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The Saraswati Veena,
with Sreevidhya Chandramouli &
Amitava Sarkar
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March 2003 (active until March 2003)
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The Saraswati Veena

The Saraswati Veena, of South India
This article is intended for persons unfamiliar with this popular instrument from South India.  It may not be of great benefit to experienced veena players - except to critique the accuracy of the material presented here.  For those folks - enjoy the music clips, maintenance tips, and photos.

In texts dating back to 1500 B.C., the word veena seems to denote any stringed instrument.  This includes the single-stringed bow, lute, zither, harp, or a multi-stringed bow.  Therefore it is unlikely that the modern veena originated in ancient times, although the seed of its ancestry may lie there.  There are references to a bottle-gourd veena as far as 500 B.C.  Lute or zither-styled fretless veena-s have been depicted in temple art of the sixth century A.D.  Fretted veena-s emerged between the tenth and eleventh century A.D.

 

The veena in South India, is formally called the Saraswati veena, in its modern avatar.  With a fret board of 24 frets spanning three and a half octaves, its origins can be traced to the Raghunatha Mela Veena developed by Govinda Dikshitar in the sixteenth century.  Dikshitar provides the design of the instrument and its techniques in his book, the Sangeeta Sudha.

 

While veenas are made in several regions in South India, those made by hereditary makers from Tanjore (an area in South India) seem to be prized highly.  The instrument is still hand crafted, using jackwood, brass, and other metals.  The blocks of wood are seasoned for a few months before construction starts.  A single master maker (usually with an apprentice) works on the instrument from start to finish - including the preparations, carving, setting the other metal components, polishing, decoration, fret board placement, and the final touches.

The quality of the raw material, the attention to detail, physical dimensions, and maker's process, contributes to the inconsistencies in the tonal quality.  Most professional musicians have a close relationship with a maker.  Their instrument is usually ordered and customized (color, ornamentation, size, shape of the bridge, wood used in the construction, gap between strings, etc.) according to their personal preferences, and takes months to build.

The two and a half foot fret-board merges into a large wooden resonator on the right side of the performer, and is supported by a smaller gourd, used as an anchor to hold the instrument, on the left. The core (right) of the instrument is hollow and acts as a resonator to amplify the sound and sustain notes longer. It also contributes significantly to the deep and sonorous tone of the instrument. The best veena-s are carved from a single piece of wood and lavishly decorated. The edges of the fret-board help anchor the brass frets with the use of specially treated wax. Five of the seven main tuning pegs are located on the left side of the instrument.

On the right end of the instrument rest two bridges. The top of the main bridge is made of brass and supports four strings on which the melody is played. The side of the same bridge holds three drone (taalam) strings that serve to extend notes and/or punctuate the rhythm. Very rarely, one comes across an instrument, in which, under the main bridge rests a smaller bridge, anchoring about twelve sympathetic strings. These resonate when the melodic strings are played, thus helping to sustain notes longer.

The veena has a range of around three and a half octaves, but most performances explore only two octaves. Coarse tuning of the melodic and drone strings is controlled by the rotation of large wooden pegs. Finer tuning of the strings on the main bridge is accomplished using miniature tension controls, which also serve to attach the strings to the body of the instrument.

The artist sits cross-legged on the floor. The instrument rests horizontally on the floor in front of the musician, with the large resonator to their right. The smaller resonator rests on the left thigh. The melodic strings are plucked using two metal plectrums or clips, attached to the index and middle fingers of the right hand. The end of the little finger plays the drone/taalam (side bridge) strings, striking upwards. As many as two melodic strings, may be plucked to generate the melody. By plucking and strumming, the right hand sets the foundation for the rhythmic/metric aspect of a performance.  It also helps stabilize the instrument at a slight angle and free up the left hand to move comfortably across the fret-board.

The melodic pitch is controlled by the left hand's middle and indexed fingers. The two fingers are used to slide horizontally on the fret-board and also to pull the strings across the frets. The main string (open) is tuned to a tonic note of around the pitch of C to E, depending on the gauge of the string and size of the instrument.

Present day innovations include the replacement of wooden tuning pegs with guitar keys, the use of fiber glass in place of the gourd that serves as the mount (placed on the left thigh of the instrumentalist), and the adoption of acoustic microphones and other kinds of electronic amplification. Rajeswari Padmanabhan has been working on making the instrument more portable and also came up with the idea to replace the wax mix that holds the brass frets, with a more stable acrylic mixture.  The picture above also shows the replacement of traditional fine tuners (shown in other photos) mechanism, on the right, with (modified) violin fine tuners.

While I have focused a great deal on the physical aspects of the saraswati veena, the techniques to produce the variety of gamakas (ornamentation) that really make up carnatic music could not be detailed as much as I would have liked.  The method of producing these gamakas well, is a mammoth topic in itself. Words are not a good medium to describe them, although Subbarama Dikshitar's Sangita Sampradaya Pradarshini (published in 1904) is considered the authoritative work.  Detailed videos clips (which take up huge bandwidth) and actual experience with playing the instrument, brings this material to life much faster/better.  Add to this the veena's specific approaches to attempt to reproduce the vocal style - and the techniques that highlight the "instrumental" aspects, and the topic becomes vast.  The conversation and demos with Sreevidhya, along with the music clips, provide a glimpse into the technique.  Musicians familiar with plucked fretted instrument should be able to deduce the manner in which some of the ornamentation is produced.  It is interesting to note that Mutthuswami Dikshitar was the only Trinity composer, who was a veena player.   As a result  his kriti compositions are in a form particularly suitable to be performed on the instrument.

Sreevidhya's uncle, K.S. Subramaniam has done extensive research on the instrument, its techniques/schools, history, as well as made some innovations to the instrument.  You can contact his organization, Brahaddhvani, or their archival team, to obtain more information/resources.  The German book, LautenBau in sudindien M. Palaniappan Achari und seine Arbeit (there are two dots above u in sudindien), by Norbet Beyer has provided great detail on the manufacturing process.  Another book on the veena tradition (I have not personally read) is Veena Tradition in Indian Music by L. Annapoorna.  There are no discussion groups or other dedicated  resources on the web as far as I know.  If you come across any, let me know, and I will be glad to include them in the article.

A related instrument is the Chitravina (also called the Gottuvadhyam), which is fretless and usually with sympathetic strings.  A piece of ebony is slid over the strings, to control the pitch.  To obtain more volume, the main strings are paired to bring the melodic string count to six.  Ravikiran is the most renowned exponent of the Chitravina.  Considering the ability of the Chitravina to produce vocal nuances more easily, it is unclear why this is almost an extinct instrument.  

The instrument, that closest resembles the Saraswati veena, used in North Indian Classical music, is the Rudra Vina.  This is more of a zither attached to two large gourds.  The instrument is used primarily to perform an older genre of North Indian Classical music known as Dhrupad.  Two major exponents, whose recordings are easy to find are Z.M. Dagar (www.raga.com and click on Z.M. Dagar) and Asad Ali.   In the traditional form, a bamboo fret board with frets attached using bee wax, was the design.  Dagar modified the instrument and made the fret board of hollow teak.  He also held the instrument similar to the manner in which the Saraswati Vina is held.  Asad Ali's manner of holding the instrument is different. Like the sitar, the fret board goes diagonally across the torso, with the left gourd supported by the shoulders.  Search for Rudra Vina (and/or Veena) on the web, to get an idea of what the instrument looks like.  The popularity of the Rudra Vina cannot be compared to that of the Saraswati veena.  While the former has had a revival in the past 30-40 years, it is still rare to hear performances on this instrument.

The Karaikudi Bani
The veena was one of the traditional accompaniments for vocal music, before the violin supplanted it. Several styles of performing on the instrument developed in the past two centuries in South India, resulting in the Kerala, Mysore, Andhra, and Tanjavur styles.  From the Tanjavur tradition emerged yet another highly regarded baani (style) from the Karaikudi family. Two representatives, brothers Subbarama Iyer and Sambasiva Iyer, were considered to be incredible veena performers at the turn of the century. They usually performed together and were considered to be very mature and serious musicians. The elder brother, Subbarama Iyer, held the Veena vertical (no longer practiced) and Sambasiva Iyer held in the way we see it held today. The two brothers held the instruments differently, for reasons unknown. The difference was not apparent in the music they performed.

Their legendary reputation in the music world is difficult to describe. Like most vainikas, they sang while playing the instrument. While their repertoire was large, they performed around twenty five fixed compositions regularly. Note that in the older concert format very few (around three to five) compositions would be performed. A great deal of emphasis was laid on lengthy improvisations such as alaapana, niraval, kalpana swaras, etc. Taanam is a specialty of this tradition and the brothers excelled in it. Rajeswari Padmanabhan trained with Sambasiva Iyer for her first fourteen years. She further contributed to the traditional repertoire considerably, especially with her association with Mysore Vasudeevachar, and also further refined the technical aspects of performing on the instrument without deviating from the Karaikudi baani.  Her daughter, Sreevidhya Chandramouli, continues the tradition.

  The following features distinguish the Karaikudi baani from other styles.

  • Balance between sliding (horizontal) and pulling the string across the fret

  • Use of the right hand to curb sustain

  • Absence of vibrato

  • The use of taalam strings for keeping taala during the rendition of a composition

  • The strumming of the main bass strings for effect and pulse

  • Rare use of playing three notes together (Tribinnam)

  • The use of paired notes during taanam (equivalent of jor in North Indian Classical music) rendition

  • A distinctive style of taanam

  • Pausing at notes to imply a sustain or for aesthetic effect

The magazine Sruti, dedicated an entire issue, Winter Bumper Issues 51/52, spotlighting the Karaikudi Bani, and the Tanjore style.  The cover shows Karaikudi Subbarama Iyer holding the veena in the vertical position.

There are several renowned exponents in the various veena styles, but many of them have passed away, or do not have recordings that can be easily accessed.  Listed below are some exponents from various stylistic schools, whose recordings are easy to find on CDs and/or cassette tapes (probably easier in South India).

Tanjore

  • Devakottai Narayana Iyengar
  • K.S.Narayana Swamy
  • S.Balachandar
  • Sarada Sivanandam
  • Pichumani Iyer
  • Kalpagam Swaminathan
  • Ranganayaki Rajagopalan
  • Rajeswari Padmanabhan 
  • Karaikudi S Subramanian
  • Padmavathi Anandagopalan
  • Sreevidhya Chandramouli
  • Jayanthi Kumaresh
  • Geetha Bennet
  • Srikanth Chary

Mysore

  • Mysore Doraiswamy Iyengar
  • R.K.Suryanarayana
  • Balakrishna Iyengar

Andhra

  • Emani Shankara Sastri
  • Chittibabu
  • E.Gatyathri

Kerala

  • Muthulakshmi
  • Kalyani Ganesan

Audio discussion of the instrument with Sreevidhya Chandramouli
After listening to the Music of the Veena II (JVC label) in the early 90s, I was very taken by Rajeshwari Padmanabhan's performance on the veena.  I was more ignorant of the different veena traditions of South India than I am now, and it took a while to learn the background of this mature musician.  Fate, without my proactive activity, introduced me to her daughter (Sreevidhya Chandramouli)  residing in Portland in the mid 90s.  We have kept in touch since then.  Sreevidhya, currently devotes a majority of her time teaching vocal and veena students, as well as touring sporadically.  She also hosts several events annually to promote Indo-classical performing arts.  An interview with her, will be published later.

This time, Sreevidhya Chandramouli provides us an insight into the instrument – its history, manufacture, maintenance, technique, and the various traditions.   The session was recorded in December of 2002, at her home in Portland, OR.  We started at 7 a.m. after the completion of her daily morning practice.

We began with a quick reference to the history of the modern avatar of the Saraswati veena and the material it is made of.  Some aspects of its construction were also described.  This led to talking about the physical aspects of the instrument, starting with the strings and tuning (high audio quality). Next the various techniques and the relationship to stylistics schools/traditions were discussed.  We moved on to the fret board, and followed up with a detailed description of the maintenance of the melam.  The bridges, frets, and the effect of the string gauge in sound production are discussed.  The resonator and wood quality were the focus next.  Some innovations in recent times were brought up, followed by a short conversation on the gross and fine tuners.  The role of the second gourd transitioned into a short conversation on sympathetic strings.  We moved on to more innovations in the instrument manufacture.  A high level overview nice of the right and left hand techniques followed (high audio quality).  Two video clips of the fingering are also available, but could not be published due to the file size.   One more nice demo of combined techniques (high audio quality), led into a talk on the different regional styles.  We ended with a discussion on the making of the instrument.  If you prefer, you can listen to the complete conversation.

Photo Essays

The following sets of photographs complement the article and audio discussion.  Easy page provides links to the previous page at the top, and the next page at the bottom.

Samples of Music

Here are three samples of Sreevidhya’s music.  The first piece is the taanam section of a raagam-taanam-pallavi (in Kambhoji)  performance (solo in Seattle, 1993).  Taanam (equivalent to jor in North Indian Classical music) is a specialty of  the Karaikudi tradition, and its impact is hypnotic.  Next Sreevidhya accompanies her mother and guru, Rajeshwari Padmanabhan in a 1998 performance of taanam in raag Chakravakam (scale of Ahir Bhairav in North Indian Classical music).  These two were transfered from tapes, and do not not reveal the richness of the instrument's timbre.  The third is the last track from her CD, (CD quality audio) titled Maruta (label Sonic Soul Acoustics), where both her vocal and veena skills are displayed.  Also, here are links to some recordings of Emani Shankara Shastri and Doraiswamy Iyengar.

We hope that you learnt something about the Saraswati veena  - and gained some insight into the tradition of South Indian Classical music. For more interesting topics on classical music, visit SAWF's extensive archive of articles on raagas, interviews with artists, and musical links.  For a list of past and future interviews/articles, click here.

Credits:
The Cleveland Aradhana Committee for permission to photograph the 2002 events
Sai Susarla for the music links of Emani Shastri and Doraiswamy Iyengar
L. Ramakrishnan, Srini Pichumani, Sreevidhya, and Chandramouli for assistance with editing
Sonic Soul Acoustics for permission to publish the music track from Maruta
Sreevidhya & Chandramouli for permission to publish the taanam musical selections from their personal collection

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