V is for Veena

2009 February 9


This follows on from T is for Tanpura not Sitar; it’s Good to Know the Difference and S is for Sitar and Surbahar. The intention of these three posts is to help people tell the difference between these instruments, primarily because the Tanpura is the most fundamental instrument of Indian classical music and is often confused with the Sitar and the Veena (sublime instruments in their own right) because of some similarity in appearance. A lot of important and exciting detail has been left out (for example, there is so much more to the Tanpura than being a four stringed “drone”) but hopefully, those who are interested, will dig deeper once they leave this page! As always, videos need not be watched for their full length, they are for reference to help recognise the instrument and playing techniques.

Veena:

Nepalese Saraswati holding a Veena.

Image credit: Kaladarshan Arts

Also with a long neck and rounded resonators, the Veena is considered to have ancient origins. However, string instruments of almost all types were called “Veena” in ancient Indian texts and the Veenas played today are the product of several years of history and continue to be modified. Here is a developing discussion on the subject. A distinction is also made between Veenas belonging to the lute and zither families. We shall not get into the technical and historical classifications (and attendant arguments) here, but just try to identify the main types of Veena played today.

Gods and Goddesses are often depicted playing the Veena, particularly the Goddess of learning and the arts, the Goddess SaraswatiRavana was also supposed to be a great Veena player.

Some of the main types of Veena played today are: the Rudra Veena (also known as the been or bin), the Saraswati Veena, the Vichitra Veena and the Chitraveena or Gottuvadyam. Veena players are often referred to as Beenkars (or Binkars) or Vainikas.

The wandering sage Narada Muni being given a Veena by Lord Vishnu. Image credit: Sikh Heritage

The Rudra Veena (Been or Bin):

Image credit: tanpura.de

Please note, pictures are only indicative, as various schools of music and musicians add their own modifications.

The Rudra Veena is a large instrument and played by only a few; it almost fell into total obscurity. It is played mostly by instrumentalists from the Dhrupad style. It usually has 21-24 frets. There are four main playing strings and three to four drone strings. At either end of the dandi (the long tubular neck like part) there are two hollow gourds.

Traditionally the Veena was played with the player sitting in the vajrasana posture with his legs folded under him, and one of the two gourds placed on the left shoulder.

Here is Ustad Asad Ali Khan playing the Rudra Veena, holding it with a gourd above his left shoulder:

One of the Rudra Veena’s foremost exponents, (and amongst my favourite musicians) was the late Ustad Zia Mohiuddin Dagar who made his own modifications to the instrument. Ustadji’s alaps (i.e. elaborations of ragas that do not have rhythmic accompaniment, usually performed at the beginning of a piece) on the Rudra Veena were exquisitely slow and detailed. This is the music that caresses one’s soul if one has the patience to let it. Ustadji’s students describe him like his music; tender, gentle, loving and quiet and of great depth.

A clip of Ustadji’s playing an alap on the Rudra Veena in the Raga Yaman:

Note that in the video above Ustadji sits cross-legged and holds the Rudra Veena across his lap and not his shoulder. Ustad Zia Mohiuddin adopted the South Indian or Carnatic style of holding the Veena, which is followed today by his son Baha’uddin Dagar.

In an interview to Deepak Raja, Baha’uddin Dagar speaks of the posture used by his father and the need to tailor make the Rudra Veena according to the waistline of the Beenkar:

My father was the first significant beenkar to shift from the traditional posture to the Carnatic style posture. He had, of course, learnt the Been in the traditional posture, holding it under his right arm, and across his chest. My grandfather probably also played in the traditional posture. My father made the change because the lap-top posture gave him much greater control over the meend [glide from one note to the other]through the in-tandem use of three left-hand fingers, without compromising the impact of the strokes. He found that this was a very valuable asset in the alap, which was his forte. The posture he adopted conformed to the prescription in our scriptures that the top of the stem at the left end should be at the same height as your left shoulder. Therefore, no traditional tenet of Been playing has been breached by the change.

In the early stages, I was taught the Been in the traditional posture, and I have experienced the difference. When you hold the instrument across your chest, your approach to music changes entirely. The melody and the strokes both become more agile, drifting towards the sitar idiom. If you want to play an alap-dominant, soulful quality of music, the lap-top posture works better….

The Vichitra Veena

Image credit: Tarang Indian Instruments

While the Rudra Veena has frets, the Vichitra Veena has none. Apart from the absence of frets, one can recognise a Vichitra Veena by the fact that one of the ends of the dandi will be shaped into a peacock head. The Vichitra Veena is placed on the ground in front of the musician. To play it the musician uses an egg shaped piece of glass (batta) and plectrums on the fingers of one hand. This also a difficult instrument to play. The Vichitra Veena has nine to eleven main strings and eleven to fifteen sympathetic strings. It also has some drone strings. The number of strings and their tuning depends on the artist.

Pandit Lalmani Mishra was a renowned Vichitra Veena player, click on the link below for a video of him playing the instrument:
Pandit Lalmani Misra DVD excerpt

Here is a video of Beenkar Dr. Mustafa Raza playing the Vichitra Veena (look out for the glass egg!):

More about the Vichitra Veena here.

Gottuvadyam or Chitravina

Image Credit: chandrakantha.com

Similar to the Vichitra Veena, is the Gottuvadyam or the Chitravina, played mainly in the South. It too is fretless, and played with a slide and plectrums. Traditionally, the slide was made of wood or bison horn, but today, well known Chitravina exponent N Ravikiran uses a teflon slide. It has twenty-one strings, including playing strings, drone strings and sympathetic strings (the latter are the maximum in number).

Here is a video of a young Chitravina Ravikiran (the name of the instrument often gets attached to the musician’s name in the South) playing the Chitravina/Gottuvadyam:

He plays another version these days, easier to carry around, and easier to tune to higher pitches, called the Navachitravina, that he has designed. Here it is:

There is some argument over which sounds better, the traditional Chitravina or the modified “Nava” version.

Saraswati Veena:

Played mainly in the South, this is perhaps the most popular type of Veena played in India today. The most prized Saraswati Veenas are made in the historic city of Tanjavur, from jackwood and metals. Veenas that are carved out of a single piece of wood are preferred to those that are not. Only one of the gourds acts as a resonator, the second gourd (which rests on the musician’s thigh) may be made of a lighter material. The Saraswati Veena does have frets, unlike the Chitravina/Gottuvadyam. It has four main playing strings and three drone strings.

Image credit: veenvidhya.com

Plectrums are usually worn on the right hand to pluck the strings while the left hand is used to slide on the fretboard and pull the strings.

The close up in the beginning of this video of Vainika Jayanthi Kumaresh demonstrates the playing technique:

That wire you see creeping out of the Veena is a modern addition to increase amplification.

Vocal music is the foundation of Indian classical music. Before the advent of the violin, the Veena was often played to accompany vocal music in the South. There was a great emphasis on the Veena producing the nuances of the human voice (both in the North and the South) and this approach to Veena playing persists.

The Saraswati Veena is held across the lap of the musician (I have read that there were Vainikas who held it upright, indeed Saraswati is often depicted holding the Veena vertical,  but this is not seen nowadays).

There are several well-known Vainikas (youtube has a series on Notable Vainikas). One of the most legendary was the late Veena Dhanammal who played without plectrums. Her style of playing has influenced Vainikas and vocalists alike.


Image credit: The Hindu

It is said that as Dhanammal lay dying:

The family began a continuous round of singing in order to ease her passing. Regaining consciousness briefly, she asked for her veena and when it was placed next to her, embraced it, stating that it was the only thing she regretted being parted from. Her last words were “Muvva Gopala.” That was the signature of Kshetragna whose padams she had made immortal. It was found that her fingers searched for the veena till she passed away…link

More on the Saraswati Veena here.


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19 Responses leave one →
  1. February 10, 2009

    My mum learnt the Veena during her childhood days in Bangalore – and I’ve always had an affinity to it, maybe because of that.
    Also, your explanation – string instruments of almost all types were called “Veena” in ancient Indian texts – finally clears up why Pandit Vishwamohan Bhatt calls his hybrid slide guitar the Mohan Veena.
    Very good read.

  2. February 10, 2009

    Thanks for putting in all this work, Ra. There’s so much to learn! My ajji taught the Veena in Mysore and then later in Bangalore. She looked almost exactly like the lady in the last pic, Veena Dhanammal. I was taken aback for a second when I came to that picture.

  3. choxbox permalink
    February 12, 2009

    Excellent post no.3!

  4. February 20, 2009

    This is just fantastic. Thanks for all the work you put into gathering the information and writing it down. I will never forget being mesmerized by a Chitti Babu recital at a cousin’s wedding – his playing was so heavenly, I forgot to eat the delicious wedding feast food – something highly unusual for me!

  5. March 9, 2009

    Ra,
    Clear, concise well-written post without hairsplitting but at the same time giving the essentials.

    Thank you, I really value that coming from you!

  6. nalinny permalink
    September 1, 2009

    greetings,

    hi.. i would like to knw the different between veena and sitar.
    pls tel me more abt it.

    planing to learn veena and i it was my childhood dream..bt i f no knwledge abt it, sum of my fren suggest me to learn sitar instead of veena bt i need to knw abt it.

    hope u wl reply my mail asap.

    tks and bst regards,
    nalinny

  7. Kulkarni permalink
    September 28, 2009

    Wonderful Topic.And post.
    We have just kickstarted a Three Year series of monthly Veena concerts.
    Concerts held under carefully selected ambient conditions – for small groups in drawing rooms and…. almost no mike.Amplification just enough to overcome the decibel value of the unamplified Mridangam..
    We have gone through two already and it is promising to be a great experience.All concerts are being videographed and will be avaailble for free circulation.Folks in Chennai , please make it a point to attend our series.
    We intend covering all schools and as many artists as possible.
    If you know an interesting artist , please let me know.

    There are few sounds that can match the dignity of this proud instrument.I will see if I can post small clips here.

  8. janani permalink
    November 15, 2009

    actually iam studying in 10th std and also iam learning veena; by seeing this i can know more about veena so thanks for giving me this clear picture of veena

    • November 17, 2009

      Janani, Very glad to hear you are learning Veena and that this was useful.

  9. monica lall permalink
    February 1, 2010

    thanks for compiling this informative piece with text and appropriate links. I am planning to learn the Veena (I am 39!). Need to buy and bring the Veena to England. People say Sitar is easier than Veena? Any opinions…

    • February 1, 2010

      Monica, I have heard that too-but then I bet every instrument requires a lot of effort! I know some Beenkars who are able to play the sitar really well.
      I don’t think any age is too old to start learning music!

      • monica lall permalink
        March 10, 2010

        Hi I have started my lessons in London and now want to buy a Veena so as to practice at home. It’s expensive here, so considering buying from India, but am concerned about safety as I would have to check it in the flight.

        • March 10, 2010

          Are you going to accompany it? They make special cases these days…but Amjad Ali Khan’s sarod was broken recently. Check to see if there’s any insurance procedure.

        • Ramya permalink
          May 23, 2013

          Hi Monica,

          Where di you start learning veena in London, may i know.and you post is back in 2010 so by now you might have bought one if you are learning still? let me know how did you get on from you last post?

          Ramya

  10. NIRUPA permalink
    November 29, 2013

    As a Veena lecturer from Chennai ,

    Very useful information about saraswathy Veena .Thanks , I have been a online veena tutor past 5yrs students willing to learn saraswathy veena South Indian style can contact me through email or to my mobile .99406 60346.
    Thanks

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  1. T is for Tanpura not Sitar; it’s Good to Know the Difference « Punarjanman
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  3. S is for Sitar and Surbahar | Likhati
  4. T is for Tanpura not Sitar; it's Good to Know the Difference | Likhati

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