The ghatam is a South Indian drum resembling a porous earthenware or clay pot, a common household object in North and South India used for cooling drinking water. In North India, it is known as the gharda, somewhat smaller than the South Indian ghatam and in Rajasthan it takes the name matka – both words for a clay water pot.
The ghatam is completely spherical with a short neck and round opening at the top - although it may resemble a household utensil, it is built specifically as a musical instrument requiring certain tonal qualities and an even thickness to produce a consistent pitch.
The ghatam is also used in folk and Carnatic classical music, often as secondary percussion supporting a mridangam. The tonal contrast between the two drums creates a very richly textured sound, but the ghatam works equally well as the principal percussion for Carnatic instrumental or vocal music. It is played using the nails, fingers, and palms of both hands and sometimes the wrists and elbows are also used to strike different parts of its outer surface.
Different tones are produced by hitting different parts of the drum and by using specific fingers for varied pressure. A unique sound, an airy low-pitched bass known as gumki, is created by hitting the open mouth with a fully flattened hand.
Ghatam maestros can produce an astonishing variety of complex and sophisticated rhythms. Some varieties of ghatam can also have brass filings mixed into the clay which produces a sharp metallic tone, preferred by some South Indian percussionists. North Indian gharda players will often wear heavy metal rings on their fingers to achieve a similar effect.
The ghatam is often supported by other drums like the kanjira – a South Indian frame drum similar to a tambourine, around eight inches in diameter and consisting of a circular wooden frame with one surface covered in a thin layer of lizard skin.
Originally only used for folk music and, because of its high pitch considered largely unsuited to classical music, it began appearing on classical concert stages early in the 20th century with water being sprinkled inside the drum to reduce the pitch and produce a good bass sound.
Other South Indian drums used for accompanying classical music include the thavil, a barrel-shaped drum which was an indispensable part of folk and temple music before it was also incorporated into Carnatic classical music. A cylindrical shell made of hollowed out wood, both thavil drum heads are covered in animal skin. The right head is played with the fingers capped in a hardened paste of plain flour, while the larger left head is played with a short, thick, wooden stick.
Listen to the music | 'Ghatam’ Giridhar Udupa explains his love for the intricate, mathematical rhythms of Carnatic music, demonstrating them on his ghatam.
Jameela Siddiqi is an author, linguist, and BBC cultural commentator, specialising in postcolonial fiction and the devotional music of South Asia.
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