Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Swan Song - Thanjavur Saraswati Veena's

Around 100 artisan families in the temple town of Thanjavur are dedicated to the art of making the Saraswati Veena

Earnest music enthusiasts will tell you that even today when you listen to the recording of Ustad Zia Mohiuddin Dagar and S Balachander, you get goose bumps and are mesmerised. But even while we listen to a veena concert by a maestro, how many of us will actually wonder about the making of the magnificent instrument and the people who have toiled to get music out it? Not many, perhaps.
While several art forms die a slow death because of lack of patronage, more than 100 families in Thanjavur in Tamil Nadu, have kept the veena making art alive and have passed it on through the generations.
For these families in this popular temple town, known more for its paintings that the South Indian style of veena made here, it is daily grind as they set about making the Tanjori Veena, more commonly known as the Sarawasti Veena.

“These musical instruments, made of wood from the jack fruit tree, go through rigorous testing before they are ready for use. The veenas are then sold to customers across the world, who have exclusively placed orders,” said R Venkatesan, Manager of the Thanjavur Musical Instruments Workers Cooperative Society.
The Saraswati Veena is one of the most ancient and revered of South Indian instruments. Its is attractive and the highest quality veenas have the entire body carved out of a single block of wood. The more ordinary ones, said Ganeshan, a veena maker, have a body which is made in three sections – resonator, neck and head. There are 24 frets made of brass bars set into wax. There in another resonator at the top of the neck of the veena. This is no longer a functioning resonator, but is mainly used as a stand to facilitate the positioning of th instrument when it is played. As it does not serve a musical purpose, it is not unusual to find that this upper resonator may be made of acoustically neutral materials such as paper mache, cane or other similar materials.

The Sarawasti Veena has four playing strings and three drone strings (thalam). The main bridge is a flat bar made of brass. This bar has a alight curve, and it is this curve that gives the veena its characteristic sound. The string instrument with two ground resonators is connected by a central shaft and held diagonally from lap to shoulder.
“The Thanjavur veena is considered the most sophisticated of all veenas. We can make any kind of veena, with any specification given by the customer, of course for a price,” says Ganeshan.
While shaping a veena out of blocks of wood is an arduous task, testing it for the right quality of music is no small work. “The veenas have to be tested for the right sound and notes and at least ten testers have to do the job before the Tanjori Veenas are shipped to their respective destinations.” says E Lakshman.
He added that the cost of a Sarawasti Veena varies from one piece to the other – the more th art work, the more the cost. While a non-decorative veena made out of three pieces of wood may cost around Rs 5,000, those which are intricately carved out of a single piece of wood cost upto Rs 50,000.

“The invasion of western culture and with it, the popularity of western instruments, has brought down the demand for traditional instruments, such as the veena,” said Jayabalan, a veena maker. Though the artisans produce around 300 veenas on an average, in a year, their sale is not very high, he added.
Most of the veeena makers of Tanjore have been approaching the Tamil Nadu government for more than 10 years and also the Central government for subsidies, but they are yet to get them. They allege that the other artisans get both the state as well as the central subsidies, but the veena makers are nor getting what is due to them. “But whether the subsidies come or not, the 100 veena-making families of Thanjavur will continue their work and keep the art alive, even though it our only source of income,” said Jayabalan.
These families are determined to preserve their tradition, so that classical musicians across the country can make music.

The veena is played while sitting cross-legged with the instrument held tilted slightly away from the player. The small gourd on the left rests on the player’s left thigh, the left arm passing beneath the neck with the hand curving up and around so that the fingers rest upon the frets. The palm of the right hand rests on the edge of the top plank so that the fingers (usually index and middle) can pluck the strings. The drone strings are played with the little finger. The veena’s large resonator is placed on the floor beyond the right thigh.
Venkatesan says that they are various types of veena across the country and have specific ways of playing them. He added that they are also made in different styles to suit the customer. To name a few there is the Rudra Veena which is mostly used by the Dhrupad performers which is considered as the oldest Indian music.
Then there is the Vichitra Veena which was popularized by Abdul Aziz Khan who was a court musician in Indore, Madhya Pradesh. And lastly the Saraswati Veena or the Tanjori Veena which is the most popular.

The patron Hindu goddess of learning and the arts, Saraswati, is often depicted seated upon a swan or peacock playing a veena. According to Hindu mythology, the demon-king Ravana and the monkey-god Hanuman were great veena players, as was the sage Narada.


a said...

Wow, thanks for this article. Im a great fan of zia mohiuddin dagar and its very nice to know the veena tradition is being kept alive. I hope these families never go out of business.

Roopashree said...

I want to known in bangalore where do we can get to buy tanjaoor veena please tell the address.thank u

bhattathiri said...

Excellent blog.
Indian Vedic contribution is a reservoir of Vibrant Information and
Harmonious Creativity. May the womb of nature embrace all with
tranquil blessings from this day forward. Let this attract one's
attention affecting them positively. It is a Sanctuary of the Self a
Creative Venue which serves as an Enduring Expression of Lightness,
where a peaceful Atmosphere with Sunlight Flows and serene atmosphere

reshma M said...
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Hai Baji said...
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Swetha Tanikellla said...


i know its too late to comment on this blog! excellent blog.. i play veena and i have a Ekanda veena (one piece veena) that came from my ancestors.. Lovely blog and i love to play veena more than anything in my life! The happiness u get when u play one tyagaraja kruthi is ultimate!

And u know why i happen to read this blog.. bcoz i was writing one on the same lines as how the importance of the south Indian veena has come down and how BOBILI (place in western Andhra) people are starving without any busines :(

nityan said...

excellent post. could anybody give a contact number so that i could buy a veena from Thanjavur

Thiruveni Nainar said...

Can you please provide me with his contact number. I'd like to buy a veena from the aforementioned artisan.

Thiruveni Nainar said...

Can you please provide me with his contact number. I'd like to buy a veena from the aforementioned artisan.