Carnatic women percussionists say they are remembered unfailingly once every year. In March, as the world celebrates Women’s Day, they are sought after as symbols of “woman power” on stage. Sometimes, they are busy in October or November too, when Navaratri mandates tributes to “shakti”.
“It has become something of a joke among us,” said ghatam player Sumana Chandrashekar, shishya of the trailblazing ghatam player Sukanya Ramgopal. “We are all fully booked in March. It is the only time we get to refuse concerts.”
Mridangam artiste Charu Hariharan compares the March rush to the elaborate welcome accorded to elephants at temple festivals – caparisoned and feted briefly and then left to their own devices.
For the rest of the year, women percussionists are mostly forced to stay on the margins, struggling for a foothold in performance spaces dominated by men.
In Indian classical music, percussion is mostly an art of sangat or accompaniment, taking the spot next to the vocalist or the instrumentalist on the stage. Think back to the last time you saw a woman occupy that place, playing the tabla or the mridangam. Chances are you will draw a blank.
Despite this precarity, women drummers are making a mark by doing what the marginalised do to strengthen their voices – collectivising. There are all-women ensembles of all kinds, experimenting and pushing creative boundaries with their hard-earned expertise in the tala system.
What has eased collaborations is the pandemic-induced lockdown, with digital media opening avenues and breaching barriers in the establishment. Among these was a series where percussionists Ramgopal, Chandrashekar, Hariharan and Radha Kannan came together to perform konakkol, vocalised percussion syllables, set to Subramania Bharati’s poetry.
Over the past three decades, Sthree Thala Tharanga, Stree Shakti, Rhythms of Shakti, Pravaham 2.0, Women of Rhythm, Karnataka Mahila Laya Madhuri and several other groups have come together in permanent or fluid forms so that women can find supportive networks and spaces.
“I, my parents and guru put so much value on my music that I can’t allow myself to brood [over lack of opportunities],” said Hariharan who, recently collaborated with mridangam player Aswini Srinivasan, veena artiste Anjani Srinivasan and violinist Rangapriya for Pravaham 2.0. “We women tend to be diffident about asking for work. I see male musicians networking with such ease. But if the environment is not supportive, we have to find the strength from within. Women have to be supportive of each other, collectivise and put out their music, make their own sound. Join forces and build our self-esteem.” Hariharan’s recalls that her parents and her guru, Mannarkoil Balaji, placed talent above all else, including gender, though she was the only girl in a classful of mridangam students.
Still, while collectivising is empowering, it also points to how the music circuit isolates women percussionists. This is despite the fact that the last few decades have seen more women musicians taking to the tabla, mridangam, ghatam, kanjira, morsing or thavil. Their numbers may not be large but their invisibility on traditional platforms is near-total.
All-women ensembles can be a slippery slope for another reason. These artistes want to be recognised for their drum skills, not as male or female.
“We are trying to make listeners forget that we are women percussionists, to be heard and not looked at as a novelty,” said Deepikaa Sreenivasan, a Bengaluru-based mridangam player. “But there are so few of us we have no choice but band together for each other’s sake. Most ensembles are started for the same reason – we want to give ourselves and other young women percussionists opportunities.”
It is not unusual, she says, for women percussionists to quit music because of social and familial pressures, either give into the demands of domesticity or be frustrated by the lack of opportunities. Collective work is one way “to flex our muscles, make some music and noise”, she said.
Percussion across genres is considered a virile art. It was only recently that women entered folk or ritual rhythm traditions like singari melam, chenda or dhol.
But the classical concert arena works with a complex hierarchy. As an accompanying artiste, a woman drummer has to deal with not just the gender bias among organisers and audiences but also that of the lead musician. And if you are a ghatam player and secondary to the mridangam, being a woman can be a career stopper.
It was the indefatigable Sukanya Ramgopal who refused to let the rampant chauvinism push her into the shadows. She set up an all-woman music ensemble featuring drummers and instrumentalists, the vivacious Sthree Taal Tarang, in 1995 largely as a response to the scarring experiences she suffered as a ghatam player.
Ramgopal never flinches from recalling the mortifications – of the legendary mridangam master who refused to perform with her, being ordered not to play long or energetic interludes, and breaking down in grief over the sheer toxicity in the fraternity she entered as a sprightly, gifted child. To the narrow-minded, it did not matter that she trained and mentored by the best in the field, the family of the legendary TH Vikku Vinayakram.
For Ramgopal, an all-woman collective and dramatic multi-ghatam solos became the most effective means to retrieving agency over her career and artistry. Her home is an open space for younger percussionists to practise, rehearse and converse. A feisty persona, her instinctive reaction to cynicism is creative defiance.
“When I was turned away at the gates of a sabha for being a woman I decided that I would create opportunities for myself instead of waiting for them,” she said. “I started working on a ghatam ensemble with my students and presented it at the Bengaluru Gayana Samaj. Then someone said this is okay only for lec-dems, so I went ahead and did a three-hour concert in 1997.”
The Sthree Thaal Tharanga, featuring ghatams, violin, veena, morsing and mridangam, constantly showcases new and veteran women percussionists – morsing artiste Bhagyalakshmi Krishna, kanjira player Latha Ramachar among them. Almost every woman who plays a rhythm instrument has played for the tarang.
“If it wasn’t for her we would not have dared to dream,” said Srinivasan, who recently conceptualised a complex ensemble work on Chaapu, a Carnatic tala, featuring Srinivasan, Chandrashekar, Vijetha Hegde (tabla), Hrishitha Kedage (violin) and Siri Chandrashekhar (konakkol).
Pudukottai Ranganayaki Ammal, born in 1909 to a family of traditional musicians of the Issaivellalar community, is believed to be the first professional mridangam player. There is limited information available on her life, though she is said to have played at prestigious platforms with the biggest names of her time. In Hindustani music, it was the Parsi tabla artiste, Aban Mistry, who led the way in the 1960s.
A lot has changed for young women in the business of rhythm since then. Their sheer presence and visibility, for instance, and the force of the #MeToo movement have made overt gender bias near impossible. But passive bias is widespread, say women musicians.
“My challenges are an extension of what my guru faced and continues to face,” said Chandrashekar, who leads the programme team at the India Foundation for the Arts. “The only difference is how the bias appears – 15 years ago it was more direct, you were told clearly, ‘This is not a woman’s job.’ Now, everyone is politically correct, but the aggression is more subtle. I hear jibes like ‘Ghatam needs powerful playing’, [and I] am offered patronising tips on how what to play. I’ve also noticed that introductions to women percussionists have to have one line crediting a husband or a father for ‘allowing’ them to play.”
In private conversation, most women musicians speak of the condescension and latent sexism in the field, of men who consider it a comedown to perform for with women. “They don’t test the limits of our musical virtuosity,” is a common line.
Vocalist TM Krishna, who is part of the Kalaikoodam initiative that trains girls to play kanjira, ghatam and the parai, recalls performing at a sabha with a bright young female mridangist and the patronising complements that followed the concert: “We thought you were a man, you played so well.”
The pervasive gender divide makes it hard, says Srinivasan, to just be yourself as a musician. “There is so much condescension that if you have to prove yourself you have to do something radical,” she said. “That or face frustration on your way up. I don’t see men dealing with this.”
Are women’s ensembles the answer to the problem? It could be argued that much like the zenana dabba of Indian trains, it ends up compartmentalising women further, allowing sexism to flourish. In a commentary, Transcending His Beat, Her Beat, the US-based mridangist Rajna Swaminathan, who trained under Umayalpuram Sivaraman, talks about the latent dangers of the binary trap. All-women teams can help increase the visibility of women artistes, but it is important to also work at erasing gendered perceptions, says the musician whose short hair and kurtis mark her apart at concerts.
“Women’s performances are still framed within very specific expectations: their improvisation is not expected to be very rhythmically driven, they are still expected to embody bhakti and chastity in every aspect of their presentation (from the way they render compositions to the way they dress), and if for some reason they don’t fit this image they are said to be performing at a ‘masculine’ level or posturing.”— Rajna Swaminathan
Hariharan believes that in a fiercely competitive and unfair world, women have to create a place for themselves. “You could argue, why should it be a woman’s responsibility to make herself heard? But if we don’t use our vulnerability as a strength, pessimism could end up shutting us down,” she countered.
Ramgopal now wants to get together every single woman percussionist and ensemble in the country for a concert that would recreate her 84-piece tribute to Vikku Vinayakram on his 75th birthday. “It is my dream,” she said.
Malini Nair is a writer and senior editor based in New Delhi. She is a Kalpalata Fellow for Classical Music Writings for 2021.
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