Photo: Kamala Thiagarajan

In Manamadurai, India, a lone family of artists carries on the back-breaking work of making the ghatam

Manamadurai, INDIA — At the end of a narrow lane, past the crowd of stray chickens and goats there sits a stone cottage in the center of a square, sun-dappled courtyard. It is caked with dry mud. Every ledge and crevice of this home is speckled with it, giving the impression that somehow the earth here is different. It seems more vibrant, almost alive. A large square potter’s wheel is positioned on one side.

Manamadurai is a village deep in the heart of Tamil Nadu, Southern India, home to one of the country’s celebrated artisans. She made waves in 2013, when she received the highest national recognition given to practicing artists—the Sangeet Natak Akademi Puraskar (issued by the National Academy of Music, Dance and Drama). A photograph of her receiving the award from Indian President Pranab Mukherjee finds pride of place, jostling with other family portraits above the inner doorframe of her workshop.  

Meenakshi Kesavan, 65, is possibly the only female ghatam maker in India. The ghatam, meaning “pot” in Sanskrit, is a curious musical instrument. To the untrained eye, it’s a large, awkward and rather unwieldy earthen vessel. However, the music that ghatam players coax from it is rich in melody and rhythm, with a distinctive pitch often described as divine.

“Crafting a ghatam is like giving birth to a baby. It’s hard, back-breaking labor,” Meenakshi says with a smile. She is dressed in a red and green saree, and greets me with warmth, offering a bowl of fresh blackberries from her garden.

“The art of making a ghatam was one of the first things I learnt as a young bride,” says Meenakshi. “My late husband and sister-in-law spent months teaching me the technique. Little did I know then how much it would come to define my life.”

Meenakshi Kesavan learned to make the ghatam as a young bride. "Little did I know then how much it would come to define my life." Kamala Thiagarajan

Today, her son Ramesh Kesavan, 47, has taken over, managing all aspects of the workshop and business. “Everything still needs to be done by hand. It’s a very painstaking process,” says Meenakshi.

“Out of every 70 ghatams we make, we can probably salvage and sell 10,” Ramesh says. This often means that there’s a frustrating waste of time, effort and resources, causing the family sustained losses, sometimes as much as 15,000 rupees ($220) every time they make a batch. Incredibly, this doesn’t deter these fourth-generation potters from nurturing their ancient art. Today, the Kesavans are the last family in Manamadurai with the knowledge and technique to craft a viable ghatam. Each ghatam retails for Rs 750 ($11.78) if you purchase it directly from their workshop in Manamadurai, but dealers on Amazon often sell the instrument for more than 5,000 Rs ($78.5). “We don’t mind the labor, or the fact that it doesn’t bring us much return,” says Ramesh. “But it’s heartbreaking when some people belittle our work, beat down our prices or don’t realize just how much heart and soul we put into it.”  

The clay for the ghatam is sourced from six different springs around the vicinity, explaining the mounds of sand heaped in the courtyard. Earlier, these piles would be mixed by hand, but today, there’s a machine that does the mixing, purchased with the $1,492 in prize money that accompanied the award. Once this process is complete, two local men from the village are hired to stamp on the mud for three hours so that it reaches the appropriate consistency—soft and stringy, with a rich, orange, loamy stickiness.

Ramesh slaps this clay several times, rolling it in his hands before loading it onto the potter’s wheel. The ghatam starts taking its seemingly preordained shape in a heartbeat, emerging from the swirling raw mud under the careful guidance of Ramesh’s hands. The way the ghatam is formed on the wheel determines its musical pitch and tenor. “If I shape it with a narrow mouth, it will have a higher pitch,” Ramesh explains. “A wider brim gives you more bass sounds. It’s significant that this is the only art that uses all the four elements—earth, water, fire and air.”

Ramesh Kesavan shows off a handmade ghatam. A narrower mouth will have a higher pitch, while a wider opening results in a sound with more bass. Kamala Thiagarajan

After the ghatam is shaped on the potter’s wheel, it rests for 24 hours. “The next day every inch of the pot must be beaten before the ghatam is baked,” says Meenakshi. She picks up a flat rectangular plank fitted with a handle and demonstrates. “I have to beat each ghatam at least 3,000 to 4,000 times.” Soon, the workspace between us reverberates with resounding thuds as Meenakshi relentlessly pounds at the sides of the pot, turning it over and over in her arms. “I’m diabetic now and can’t do as much as I used to before,” she adds ruefully. “These arms are no longer as strong as they used to be.”

“[Each ghatam] weighs 8-10 kgs [nearly 20 pounds],” says Meenakshi. “The pounding on the pots makes the ghatam lighter, less unwieldy and brings uniformity to the pot’s structure.” ­­­

The family may not financially benefit much from ghatam making, but it’s obvious that they’re expert artisans, adept at forming anything from clay. In a corner of the workshop, I spot an unusual urn, with a dragon climbing over it, that Ramesh crafted in a spare moment. They cater to orders for earthenware from various sources—the state government, hospitals and individuals. This workshop, once their old home, is now stacked to the rafters with mud flowerpots, stoves, jugs, shingles for rooftops and earthen pipes for home plumbing.

“It may have been a hard life, but the ghatam has given us purpose. It’s helped me meet many a great player from all over the country who has sought out our workshop,” says Meenakshi. “And for this, I’m grateful.”

Indeed, for many artists, meeting Meenakshi has shattered the notion that the ghatam was an entirely male instrument.

Sumana Chandrashekar, a professional ghatam player living in Bengaluru, is one of two female players in India. She has often been told that the ghatam was too unwieldy for a woman to play in concert. “When I first travelled to Manamadurai and learnt that it was in fact a woman who was involved in making the ghatam, it was just so inspiring,” she says. For many years, Chandrashekar kept in touch with the family. In 2016, she successfully crowdfunded an electrical kiln, which now helps minimize their labor by cooking the pot evenly.

“Meenakshi always said that though the ghatam took many hard knocks [both from the craftsmen and the player], it still manages to produce such beautiful music,” says Chandrashekar. “She believes that all of us should lead lives like that. That’s something I’ll never forget.”