The ghatam is a most unusual instrument, a solid one, without a membrane. A percussion instrument used as an upa-pakkavadyam in Carnatic music concerts, it hardly looks its part as a member of a classical ensemble, because it is quite simply a hollow clay pot, unadorned by any other parts. It is however constructed specifically to be played as a musical instrument, of uniform thickness, to appropriate dimensions calculated to produce a particular resonance.
Two types of ghatams are in vogue. Made of clay alone, the Madras ghatam is light, and well suited to fast playing, while the Manamadurai ghatam, more common today, is mixed with shards of brass, producing a deeper tone. The ghatam has a pre-determined sruti which changes with the size and shape of the pot.
The ghatam is played by striking, stroking or tapping it with fingers, both palms, the bases and sides of the palms and knuckles. The ghatam vidwan closes the mouth of the ghatam with his palm to produce a bass sound, sometimes rests it against his stomach, actually modulating its sound by adjusting the distance between its opening and his belly. Dramatically throwing up the ghatam in the air was often the high point of a tani avartanam until a few decades ago. This exciting custom has almost gone out of fashion with the increasing sophistication of the cutcheri of today.
Polagam Chidambara Iyer of the 19th century is said to the first concert ghatam vidwan in Carnatic music. Among the earliest ghatam vidwans to achieve any fame were the Mysore court musicians Rangarao and Samarao.
It was Palani Krishna Iyer who developed the art of ghatam-playing by creating patterns and phrases most suited to the instrument. He was the architect of solid techniques to play these patterns. Umayalapuram Kothandarama Iyer was another ghatam maestro to develop his own nuanced individual style, even tending to overshadow the mridangam in his solos. This was a clear breach of protocol, because the mridangam is the undoubted lead percussion instrument. The ghatam has to play a supporting role, with the ghatam vidwan moulding his style and creativity to follow the leader.
Hailing from an illustrious family of percussionists, and a disciple of his father Harinhara Iyer, T.H. Vinayakram is perhaps the most famous ghatam player in the history of Carnatic music. He can produce a whole range of sounds from the ghatam and captivate audiences with exciting rhythms, often playing solos in complex talas. The names of E.M. Subramaniam and the late T.V. Vasan come readily to mind in any discussion of ghatam maestros of recent vintage.