Instrument of change

Instrument of change

Resting on the floor, in a cramped room in a bungalow in Sunder Nagar, an upscale New Delhi neighbourhood, the sagar veena, the latest improvisation on a 2,000-year-old instrument, looked promising. The veena had been flown in from Lahore, Pakistan, on its maiden visit to India.

Through it, its maker, lawyer-musicologist Raza Kazim, hopes to breathe new life into the “mother of all string instruments"—“I want the sagar veena to be a substitute for human communication," he says.

Click here to listen clips of the sagar veena


It’s a dream that is unlikely to be realized anytime soon. With few players, and sleeker string instruments such as the guitar and sitar (both easily mastered in a couple of years versus the six or so for the veena) overtaking it in popularity, the veena—a cumbersome contraption claiming legendary associations with the goddess Saraswati, old epics like the Mahabharat and the Ramayan—has been left to languish as a quaint remnant.

Resembling a weight balance, the veena is valued for its closeness to the human voice. Yet there is no denying its inherent clunkiness. Players must negotiate a 4-5ft long bamboo piece weighed down on either side by hollow tumbas, made of pumpkins. In the case of the Rudra veena, the oldest variation, the instrument is held vertically by the player, who must sit in the yogic vajrasan position while strumming strings once made of dried and stretched animal gut. Today, the strings are aluminium, the wood is teak, while the instrument itself is restricted to four types: the oldest two are the Rudra veena and Saraswati veena; the chitra veena and vichitra veena were introduced about 150-200 years ago. The latest addition, the navachitravina, came about eight years ago, in 2000.

Click here to listen clips of the navachitravina

13b797b6-9c25-11dd-b687-000b5dabf613.flvSome estimate that there are just a dozen traditional Rudra and vichitra veena players left in the world, though there are many more exponents of the Saraswati and chitra veenas in south India. “Even though a fair number learn how to play the instrument, there are not many who want to take it up professionally," says renowned chitra veena player “Chitravina" N. Ravikiran.

In September, the Veena Foundation, in collaboration with several musical groups, organized its annual nine-day veena festival in Chennai in an attempt to popularize the instrument. “This was the first time that there was such a big audience, which gives us hope that the veena might be saved from extinction," says Raghurama Ayyar, secretary general, Veena Foundation. This year, more than 5,000 people attended up from 3,000 the year before.

Ajay B. Dass, owner of Rikhi Ram Musical Instruments Manufacturing Co., New Delhi, one of the oldest instrument makers in the country, blames the bulk and fragility of the instrument, and the fact that it can take years to master for its decline. Students agree, citing tedious practice hours, its unwieldy size and bleeding fingers as deterrents to taking up the veena seriously.

Recent attempts at modernizing the instrument have met with varying degrees of acceptance. The navachitravina, for example, is an improvisation of the chitra veena by Ravikiran and Dass’ brother Sanjay. At 3.5ft, it is easier to carry and more popular, according to Ravikiran. Yet even then, he estimates that only six or seven are sold in a year.

Kazim’s innovation, the result of 39 years of research, is the most ambitious so far to breathe life into the veena. A nine-string instrument, the sagar veena is played horizontally with mizrabs (small wire tops worn on fingers) and a crystal slide. “It’s a rebellion against tradition," says Kazim, who has also tried cutting the pumpkins and gluing them back for sound variations. He has sent one of the only 10 sagar veenas made so far to a music institute in Bhopal, and hopes to sell the others. Till then, the sole proponent of the instrument remains his 54-year-old daughter, Noor Zehra, who recently performed in Delhi and Bhopal, putting the sagar veena through, what they called “a litmus test" with Indian audiences. They seem happy with the response.

“It is a shame that the government is not doing anything to promote the veena, as it is doing with instruments such as sitar," says Ustad Asad Ali Khan, widely believed to be one of the last Rudra veena players in the world. “At this rate, it might just become a museum piece."


String theory

Confused about your veenas? A comprehensive guide to telling them apart

Number of strings: 20

Length: 3.5ft

Age: 8 years

This more compact modification of the chitra veena is made completely of teak or jackfruit wood.

It is kept horizontally on a raised platform, or box, and produces a sharper?tone in higher pitches, making it easier to use in collaborative concerts. The?internal design is much?the?same,?with just one resonance string less than the original.


Number of strings: 7

Length: 4-5ft, depending on the height of the player

Age: Around 2,000 years

The two ‘tumbas’ are made of pumpkins grown either in India or South Africa. The bridge joining the two is made of teak. It is the only veena played vertically, requiring the player to sit in the yogic ‘asana’ of ‘vajrasan’. It does not have any sympathetic strings, which confine the notes to only “pure" or “perfect" notes.

Number of strings: 9

Length: 6ft or more

Age: 7 months

It has an added bridge of strings that increases the number of octaves to five.

The gourd ‘tumbas’, called ‘tablis’, are made of chopped octagonal pieces glued back together for differentiated resonance.

The bridge is made of silver, and the instrument is kept horizontally on the floor.