At the age of nine, while my friends were beginning their violin and piano lessons, I began lessons on the veena, a seven-stringed instrument, with roots in the Carnatic tradition of southern India, and the oldest continuously played instru- ment of the sub-continent.
Shaped similar to a sitar, the veena is played parallel to the ground unlike the sitar, which is played at an angle. It is often said that the veena produces sounds that are closest to the human voice. And then there’s its glorious history. Hindu religion and mythology has several figures known for their association with the veena, in- cluding the goddess Saraswati, the sage Narada, and the demon Ravana.
The modern fixed-fret Saraswati vee- na evolved in Thanjavur, a town richly steeped in the musical tradition of South- ern India during the 17th century. If Cremona in northern Italy is the seat of violin making, which includes the world famous Stradivarius violins, Thanjavur in southern India enjoys a similar reputation among veena players. It is here that the art of veena-making still flourishes, and the most popular style of veena today is the Thanjavur veena, which is a particular style of the Saraswati veena. Similar to Cremona violins, the name “ Thanjavur veena” immediately gives a stamp of cred- ibility to the quality of the instrument. The veena makers with the best reputations live in this temple town and make bespoke instruments for classical musicians.
Even though I have been playing this instrument for eight years, I had not had the opportunity to visit its birthplace, Thanjavur, which is just a one-hour flight away from my parents’ birth place of Chennai, an annual summer destination of mine. Imagine then, my excitement, this past summer, when my family finally planned a trip to Thanjavur! I was to final- ly get an opportunity to meet some of the artisans who make this ancient instrument.
I visited a veena maker called “Veena” Venkatesan. He lives in a modest two- story blue house with a high ceiling. His workshop is on the second-floor balcony overlooking a busy street. Venkatesan is happy to take a few hours from his busy schedule to talk to me.
How did you get started in this trade, I ask somewhat naively. His father Gov- indaswamy taught him the trade, he tells me, just as he is now preparing his son to succeed him. The art of veena making is handed down from generation to genera- tion.
Once we sit down, he immediately launches into detailing the craft. Usually a veena’s wood comes from the jackfruit tree. When I ask him why this particular wood is used, he answers: tradition and cost. However, he is quick to point out that many veena makers also use the more expensive rosewood, and occasionally, san- dalwood.
One interesting aspect is that it takes a 25 kg (~55 lbs) tree to make a 3 kg (~6.6 lbs) veena, since most of the wood must be hollowed out!
Because it’s such a large instrument, there are three types of veena based on its construction. The first is the “ekanda veena,” which is carved from one piece of wood. The second is the two-piece “akhan- da veena,” which is quite rare. The third is the “khanda veena,” in which the four main portions (Kumbha, Dandi, Vyala, and Kayi (the gourd)) are made separately, and then joined. Isn’t the veena made with one piece better than the two-piece veena, I ask, wanting to appear knowledgeable. Venkatesan is quick to correct the miscon- ception. In reality, he informs me, if joined properly a khanda veena can sound better than the one-piece veena.
Venkatesan strongly believes that one person should make the entire instrument for purposes of continuity. Making one instrument takes about twenty days from start to finish. However, it takes a very long time for an aspiring veena maker to acquire the skills needed to make a complete veena in this length of time. Venkatesan had to spend several years as an apprentice to his father on getting the woodwork right, before he was even al- lowed to lay the wax and place the frets! Such is the expertise and precision re- quired to make a fine instrument.
Now that he has so many years of experience on getting the tone perfect, he doesn’t need a supporting instrument such as the tambura.
There are 24 frets made of brass bars set into wax. Laying the wax is the toughest part of veena-making. It requires three and a half hours in a meditative state, and even after setting it multiple times, it may go off tune later. Venkatesan sees it as a product of one’s mental state. He likens it to expert carpenters, many of whom may have the physical skills and technical expertise, but only a few can achieve that meditative and reflective mood.
Given the years of apprenticeship in- volved, the level of skill, and the dedica- tion that is required to make a fine veena, Venkatesan estimates that only ten crafts- men in India can make veenas of the fin- est quality, with six of them living in the Thanjavur area.
However, he also debunked the my that it’s a dying art. He argues that veena- making has always been reserved for a select few, and that it only seems like it is a dying art in comparison to other instru- ments. While most instrument manufac- turers have expanded rapidly, a veena, of course, can only be made by hand and that too only by a select few.
Slowly, our conversation moves from the technical aspect of making the instru- ment to its historical and contemporary contexts.
I ask him whether he thought the government ought to do more in the way of support for craftsmen, a notion that he handily rejects. He points to an award hanging on his wall, from Poompuhar, the State Government agency. To him, a vid- wan’s (expert) praise means so much more than support from a government official who knows nothing of the craft.
Venkatesan finds solace in the peace of his work. In fact, he points, he can actually make more money making other wood products. However, none of them can offer the same divine quality of a veena’s sound and the spirituality associated with the instrument.
Not everyone feels the same way. He admits that no apprentice has ever approached him with a deep level of interest in the instrument. In fact, he tells me that I am the first person to have approached him with some interest in the craft, even if it is not professional. Nevertheless, he does not lament his situation or complain. Sur- rounded by his tools and the ingredients of the next beautiful veena, this master craftsman is at complete peace.
Meeting Veena Venkatesan is a rev-elation. As I leave his workshop, my thoughts whirl around my home in Silicon Valley where it seems the measure of a person’s success is the size of his home and the number of stock options that he has. However, for people like Venkatesan true wealth lies in the practice of his divine craft and the joy that it brings.
I come away filled with awe at both the art and its artist. The next time I pick up the veena to practice, I will pause to think about the dedication, skill, and commit- ment of its maker.
Anirudh Prabhu is a senior at Bellarmine College Preparatory in San Jose, CA. He learns veena from the renowned guru, Sri Srikanth Chary, and is a nationally-ranked debater.
First published in December 2015.