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
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
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.
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
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
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
in sudindien M. Palaniappan Achari und seine Arbeit (there are two
dots above u in sudindien), by
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 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
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
Rare use of playing three notes together
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
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).
- Devakottai Narayana Iyengar
- K.S.Narayana Swamy
- Sarada Sivanandam
- Pichumani Iyer
- Kalpagam Swaminathan
- Ranganayaki Rajagopalan
- Rajeswari Padmanabhan
- Karaikudi S Subramanian
- Padmavathi Anandagopalan
- Sreevidhya Chandramouli
- Jayanthi Kumaresh
- Geetha Bennet
- Srikanth Chary
- Mysore Doraiswamy Iyengar
- Balakrishna Iyengar
- Emani Shankara Sastri
- 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
The role of the second gourd transitioned into a short conversation
on sympathetic strings. We
moved on to more innovations in the instrument
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
If you prefer, you can listen to the complete conversation.
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.
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.
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
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
The Cleveland Aradhana Committee for permission to photograph the 2002
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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