unlike players, the instrument makers are not encouraged with awards. But this dedicated craftswoman accepts the poor returns, and likes to see her work simply as service to music. And despite the odds, she together with her son, Ramesh, daughter-in-law and a few other family members, continue practicing their craft and are happy to be providing a livelihood to several people.

Technique apart, the clay from the Manamadurai region deserves some credit for the excellent clarity. Sadly, the best soil now goes into making bricks, affecting the potters’ livelihood. Yet, Ramesh, taking her mother and father’s skill and dream forward, is happy to teach his daughters, nephew and niece – the family’s fifth generation – to make Ghatams. It isn’t the money. Ghatams fetch them “a mere six hundred rupees a piece.” Compare this with a small, luxury-brand, bone-china bowl – that costs a few thousands.

Meenakshi Ghatam

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