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Here's an interesting, but little known legend illustratiing the magic of music: The sages in the forest were once troubled by a fire-spitting dragon that impeded their yagnas and caused them untold misery. So, they sought Brahma's help. He wondered if his consort, Saraswati, could tame the dragon with her music. Saraswati hid herself in the forest and played on the veena.


The dragon, attracted by the wondrous music, stopped its destruction and went in search of the source of the elusive and haunting melody. Soon it relinquished its havoc and developed such a yearning for the mellifluous music that it became restless without it. Finally it begged to know who was producing the music.


Saraswati then appeared before the dragon and played the veena. The enchanted dragon pleaded for salvation and a permanant place near it. Accordingly Saraswati replaced the peacock (which became her vahana) with the dragon's head, so that it could always be a part of the music it loved.


No wonder then that the sage Yajnyavalkya says, in the sloka, 'veena vadhana thathvagnaha sruti sasthra visarahaha, thalagnascha prayaasena moksha marga gachchathi' (one who is versed in playing the veena, one who is adept in the varieties of the sruti and one who is adept in tala; all of them attain salvation wothout effort).


Records show that the veena, which has an interesting history and many legends associated with it had existed even in the vedic era, when sages palyed on it during rituals. But the instrument gained popularity only in the 13th centur. By then all stringed instruments were broadly known 'veena'.


Interestingly, the satatantri veena is a forerunner of the santoor of Kashmir and Persia that uses two rods to produce the melody. The 22- strings sruti veena existed since the days of Saranga deva and the curved dhanur veena which has vertical strings and a bow like the violin, is to be found in some Muslim countries too. The rudra veena with its reduced number of strings and gourd resonator ushered in the plucking technique, and the kinnari veena with three gourd resonators is prevalent in parts of north India.


The present form of the veena is a polyphonous instrument, designed and developed by Govinda Diksihtar during the reign of Raghunath Naik of Tanjore. Hence it is also known as the Tanjore veena, or Raghunatha veena.


Tanjore is today the most popular and widely acclaimed centre producing this instrument. The other popular centres are Trivandrum, Madras, Mysore, Bobbily, Vijaynagar, Rampur and Lucknow.


The instrument has a fretted finger-board with four strings for playing the notes and three drone-cum-tala strings. The pradarshana veena is a samishti vadya used for performances and also to demonstrate musical laws and phenomena. Nada (its melody) is infused into the instrument from inception. But the dvani (the sound produced) depends on the playing technique.


The veena is a versatile instrument on which one can play various styles like classical or light music and bhajans or Western music with equal ease.


Earlier, wood from the jackfruit trees growing in temple courtyards was used to make this instrument. It was believed that such wood absorbed the resonance of the temple bells. Now, of course, other types of woods are used and some have also experimented with fibre glass, though this is not very popular.


The frets of the veena are bordered by a waxy ledge. The renowned vainika, ‘Shatkala Chakravarti’ Venkatrama Das of Vijayanagar, one of the few who held this instrument vertical while playing, reportedly replaced the waxy ledge with a wooden one. The instrument has three main parts- the kudam, dandi, (to which is attached the gourd resonator) and the yali mukham joined together. Strips of stag-horn are used at the joints. The 23 ribs (22- sruti and one tarasadjam) along the side of the kudam are to be found only in the venas made in Tanjore and Trivandrum.


A great deal of religious significance is attached to the Veena. Saraswati the goddess of learning, is always depicted with this stringed instrument in her hands.


Deities are believed to abide in the various parts of the instrument and the 24 frets are compared to the Gayatri mantra, while the four strings used for playing are set to symbolize the four Vedas- Rig veda (sadjam),Yajur (panchamam), Sama (mandram) and Atharva (anumandram).


There is an interesting aspect to the veena: this is one instrument which can be played softly even in the dead of the night without disturbing the person sleeping in the same room. And so, its aptly called an ekanta vadya whose vibrations create a rarefied environment. Eminent scientist Sir C.V. Raman, reportedly chose it for his studies on sound.


Unfortunately, the aesthetic value of this versatile instrument is not being appreciated enough today. It has gone the way of the other fine arts in becoming commercialized.




Updated on 3/12/2005

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A Melodious Veena Maestro