In Indian classical music, female percussionists tackle sexism by collectivizing


Carnatic percussionists say they are infallibly remembered once a year. In March, as the world celebrates Women’s Day, they are sought after as symbols of “female power” on stage. Sometimes they are also busy in October or November when Navaratri is paying homage to “shakti”.

“It has become kind of a joke among us,” said ghatam player Sumana Chandrashekar, shishya of pioneer ghatam player Sukanya Ramgopal. “We are all full in March. This is the only time we can refuse concerts.

Mridangam artist Charu Hariharan compares the March rush to the elaborate reception given to elephants at temple festivals – caparisoned and celebrated briefly, then left to fend for themselves.

For the rest of the year, female percussionists are mostly forced to stay on the sidelines, struggling to establish themselves in male-dominated performance spaces.

In Indian classical music, percussion is primarily an art of sangat or accompaniment, taking place alongside the singer or instrumentalist on the stage. Think back to the last time you saw a woman occupy this place, playing tabla or mridangam. There is a good chance that you will draw a blank.

Despite this precariousness, female threshers stand out by doing what the marginalized do to strengthen their voice: collectivization. There are all-female ensembles of all kinds, experimenting and pushing the boundaries of creation with their hard-earned expertise in the tala system.

What has facilitated the collaborations is the lockdown induced by the pandemic, with digital media paving the way and crossing barriers in the establishment. Among these was a series where percussionists Ramgopal, Chandrashekar, Hariharan and Radha Kannan came together to perform konakkol, vocalized percussion syllables, to the poetry of Subramania Bharati.

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 networks. and spaces of support.

“Me, my parents and my guru value my music so much that I can’t afford to ruminate.” [over lack of opportunities]”said Hariharan who recently collaborated with mridangam player Aswini Srinivasan, artist veena Anjani Srinivasan and violinist Rangapriya for Pravaham 2.0.” We women tend to be reluctant to ask for work. male musicians network with such ease. But if the environment is not favorable, we must find the strength from within. Women must support each other, collectivize and spread their music, create their own sound. Join forces and boost our self-esteem. Hariharan’s remembers her parents and guru, Mannarkoil Balaji, put talent above all else, including gender, even though she was the only girl in a class. ‘mridangam students.

Yet while collectivization is empowering, it also shows how much the musical circuit isolates female percussionists. This despite the fact that the last decades have seen more and more women musicians turn to tabla, mridangam, ghatam, kanjira, morsing or thavil. Their number may not be large, but their invisibility on traditional platforms is almost total.

All-female ensembles can be a slippery slope for another reason. These artists want to be recognized for their talents as a percussionist, not as men or women.

Mridangam artist Charu Hariharan.

“We try to make listeners forget that we are female percussionists, to be heard and not seen as new,” said Deepikaa Sreenivasan, a mridangam player based in Bengaluru. “But there are so few of us that we have no choice but to come together for the good of each other. Most ensembles are created for the same reason – we want to give ourselves and other young female percussionists opportunities.

It is not uncommon, she says, for female percussionists to abandon music because of social and family pressures, either give in to the demands of domestic life or are frustrated by the lack of opportunities. Collective work is a way of “working your muscles, making music and making noise,” she says.

“Manly art”

Percussion across genres is considered a manly art. It is only recently that women have entered into folkloric or rhythmic ritual traditions such as singari melam, chenda or dhol.

But the classical concert arena operates with a complex hierarchy. As an accompanying artist, a drummer faces not only the gender biases of the organizers and the audience, but also that of the lead musician. And if you are a ghatam and secondary mridangam player, being a woman can be a drag on your career.

It was the indefatigable Sukanya Ramgopal who refused to let rampant chauvinism push her into the shadows. In 1995, she created an all-female musical ensemble of drummers and instrumentalists, the lively Sthree Taal Tarang, largely in response to the traumatic experiences she suffered as a ghatam player.

Sukanya Ramgopal on the mridangam.

Ramgopal never shies away from the mortifications – of the legendary master mridangam who refused to perform with her, ordered not to play long or forceful interludes and crumbling in grief over the sheer toxicity of brotherhood in which she entered as a gifted and spirited child. . For narrow minds, it didn’t matter that she was trained and mentored by the best in the field, the family of the legendary TH Vikku Vinayakram.

For Ramgopal, an all-female collective and multi-ghatam dramatic solos have become the most effective way to get agency back on her career and her art. His house is an open space where young percussionists can practice, rehearse and converse. A fiery personality, his instinctive reaction to cynicism is a creative challenge.

“When I was turned away from a sabha because I was a woman, I decided to create opportunities for myself instead of waiting for them,” she said. “I started working on a set of ghatam with my students and presented it to Bengaluru Gayana Samaj. Then someone said it was only okay for the lec-dems, so I went ahead and did a three hour gig in 1997.

The Sthree Thaal Tharanga, made up of ghatams, violin, veena, morsing and mridangam, constantly features new and veteran percussionists – morsing artist Bhagyalakshmi Krishna, kanjira player Latha Ramachar among them. Almost all the women who play a rhythmic instrument have played for the tarang.

Sukanya Ramgopal on the mridangam.

“Without her we wouldn’t have dared to dream,” said Srinivasan, who recently conceptualized a complex ensemble work on Chaapu, a Carnatic tala, starring Srinivasan, Chandrashekar, Vijetha Hegde (tabla), Hrishitha Kedage ( violin) and Siri Chandrashekhar (konakkol).

Unjust world

Pudukottai Ranganayaki Ammal, born in 1909 into a family of traditional musicians from the Issaivellalar community, is said to be the first professional mridangam player. The information available on her life is limited, even if she would have played on prestigious platforms with the biggest names of her time. In Hindustani music, it was tabla artist Parsi, Aban Mistry, who led the way in the 1960s.

Much has changed for young women in the rhythm business since then. Their sheer presence and visibility, for example, and the strength of the #MeToo movement have made overt gender bias almost impossible. But passive prejudices are rife, say women musicians.

“My challenges are an extension of what my guru has faced and continues to face,” said Chandrashekar, who leads the program team at the Indian Foundation for the Arts. “The only difference is how the bias appears – 15 years ago it was more blunt, 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 a powerful game”, [and I] I am offered condescending advice on how to play. I have also noticed that presentations to female percussionists must have a line crediting a husband or father to “allow” them to perform. “

In a private conversation, most female musicians talk about the condescension and latent sexism on the pitch, of men seeing it as a tumble to perform with women. “They don’t test the limits of our musical virtuosity,” is a common line.

Singer TM Krishna, who is part of the Kalaikoodam initiative which trains girls to play kanjira, ghatam and parai, recalls performing at a sabha with a bright young woman from Meridang and condescending compliments that followed the concert: “We thought you were a man, you played so well.

The pervasive gender divide makes it difficult, Srinivasan says, to be just yourself as a musician. “There is so much condescension that if you have to prove yourself you have to do something drastic,” she said. “That or face frustration on the way up.” I don’t see any men taking care of this.

Are women’s sets the answer to the problem? One could argue that just like the zenana dabba of Indian trains, it ends up compartmentalizing women more, allowing sexism to flourish. In a remark, Transcend your rhythm, your rhythmUS-based Meridangist Rajna Swaminathan, who trained under Umayalpuram Sivaraman, talks about the lurking dangers of the binary trap. All-female teams can help increase the visibility of female artists, but it’s also important to work to erase sexist perceptions, says the musician, whose short hair and kurtis set her apart at concerts.

“The performances of women are always framed by very specific expectations: their improvisation is not supposed to be very rhythmic, they must always embody bhakti and chastity in all aspects of their presentation (from the way they render the compositions the way they dress), and if for some reason they don’t fit that image, they’re said to be playing at a “male” level or posture.

– Rajna Swaminathan

Hariharan believes that in a fiercely competitive and unfair world, women must make a place for themselves. “You could argue, why should it be a woman’s responsibility to be heard?” But if we don’t use our vulnerability as a force, pessimism could end up closing us off, ”she replied.

Ramgopal now wants to bring together all of the country’s female percussionists and ensembles for a concert that would recreate his 84-piece tribute to Vikku Vinayakram on his 75th birthday. “This is my dream,” she said.

Violin duo by Sindhu-Smitha, Deepikaa Sreenivasan on mridanga, Latha Ramachar on kanjira and Bhagyalakshmi Krishna on Morsing.

Malini Nair is a New Delhi-based writer and editor. She is Kalpalata Fellow for Classical Music Writings for 2021.


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