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Veene

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Mysore is synonymous with many things. Be it Mysooru Mallige (Jasmine), Chigurele (betel leaf used in pan) or Eranagere Badane kayi (Brinjal) and so on. But one thing stands above all these, the grace of veena playing (Veeneya Bedagu).

Veena, an abode of Gods:
The original Veena, among the instruments that produce music, is the Gatra Veena, as per the Naradeeya Shiksha. Gatra means the throat or the larynx. In simple words, it is the vocal chords that produce the music. Then came the instruments that produce music externally.

Reference to Veene is available an ancient texts, sculptures. Hindu Gods patronised Veene. Goddess of learning Saraswathi is depicted with Veene, sitting on a lotus flower and her vehicle, the peacock, hovering around her. Shiva was also a master of Veena and one of his names is Veenadhara, meaning the holder of Veene. Narada, the saint known for his singing abilities, is always holding a Veene in his hands. Tumbura is the celestial singer, who played Veena. Even the anti-hero of Ramayana, Ravana, a great scholar and an ardent devotee of Shiva is supposed to have a great prowess in playing Veene.

Veena is supposed to be an abode of many Gods. A Sanskrit verse proclaims in which part of Veena nests the various Gods: Dandaha (the fret piece) Shambhuhu (Shiva), Uma Tantri (Strings), Kakubhaha (Bridge) Kamalapathihi (Vishnu), Patrikaa (Metal strip on the bridge) Indiraa (Lakshmi), Dorako (the place where the strings are tied) Vasukihi (the serpent). Jeeva (position of the strings on the bridge) - Sudhamshuhu (the Moon), Sarikaa (the frets) Ravihi (the Sun), Bramhaha (the Creator) Tumbam (the resonator) and Naabhee (center point of the resonator) Saraswathee.

Evolution and historical reference:
It is no wonder that having such a belief, Veene has earned a place in the center stage of the arena of music. It is said that the early human being who used to kill animal for food might have been wonderstruck by the different sounds produced by the bow he used in the game. This might have given him an idea of forming a Veena, which later developed as an instrument for music. In early days, all stringed instruments were called Veene (Tanti Vadya or Tata Vadya). Sarangadeva mentions two broad classifications of Veena - Shruti Veene, the forefather of Tamboori and Swara Veene. Over a long period of time, Shruti Veene went through metamorphosis, to the present day Veene.

An astounding varieties of stringed and other musical instruments are depicted in the sculptures in Mathura, Gandhara, Sanchi, Amaravati, Nagarjunakonda, Konark and temples of South India like Belur (Hassan - Karnataka), Chidambaram (Tamil Nadu) and other places present an idea of the types of Veena used in those days. The paintings of Ajanta - Ellora, (sixth and seventh century AD), and Tanjore etc, vividly sketch the different postures of artists. The number and types of instruments used as accompaniments in a concert are detailed in an amazing degree. As techniques of playing were advanced, Veene in the South and the Sitar in the North gained popularity. The earliest work on Natya Shastra speaks about two Veenas - Chitra and Vipanchi as major Veenas and Kachchapi and Ghoshtaka as minor Veenas.

Chitra Veena is described as having seven strings and Vipanchi, nine strings. Chitra Veena is played by fingers, while the later Vipanchi with a Kona (a sliding ivory piece). Nanya Deva says that Chitra Veena with its seven strings is meant for seven notes of the scale. There are innumerable instruments in the world. Of these, the Indian Veena occupies a prominent place. It has a credible past, back to the Rig Vedic age (3500 - 2500 B.C). The primitive Veena (lute) was a curved body of a bamboo bow. The old Veena was a harp - type instrument having a hollow belly covered with board or stretched leather. The belly is broader towards the back where its end is rounded and tapers towards the front, and it is continued into an upstanding curved arrow. These strings vary in their length.

We find this harp Veena with minor variations in the available sculptures of Sanchi, Bhaja, Bharhut, Amaravati, Nagarjunakonda and even at Modhera. It is also depicted in Samudra Gupta's coin. In all these Veenas, an interesting point to note is that they do not have any frets. Someswara describes Kinnari Veena with fourteen frets. Sarangadeva in his Sangita Ratnakara also speaks about 14 frets. Kinnari Veena is constructed by fitting a log of black wood or bamboo on three gourds, the middle one being the largest. These gourds function as the resonator. Metal frets, numbering 12 or 14, are fixed on the wooden bar. They form the fingerboard. The neck of this instrument is shaped like a kite. Three metal strings are attached lengthwise on the fingerboard, with one string used for producing the drone.

Vedic and Buddhist Lakshanakaras, from 1st century to 12th century AD, have described many forms of Veene like Chala, Parivadini, Pichola, Achala, Gatra, Chitra, Darari, Kura, Brahmi, Randri, Vaana etc. The Vedic Veena is described, the parts of which are Shiras (head), Udara (bowl), Ambana (sounding belly), Tantra (string) and Vadana (plectrum). A Veena called Audumbari was played by the wives of Rishis during the time of Yaaga, while priests or Rishis chanted mantras. This Veena was made of Audumba wood and hence the name Audumbari. Pichola Veena was also known to have been in use in the Vedic age for the same purpose. In Ramayana, both Lava and Kusha chanted the entire Valmiki Ramayana with a Veena. We can find mention about Veena in Bhagavata Purana and Kalidasa's Kumara Sambhava also.

The discussion about Veene will not be complete without a reference to Vana. It is a variety of Veene which is fitted with a hundred strings. The Taittiriya Brahmana speaks about these Veenas, called as Shata Tantir or Shata Tantri. Two persons were required to play this instrument, one of these a Brahmin and the other a Kshatriya, representing Knowledge and Royalty. This is perhaps the forefather of Santoor. The Kapi Shirsni and Godha Veena are named after animals. The former having a monkey shaped head, while the latter is decorated the shape and skin of a crocodile. In some of the scriptures, human body has been termed as a Divine Veena created by the Almighty. Some Veenas are classified by the material used in making it like Kanda Veena, made of Bamboo and Taluka Veena, made of Palm tree stems.

Narada in his Sangeetha Makaranda mentions 19 kinds of Veenas.

Veene in recent past:
Adi Shankara in his Soundarya Lahari portrays Saraswathi playing with Veene in the Sloka "Vipanchya Gayanthi". The Veene played by Narada is called Mahati and Tumbura used to play a Veene by name Kalavati. Historical king Vatsa Raja is supposed to have subdued an elephant in rut, by playing his Veena Ghoshavathi. Other than these, there are so many different Veenas described which are omitted in this article. Veene is available in a variety of modified versions; each has been given a title. The modern Veene as we see it now has been evolved after much change. Mainly three types of Veenas are in use now - the Saraswati Veene, Rudra Veene and Vichitra Veene.

Vichitra Veene:
The Vichitra Veene is the modern form of ancient Eka Tantri Veena. The structure is a broad, fretless, horizontal arm or crossbar (Danda) about three feet long and six inches wide, with two large resonating gourds (Tumba). The gourds are decorated with an inlay work of ivory and are affixed at the bottom of both ends. The narrow ends of the instrument are fashioned into peacock heads, vehicle of Goddess Saraswati and, incidentally, the national bird of India.

Vichitra Veena is a stringed and plucking instrument. This is very popular in North India and mainly associated with Hindustani Music. It resembles the Karnatic Gottu Vadya, to which a new nomenclature has been given as Chitra Veena in its new avatar. Both these instruments have no frets and is played by plucking the string in the right hand, while a slide (of ivory or plastic) is slid on the strings by the left hand.

In Vichitra Veena, there are four main playing strings and five secondary strings (Chikaris), which are played openly with the little finger for a drone and Taal effect. Beneath the main strings, thirteen sympathetic strings are attached, which resonate along the main strings. These sympathetic strings are tuned the notes of the appropriate Raag being played. This Veena has a whopping five - octave range. The instrument is plucked by the middle and the fore finger, similar to Sitar. Two plectrums called mizrab, identical to those used for sitar are worn on the fingers.

The slide consists of a glass ball called Batta and it is moved on the main strings to create appropriate Swara and melody. While playing Vichitra Veena, butter or olive oil is smeared on the strings to ease the movement of the slide. Earlier, Vichitra Veena was an accompanying instrument in Hindustani Drupad style of singing. It did not figure as an independent concert instrument till Dr. Lalmani Mishra developed an independent playing technique, exclusive for Vichitra Veena. His son Gopal Shankar Mishra made the instrument very popular. Today there are many artistes who play Vichitra Veena.

Rudra Veene:
Rudra Veena is also called as Been or Bin. It is a large plucked string instrument used in Hindustani classical music. This ancient instrument is rarely played today. Popularity of Rudra Veena declined in the early nineteenth century, partly due to the gaining popularity of Sur Bahaar. Sur Bahaar allowed Sitarists to more easily present the Alap sections of slow Dhrupad-style ragas.

Rudra veena is a fretted instrument with a long tubular body ranging in length between four feet six inches to five feet. The central tubular danda is made of wood or bamboo. Two large - sized round resonators, made of dried and hollowed gourds, are attached under the tube. Twenty-four frets, made of wood and fitted with brass are attached to the Danda in a curved and raised manner. It is fitted with six main strings attached to the wooden tuning pegs. The playing technique is similar to that of Sitar.

Saraswathi Veene:
This probably is the oldest of all the Veena types and has been given an important stature in Indian society. This is said to have been the divine musical instrument of Saraswati, the goddess of learning and music. Its body is generally carved from jack wood. Saraswati Veena has four playing strings and three drone strings. The 16th century scholar Govinda Dikshitar has described in his book Sangeetha Sudha, the technique and design of this instrument and had developed a Mela (Fret arrangement) known as Raghunatha Mela. Saraswati Veena which is in vogue now has twenty four frets. Though Gottu Vadya resembles Veene in structure, it has no frets, like Vichitra Veena and the playing technique is similar to it. Only difference is that Gottu Vadya is played in Karnatak style. This is also known by the name of Maha Nataka Veene.

Main schools of veena recital:
There are different Bani, the techniques adopted in playing Veena. Broadly, they may be classified as Mysore Bani, Tanjore Bani and Andhra Bani. To the one who is not well - versed in recognising the difference, all the three versions may sound alike. But an astute listener can distinctly make out the difference among them.

The Mysore Bani is basically an instrumental style in which deep Gamaka takes a second place. This may be due to the influence of Maharashtra singers and western music. But the melody is very pleasing and relaxing. Veene Sheshanna is one of the pioneers of this style. Sheshanna created a different style while playing Tana, which occupies an important role in creating the melody. The fingers dance on the frets, instead of sliding over the strings, giving clarity of the Swaras, most of the times.

The Tanjore Bani tries to replicate the human vocal chords. The style tries to translate the music exactly, what a human voice can produce. Karaikudi Bani, developed by Karaikudi brothers is said to be the fore runner of this Bani. Alapane uses deep gamakas. Andhra Bani has developed in a different direction. It has varieties of Meetus (pluckings). High speed passages are employed. Tala strings are used predominantly even while elaborating an Alapane.

There are purists in each school safely guarding the tradition. In spite of this, constant exposure to the concerts of each School, all good things from all the three Banis are being absorbed by modern Vainikas. A sort of fusion is the present day trend. The Veenas are being fixed with contact mikes and pick-ups, enabling the listener sitting any where in the auditorium, to hear the most soft plucking of the Veena, as clear as the Swaras produced by a hard stroke.

Veene in Mysore: Veene Sheshanna (1852 - 1926)
The rulers of Mysore, the Wadiyars, were all great patrons of art and culture. They used to encourage musicians who were proficient in different instruments and vocal music. Veene had a special place in the court of Mysore Kings. They had employed artisans who were adept in making Veene. The making of Veene by these artisans is still being continued. Veene Rudrappachar was a prominent Veena maker, who had the skill to carve intricate designs on gourd, danda and Yali.

It is said that he has made about two thousand Veenes in his working life-span. One of the Veene created by him now stands in Venkatappa Art Gallery in Bangalore. His artistry was such that, even one pluck on the string would reverberate for thirty seconds. There were many stalwarts who could play Veene in the court of Wadiyars. Prominent among them were Veene Krishnaiah, Veene Venkataramana Dasa, Veene Venkatasubbaiah, Veene Shivaramaiah, Veene Subbanna, Veene Shamanna, Veene Venkatagiriyappa, Veene Sheshanna, Swaramurthy V. N. Rao, artist Venkatappa, R. N. Doreswamy, Veena Doreswamy Iyengar, R. S. Keshava Murthy, R. Vishweshwaran and others.

Veene Sheshanna:
Veene Sheshanna (1852 - 1926), the musician in the Royal Court of Krishnaraja Wadiyar III, was a child prodigy. He earned much acclaim at the age of ten when he played a difficult Pallavi, which other court musicians failed to perform, to answer a poser from a touring musician. He pioneered the art of Mysore Bani, which he spread across the country. Veene Sheshanna was the pioneer of two things. He practiced playing Veena in an inclined position as played now. Earlier, Veena was played holding it in a vertical position.

The second was the evolution of Mysore Bani. He had toured all over the country and was awarded many accolades, titles. Gayakwad Maharaja of Baroda was so pleased with his recital, he took a procession of Sheshanna in a palanquin along the capital city. Not satisfied with that honour, he presented the palanquin along with other presentations to Sheshanna himself. Sheshanna brought that palanquin to Mysore in the days when transport facility was meager. Ultimately he donated the palanquin to Saint Vyasaraya Swamy.

Sheshanna looked very magnificent in the durbar dress. He had a powerful and attractive personality. Out of the Royal court, his dress was simple and neat, with a white dhoti, a long coat with laced turban, which was the order of the day. He sported a hefty mustache, which would stand out from a mile. Having a medium built personality, he held his long neck high. His complexion was fair. He had a broad forehead decorated with Nama and Akshata. He had bright eyes and long fingers as though crafted for playing Veena. His very presence would command respect. He would sit like a yogi, while playing on the Veena. Sheshanna had the ambition of performing in front of Gandhiji. It was fulfilled when he gave a five - hour - long Veena recital at the Indian National Congress session held at Belgaum in 1924, in spite of his fragile health condition, at the age of 73. Besides Gandhiji, Pandit Madan Mohan Malaveeya, Sarojini Devi, Lala Lajpat Roy, Rajendra Prasad, Motilal Nehru, Jawaharlal Nehru and other stalwarts were witness to this famous concert.

Swaramurthy V. N. Rao (1916 - 1980)
A small kid of five years, Venkata Narayana, touring with his grandfather Veene Sheshanna, presents a vocal rendering along with the Veena recital of his grandfather in the Royal Court of Gadwal. The Maharaja was amazed at the prowess of the boy when he delineated an Alapane. The astonished King presented an award to him and bestowed a title of Swaramurthy to the boy. Since then, the boy was addressed by this title itself, rather than his original name. This boy grew under the guardianship of his grandfather Veene Sheshanna, rather than his father Veene Ramanna. Rao was fortunate to have such a Guru who carved out him into a Vainika and a Vocalist. Swaramurthy was appointed as a court musician under Krishnaraja Wadiyar IV.

Later, he served in the Court of Jayachamaraja Wadiyar also. His contemporary Asthana Vidwans were the likes of Chikka Rama Raya, Muthaiah Bhagavatar, Mysore Vasudevacharya, Venkata Giriyappa, Venkatesh Iyengar etc. He taught both Veena and vocal to many students. He had started a music school Saraswati Union. Also he gave music tuitions. Therefore he used to peddle around everywhere in his heavy Robin Hood bicycle. He had to shift to Bangalore due to some domestic problems. Even there, he opened a music school by name "Sri Veene Sheshanna Naamaankita Sri Lakshmi Venkateshwara Veena Gaana Mandira". Swaramurthy V. N. Rao knew western music also. He was adept in a very difficult western instrument Harp. He had earned name and fame due to his own virtuosity and efforts, rather than as the grandson of Sheshanna. Rao has also penned two biographical books on Veene Subbanna and Veene Sheshanna.

A Foundation for Veena:
A Veena Foundation, set up in Delhi, is the brainchild of Raghurama Ayyar, who has a passion and concern for creating interest in Veena among the youngsters.

The foundation is formed with the collaboration of Foundation for National Integration through Arts and Culture, headed by Dr. L. M. Singhvi. The Veena Foundation has planned a series of festivals at different centers to promote the cause of the Veena.

Veena veterans:
Some of the Veena maestros in India are Veena Dhanammal, V. Doraiswamy Iyengar, S. Balachander, Chitti Babu, Veena Ragavan Iyengar, Veena Parthasarathy, Emani Sankara Sastry, R.K. Suryanarayan, Kalpakam Swaminathan, Revathy Krishna, E.Gayathri, Jayanthi Kumaresh, Jayaraaj & Jaysri Jayaraaj, K. Aanatha Padmanabhan, N. Muralikrishnan, Prince Rama Varma, N. Ravikiran, Veene Subbanna, Veene Dodda Sheshanna, Veene Sheshanna, Veena Venkatagiriappa, Veene Shamanna, Srividya Chandra Mouli, Rajesh Vaidya, T. Sharada, Prashanth Iyengar, R. K. Srinivasa Murthy, Dr. R. S. Jayalakshmi, Padmavathy Ananthagopalan, Rajeswari Padmanabhan, Bhagyalakshmi Chandrasekar, Revathi Sadashivam, Chitra Lingam, Radhika Natarajan, L. Raja Rao, R.K. Raghavan, R.K. Padmanabha, Dr. R. Vishweshwaran, R.S Keshava Murthy, M.J. Srinivasa Iyengar, Rajalakshmi Tirunaray.an, M.K. Saraswathi, R.N. Doreswamy, Suma Sudhindra, A. S. Padma, Mysore Rajalakshmi, Dr. Vijaya Raghavan, Swaramurthy V. N. Rao, D Bala Krishna, T. N Sheshagopalan and so on.

S. R. Krishna Murthy
Courtesy: Star of Mysore

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