More than twenty years ago, on 16 July 1963 to be precise, I met Ghatam Vidwan Umayalpuram Viswanatha Iyer in Kumbakonam, at the house of the vocalist T.P. Kailasam. I was then staying at a hotel in Kumbakonam, going around each day to photograph the peripheral temple sculpture, and though the food at the hotel was edible and possibly even nutritious, it had a sameness that soon palled on me. Sangita Vidwan Kailasam generously offered to relieve this gustatory tedium with a feast, and since I wanted to know the history of the ghatam as a concert instrument in Carnatic music, he had also invited Viswanatha Iyer to the feast. I thought the ghatam was a very old percussion instrument, long used in kutcheri-s, for pottery i§ an ancient art and the pot itself a multi-purpose utensil of considerable antiquity. But in my reading of classical Tamil I had come across no reference to it, though a number of other percussion instruments, now obsolete and forgotten, were specified, and in my desultory reading of the literature on the musical giants of past generations, like Maha Vaidyanatha Iyer and Patnam Subramanya Iyer, I had not come across any specific reference to the ghatam.
In A Dictionary of South Indian Music and Musicians (1959), Prof. P. Sambamoorthy, the musicologist, says of the ghatam: "It is one of the ancient time-keeping instruments and is mentioned in the Ramayana " T h e Professor is nothing if not consistent on the point. In his earlier Catalogue of Musical Instruments at the Government Museum, Madras (1955), he says: "The mud pot is one of the ancient time-keeping instruments and is mentioned in the Ramayana." It was this that puzzled me. Of course, only the good god knows how factual the ancient purana is, and what sort of kutcheri-s they had in those days, but how come this age-old rhythmic accompaniment was not apparently in vogue say, about 150 years ago? Viswanatha • Iyer soon explained the mystery. Yes, the ghatam was there no doubt, mainly in folk music, but it was elevated to the level of the kutcheri platform only comparatively recently — in fact, it was his late uncle and guru, ghatammaestro Kodandarama Iyer, who was mainly responsible for its revival. Virtuosos in many arts speak fondly, even reverentially, of their mentors and past exponents, but never have I heard anyone speak with such touching affection and admiration for an old maestro as Viswanatha Iyer, speaking of Kodandarama Iyer.
The latter lived in British Indian days when foreign dignitaries were especially honoured even at expositions of purely Indian art. Viswanatha Iyer told me how, when a visiting potentate, a Viceroy or so'mesuch, came to South India, a kutcheri at which Kodandarama Iyer played the ghatam was arranged, and how, in wonder at the sheer dizzying speed and complicated rhythmic patterns of the sharp, crisp, faultless cascades of taps, the noble visitor asked for the ghatam and looked into it to see if there was some hidden mechanical contrivance within the pot! Viswanatha Iyer explained many things and treated me to a highly skilled demonstration of his ghatam.
I have lost the notes I wrote down then, which is just as well, for after twenty years one recalls only the essentials and not the trifles. He smiled when I suggested that the pitch and timbre of a ghatam could be altered by adding plastic dabs onto it — that could only deaden and dull the sound — ghatam players had several pots of different srutis, and took with them the one closest to the sruti perfect by the vocalist at the kutcheri.
He told me that earth at a place in Panruti was especially good for the manufacture of ghatams, and also many other things, subtle technical points of the art, but all I can recall is his fervour for the instrument of his choice, his unassuming sincerity, and the way his own art was sustained and inspired by remembrance of his guru. Postscript. With due respect to Viswanatha Iyer (and none for my own sporadic dips into the literature on Carnatic music), I am afraid that what he told me about the debt the ghatam owed to Kodandarama Iyer is not quite true. Consulting Prof. Sambamoorthy again, I find that Palani Krishnayyar (1876 — 1908), who much fancied the ghatam play of an older maestro, Coimbatore Anantachar, and learnt to play the instrument under him, attained such a mastery of the art that he was praised for it by such celebrated masters of the mridangam as Narayanaswami Appa and Mamundia Pillai, and that Krishnayyar accompanied the great vocalists of his day, Konerirajapuram Vaidyanathan Iyer and Ramnad Srinivasa Iyengar. Further, I learn that in appreciation of his virtuosity, a gold bracelet was presented to him at a kutcheri in Madras on 17 October 1897. But do these things matter? My admiration for Viswanatha Iyer's gusto and his live regard for his guru is undiminished by such mere statistical records.