Made of clay and a monitor lizard’s skin, this Goan drum could get heritage status

As the ghumot gets set to receive a state heritage status, Goans are only too happy to be beating the drum.

Sound of Music: Master potter Anthony Fernandes (from right), Sr Rita Paes and Sr Delia Antao, principal of Nirmala institute with Marius Fernandes at the just-ended Abolichem fest. (Photo: Marius Fernandes)

On chilly Goan winter nights, men would sit huddled around a bonfire tuning clay pots: tapping the drum membrane, which would stretch as the clay expanded with heat. The rhythmic sound was believed to travel miles, announcing to the villagers that zagor, the traditional form of dramatised storytelling, was about to begin. And soon, stories of tillers and landlords, of rain and harvest, of paddy and ancestral lands made the rounds, to the beat.

Ghumot, Goa’s own, is one of the oldest indigenous percussion instruments that survives as is since it was first played centuries ago. Last week, it found itself on a specially inaugurated postal cover at the Goapex philatelic exhibition with Goa’s art and culture minister Govind Gaude announcing that the state government is ready to gift it a heritage status. Once tagged, the instrument can travel officially to world musical events with all the fanfare reserved for rank and status. “Essentially it’s the music of the soil of Goa, the mud is Goan,” says Gaude, who once used to play it too.

The clay pot with two openings traditionally used the skin of monitor lizard to make the drum membrane. It was tied with a rope on the wider mouth, with the other end left open. The ghumat is suspended from the neck or tied to the waist of the percussionist, who creates rhythmic sounds by modulating the air pressure inside the pot with the strike of his fingers on the membrane.

Goa’s “festival man” Marius Fernandes says the instrument suffered a slow death after the reptile was declared endangered and its slaughter, illegal, in the 1970s. “One can only tune the lizard’s skin by tapping on the drum near a bonfire. That’s how it was done for ages,” he says, recalling Goan nights when the musicians would keep tapping on the membrane to get the right vibrations, till the dry skin and the clay pot hardened by absorbing the heat. “Goans see it as a secular instrument, as both Hindu households and Christians adopted it as their own. It’s played during Shigmo (spring festival) and Ganesh Chaturthi in temples while Christians use it for zagor and mando, a unique Goan music style,” says Fernandes.

Ashley Fernandes with ghumots.

Ghumot’s vibrations were often so strong that families would use it during Christian weddings, banquets, or to make announcements. Fernandes says the instrument belongs to an era when there were no telephones and “the sound of a ghumot meant business. It meant something good was coming.” Gaude admits the heritage tag took time owing to forest and environment laws, as his ministry had to come up with a “relevant membrane” as an alternative. “But the vibrations that the skin of a monitor lizard got, can’t be expressed in words,” he says.

Folk artiste and ghumot maestro Kanta Gaude, too, rues that the alternatives would never produce the same acoustic sound that the monitor-lizard skin did, which made traditional orchestras like sunwari sound real and dramatic.

The government has now settled for goat’s skin or sheep’s skin as an alternative membrane. Fernandes’ son Ashley’s research paper at Middlesex University, London, was “On finding sustainable alternate membrane for the ghumat”. “The instrument goes back to the 8th century. The membrane is of the skin from the underbelly of the monitor lizard, which the Goans call ghar. After the ban, potters got arrested and put in jails,” he says.

The sounds of a ghumot, he says, is in its name itself. The “ghhum is like a base note, and mot, the treble.” In the last two years, festivals have been encouraging women ghumot players to come forth.

Glenis Mendonça, assistant professor at Carmel College for Women, in Nuvem, says the instrument has “always been seen as a patriarchal instrument, with caste politics also playing in”. With the drums made of a dead skin, she says, the Brahmins seldom touched the instrument. It was seen as “belonging to lower castes”. Her college has introduced a free workshop to teach the instrument. “We don’t ask about the background of those who come to learn the instrument.”

Culture expert Pandurang Phaldesai, however, says, the instrument always had a following across communities. “For me, essentially, it’s the instrument of the Konkan. You will see certain communities beyond Goa play it too, he says, adding, “Traditionally it’s a working-class percussion instrument, with the tiller coming home after a rough day at the fields and playing it for his amusement. It started there, and then travelled. The instrument is played to express happiness.”

Kanta, who has taken the instrument far and wide — from Venezuela to London and Hong Kong — says, the heritage status comes at the right time, when the younger generation might have lost touch. In the pre-liberation days (before 1961), Marius says, the ghumot was used to signal the locals, call out for support and aggregate against the rulers.

“It was an instrument which the SC/ST community started to play, with pride, and, today, everyone plays it,” says Kanta, adding, “It’s an instrument which saw its birth in western coastal belts, and now with Goans having migrated, it’s also seen played in Mangalore, Kerala, etc. It’s what pre-liberation Goa sounded like. It’s village life and its philosophy in two beats.”

This article appeared in print with the headline ‘ A Beat of its Own’