The Veena (also referred to as Saraswati Veena) is one of the most ancient string instruments of India. It is a delicate, beautiful instrument that, in the hands of a master, can express all the nuances of Carnatic vocal and instrumental music.
The veena has a recorded history that dates back to the Vedic period (approximately 1500 BCE). It is also referenced in the ancient works from the Tamil land such as the Silappadikaram (approximately 2nd Century AD). In Tamil isai the veena is referred to as the yazh. The yazh had been classified into four types – peri yazh, magara yazh, sakota yazh and sengottai yazh. These four types were classified as such based on their number of strings which were 21, 19, 14 and 7. Of these, the sengottai yazh was made of a type of red wood and had seven strings. This yazh seems to be the closest to the current veena.
The current form of the Saraswati veena with 24 fixed frets evolved in Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu during the reign of Raghunatha Nayak (1600 AD). It is for this reason the veena is sometimes called the Thanjavur veena or the Raghunatha veena. Prior to his time, the number of frets on the veena were less and also movable. Currently the veena is made in several regions in South India.
The veena has a hollow stem made of resonant wood, about thirty-two inches long and four inches wide. It houses twenty-four brass frets embedded in bees-wax and is set on two chambers; the main sound chamber is made out of wood and a secondary resonator is made of a gourd. It has four main strings to produce the melody and three strings on the side for maintaining drone and tala (rhythm). The index and middle fingers of the right hand are used to pluck the melody strings while the little finger is used to stroke the tala strings. The index and middle fingers of the left hand are used to glide over the frets and deflect the strings.
Uniqueness of Veena:
Veena is an important musical instrument in South Indian classical genre. It has many unique features as follows:
The gap between the frets on the fret-board is concave in shape thus enabling the pulling of the strings to produce the gamakas (characteristic ornamentations of Carnatic music). While doing so, one is able to observe the amount of deflections needed to produce the gamakas and visualise the science and grammar music in action.
Another unique aspect of the veena is the way it helps the veena player to keep the time cycles. Most instruments need both the hands to produce the melody and hence keeping the time cycles (tala) is not possible with the hands. The veena facilitates keeping the tala while playing the melody by the use of the tala strings. The musical phrases are produced with the index and middle fingers of both hands while the little finger of the right hand keeps the time by stroking the tala strings.
The hollow chamber of the veena (kudam) enables the sound to resonate from within, thus adding depth to the string vibrations. The string terminations at both ends are curved and not sharp. Also, the frets have much more curvature than any other instrument. Unlike in guitar, the string does not have to be pushed down to the very base of the neck, so no rattling sound is generated. This design enables a continuous control over the string tension, which is important for glides and produces more harmonics than any other instrument. Moreover the bees-wax that houses the frets absorbs any noise thus adding to the clarity of the sound.
Another unique feature that distinguishes the music of the veena from all other instruments is the tanam playing. Tanam playing is the improvisation of the raga with an implied rhythm. The stroking of the tala strings of the veena during tanam adds a third dimension and produces a grand aural effect.
Styles of veena music:
To the lay listener, all veena recitals may sound alike, but the discerning ear can distinguish different styles of veena playing. The technique of veena playing today can be broadly divided into three basic schools – the Thanjavur, Mysore and Andhra schools. Each school has a proud heritage of its own, and there are purists even today who zealously guard their precious tradition. However, it is easily noticeable that due to constant exposure of each school to the others via radio, television and other modern media such as Youtube, there has been a merging of styles to some extent.
Thanjavur School aims at reproducing the vocal (gayaki) style as closely as possible. This approach has been developed right from the heyday of Thanjavur court of the Kings and has been shaped and polished to perfection. This gayaki style stresses the importance of reproducing on the veena the pronunciation and accent on each syllable of the lyrics as if they are sung. Raga alapana of this style is replete with characteristic gamakas. The pace is leisurely. It is a stately and dignified style with an everlasting appeal. Karaikudi style is a branch from the Thanjavur style, developed by the Karaikudi brothers who lived in the first half of the twentieth century. This style lays emphasis on the right hand plucking technique. Another variant of the Thanjavur style with focus on the gayaki aspect is the Travancore style.
The Mysore School developed in a quite different direction. It focuses on bringing out the instrumental excellence of the instrument. The school has a distinct North Indian touch, due to the proximity of Karnataka’s northern districts to Maharashtra and the ensuing influence. It is a very pleasing and reposeful style.
The Andhra School of veena playing can be distinguished by the variety of plucking techniques used. High-speed passages are employed rigorously in this school. Veyi sadakam (practicing a set of exercises a thousand times, repeating it from the beginning if any mistake is made during the practice) is a notable practice followed by this school.
The Iyer Brothers follow the Tanjore style of veena playing noted for its closeness to vocal music.