The autumn of the veena
Is the national instrument of India on the verge of turning into a museum piece?
Cricket is not India’s national game but it does enjoy an exalted status, while the national game—hockey—is in bad shape. This is the closest analogy that can explain the fate of the Saraswati veena. If you ask what the national instrument of India is, most people wouldn’t know. The decreasing graph of the veena’s popularity is like a tragedy where every character makes an inconspicuous exit after a long, powerful presence. Thanks to a few alert conservationists and scholars, a few ancestral variants of the instrument still rest as museum pieces. The musicologist Sarangadeva (1175-1247), in his magnum opus Sangeetha Ratnakara, mentions 10 types. His contemporary, the Andhra poet Palakurki Somanadha, listed another 41 in his Panditaaradhya Charitra. Almost none of the 41 types exists today; we just know their names.
Enough ink has been used on stories of the mysterious origins, fanciful myth and recounted history of the veena. Around the time of independence, it was deified and became the country’s national instrument. Yet, in spite of all the superlatives attributed to it, it has faced a steady decline, with a meagre presence on the concert stage and festival circuits. Over the years, even the most famed music festivals in the country, be it the Sawai Gandharva Mahotsav in Pune, Harivallabh Sammelan in Jalandhar or Dover Lane Music Conference in Kolkata, which would once invite several legendary vainikas, have had a pitiable number of solo veena recitals.
New-age teaching methodologies have effectively distanced younger music enthusiasts from the instrument. Several veena veterans have blamed technological invasion for the decline. The amplification of the veena’s sound box meddled with the quality of music it produced.
It’s also true, however, that several performers have remarked on how the instrument needs to change with the times— and on the way it migrated from salon concerts to the proscenium, a growth tangent that affected its voice.
While veterans found it easy to blame youngsters for not taking up the instrument full-time, very few ventured to do anything about it. At an institutional level, the effort remained deplorable. Some of the country’s topmost centres for music education don’t even have a teacher, let alone a department or a syllabus, for the instrument. For one, it turned out that the veena wasn’t really that much easier to master than those that replaced it as an accompanying instrument—the violin and the harmonium—and was much less portable.
The neglected instrument, then, is in the hands of the very few activists who do their bit by organizing festivals exclusively to popularize it. Once considered the best instrument for measuring artistic capability, the veena seems to be fading out of concert spaces and public memory just a century later, only seeking attention for itself through such short-term measures as exclusive festivals.
Schools of veena
The veena blossomed forth in different musical regions of south India. In the erstwhile state of Andhra Pradesh, two schools of veena—the Vizianagaram and the Bobbili—thrived for over a century. In Karnataka, there was the Mysore school. These schools developed under the patronage of royal families.
One of the specialities of both the Andhra and Mysore schools was the playing technique. Well into the 20th century, several performers would sit with their knees facing the audience, holding their veenas vertically and performing. This style of sitting in vajrasana found prominence in the way ustad Asad Ali Khan performed on his rudra veena up in the north. The emphasis of their playing was on melody, staccato phraseology, speedy delivery of notes and a display of virtuosity by playing more than one string at a time. Over the decades, however, this position gradually gave way to the horizontal position of holding the veena.
From the Andhra tradition emerged great stalwarts like Khambhampati Akkaji Rao, Veena Venkataramana Das of Vizianagaram—who was famous for playing six speeds on his veena—Sangameshwara Sastry, Ayyagari Someshwara Rao, Vasa Krishnamurty, Manchala Jagannatha Rao, Eemani Shankara Sastry and Chitti Babu.
The kings of the erstwhile Mysore state were great patrons of music, enrolling some of the finest as their court musicians. Several kings were also ace composers. Under their patronage, the veena blossomed into its own style. The most celebrated maestros of the Mysore school were Veene Sheshanna, Veena Subbanna, Venkatagiriappa, M.J. Srinivasa Iyengar, Veena Doraiswamy Iyengar, Veena Raja Rao, A.S. Padma, E.P. Alamelu and Veena Vishweshwaran.
The fourth popular school developed in the culturally rich Thanjavur district of Tamil Nadu. This is where the popular style of holding the veena in the horizontal position, as the performer sat cross-legged on the floor, emerged. Their emphasis was on developing extremely slow, melodic phrases and nurturing them into full-blown tunes. This slowness of tempo and virtuosity in quicker note-playing or gamakas became a signature. One of the greatest of Carnatic composers, Muthuswamy Dikshitar, who belongs to the hallowed trinity of music, composed on the veena.
Some of the greatest veena virtuosos of the century emerged from this school. One star of the solo veena was the late Dhanammal, who became famous as Veena Dhanammal because of her mastery of the instrument. She hailed from a community of traditional performance practitioners, later called Devadasis, and was popular as “Veena Dhanammal" because of her mastery over the instrument. Conflated with her identity, her style of playing the veena remains the benchmark of the original Thanjavur style.
Among the other maestros of that era were the Karaikudi brothers, Sambasiva Iyer and Subbarama Iyer. Their students, Rajeshwari Padmanabhan and Ranganayaki Rajagopalan, continued with their style. A generation later came maestros like R. Pitchumani Iyer, K.S. Narayanaswamy and K.P. Sivanandam. In the post-independence era, the one name that shone forth was that of S. Balachander. A self-taught child prodigy, he became synonymous with the Thanjavur tradition. His extraordinary sense of playing the veena, his single-stroke amplitudes and his smart usage of a contact microphone made the veena extremely popular. He was the last of the geniuses in the 20th century.
The legendary M.S. Subbulakshmi was born to a veena artiste, Madurai Shanmugavadivu, and learnt to play the veena early in her musical career. Though she didn’t hold many veena concerts, the Carnatic fraternity acknowledged her mastery over the instrument time and again.
A generation after these masters, came others like Saraswathi Rajagopalan, Jayanthi Kumaresh, child prodigy E. Gayathri and Mandolin U. Shrinivas from Andhra Pradesh. Today, these might be the last batch of dedicated veena artistes the country has.
A museum piece
About half a century after it was introduced for solo recitals, the instrument succeeded in making its way into television and cinema. Composers and music directors began introducing it, often because it was the most accessible instrument with well-trained but out-of-work artistes. With its huge frame and aesthetic demeanour, it had an excellent screen presence.
While the post-globalization era saw the rise of the Indian artiste to the global stage, the veena found it difficult to gain acceptance. Apart from the legendary Balachander, it never found a Ravi Shankar or an Ali Akbar Khan to put it on the international pedestal it deserved. In the recent past, only the Darbar Festival, Europe’s largest festival for Indian classical music, has made sure it consistently presents veena artistes to music-loving audiences in London.
The decline of the veena since the 1950s was reflected in its minimal use in orchestral compositions, both in music and dance. Over time, it was pushed into obsolescence—its original form was cumbersome and its modern avatar not musically satisfying. Today, it is simply an antique exhibit in elite households.
Media-struck artistes didn’t pursue the veena for commercial reasons. Since it was less portable than other instruments, it tended to limit an artiste’s travel and exposure, a risk no one wanted in jet-setting times when cross-country festival-hopping was the decree. Several companies experimented and produced friendly electronic modifications of the instrument. But the sound quality was never the same.
Today the melody of the original veena is only referred to in nostalgia. A few activists still propagate it, but it must be taken up actively as a state initiative and at an institutional level, with adequate support. The few veena recitals we get to listen to now might be its autumn songs.
It will be Carnatic music’s greatest loss if India’s national instrument ends up just as a museum piece.
This is the first of a lounge series called Note Worthy, an in-depth look at the kaleidoscopic world of Indian performing arts