The Saraswathi veenas of Bobbili, Andhra Pradesh consist of a large bowl that is hollowed out of a single wood piece and a bridge containing frets and strings that is placed onto the bowl. The Sarwasiddi community began this craft of veena making and till date continue this practice in order to sustain their livelihoods. Just like other art forms, the veena also occupied a central position in the Raja’s court. It gained a reputation of being a cultural icon and its practice became common in various households. The fact that this instrument was played by maestros of that time further contributed to its positionality and significance. These veenas were also gifted to governors or other higher officials as a token of remembrance. The beautifully carved patterns, the delicate strings, the culturally rich history and the harmonious tunes that originate out of the Saraswathi veenas make it a special part of out history and culture. The tunes of these veenas not only create music, they tell us a story of the Sarwasiddi community and their craft that has been carried onthrough generations.

Usage

The word ‘veena’ is derived from the Sanskrit word ‘????’ or ‘veeda,’ and ‘Vanyateiti Veena’ is the etymological interpretation of this word, which implies- “that which creates a sound is called the Veena.” This stringed instrument is extensively used and appreciated all over South India. Not only the melodic tunes created by this instrument, but also the exquisite designs and patterns engraved on its body, mesmerize everyone in the audience. 

Instrumental music has been an integral part of Indian history and culture since time immemorial. This is evident from the countless treatises on music and famous sculpturesof musicians in places of worship.

The Saraswathi veena has become synonymous with Indian culture and tradition. The famous Carnatic music that is played on these veenas transcends the boundaries of time and space and captures the hearts of several music lovers all over the world.The veena is considered to have ancient origins, however, one must note that in ancient Indian texts, all string instruments were referred to as ‘veenas.’ In today’s age, the veena that is played is considered to be a product of history that continues to be modelled and shaped.

The musical instrument, ‘veena’ is used for playing different Indian music styles. The veena is the only Indian music instrument which has several varieties and these varieties can be used for playing different styles of music. Usually, the veenas are known by the place in which they are made, such as Tanjore, Mysore, Thiruvananthapuram, Rampur, Bobbili, Pithapuram and Bandar Veenas. In ancient times, a veena simply implied ‘a stringed instrument’ with 3 varieties, namely- plucked, bowed and struck. However, as time progressed, the veena came to denote ‘fretted instruments.’ The different types of veenas are as follows-

1. Rudra Veena: This veena is closely associated with the Hindu god Shiva. Since ‘rudra’ is another name for Lord Shiva, the Rudra Veena implies ‘a veena dear to Shiva.’ This veena is usually used for Hindustani classical music in North India. However, the usage of this veena has majorly over the years. In the early 19th century, introduction of the Surbahar allowed the musicians to more easily present the Alap sections of slow dhrupad-style ragas. This resulted in the decline of Rudra Veena and its popularity. In the present day, Asad Ali Khan is claimed to be the master of playing this instrument and he is passing down the tradition to his son. Other famous masters include- Faridi Desai, BahauddinDagar and BeenkarSuvirMisra.

2. Saraswathi Veena: This veena is named after the Hindu Goddess Saraswathi whose statues and icons are usually depicted holding this instrument. This veena is most commonly used for the Carnatic Music of South India. The design and model of this veena are extremely special and created with fine, intricate details. These are carved from a single wooden piece and lavishly decorated.

The foot-fret board is two and a half inches and it merges entirely into a large wooden resonator that is placed on the right side of the musician. This is also supported by a smaller gourd placed on the left side that serves as an anchor for the instrument. Specially treated wax is also used for this purpose. The left side contains 5 of the 7 main pegs of the instrument. The right side of the instrument is the core and it acts like a resonator that helps in amplifying sounds and holding notes for longer durations. This further contributes to creating a deep and sonorous tune of the instrument.

3. Vichitra Veena: This veena is used for Hindustani music and is considered to be similar to the Carnatic gottuvadhyam or chitra veena. This instrument is played with the help of a slide and contains no frets. It was often used to accompany the Dhrupad style of singing and as a result, not much intricacy or embellishment was allowed around the notes. Dr. LalmaniMisra, who developed technique of playing this instrument and created Misrabani compositions helped in preventing this veena from fading into oblivion. Further, it was his son, Dr. Gopal Shankar Misra, that helped in making the repertoire universal.

Chitra Veena: This veena is usually used in Carnatic music in South India and many times, it can also be used as a solo instrument in Carnatic music. It is also known as- gottuvadhyam, chitravina, chitra vina, or mahanataka vina. The Chitra veena literally means ‘block instrument.’

In its general form, the Chitra veena resembles the Saraswathi veena, however itconsists of 21 strings wherein 6 are used for the melody, 3 are the drone strings, and 12 sympathetic strings. It is also fretless which makes it extremely close to vocal standards.

Even though the Chitra veena has its own set of uniqueness, the tuning of this veena is similar to a sitar and the method of playing is similar to that of a lap guitar. Apart from its main usage as a musical instrument, these days the veena is also used as a decoration piece or gifting item. Miniature versions of the veena are made and sold in the market for this purpose. These have gained significant popularity, especially in South India, since the veena is the an essential part of Carnatic music and can be seen as a cultural symbol.

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Significance

The veena occupies a central position in Carnatic music, therefore it has a rich cultural significance. Moreover, various festivals are also celebrated in South India that promote artists who play the veena and draw upon crowds from all over the word.

The wooden resonator, acoustic cavity, top-plate with the bridge, and strings with twenty four fret supports placed in a logarithmic manner- these are the main components of a veena. The direct sound is radiated by a plucked string and the energy is transferred through the bridge to the top plate to the acoustic cavity and finally to the wooden resonator.

The wooden resonator and acoustic cavity play an integral role in the process of sound radiation. The acoustic cavity consists of its own independent dynamic properties and further  adds an additional stiffness to the overall system. The acoustic waves excite the structure when the acoustic impedance of the air cavity is close to the structural impedance. Thus, the vibration of the structure introduces acoustic pressure inside the air cavity. This phenomenon continues under coupling conditions which depend upon the acoustic and structural natural frequencies and spatial match of the mode shapes. This is termed as structural-acoustic coupling. Thereby making the acoustic cavity and wooden resonator two significant components that can be analyzed and studies as a whole structural-acoustic coupled problem.

The frequency range of the veena is 80 to 6500 Hz and it spans over three and a half octaves.In 2001, P.P. Rao studied the musical notes produced on Veena which are based on the physical and mathematical formulations associated with the vibrations of stretched strings andC.V. Raman studied the geometric significance and effect of bridge on sound radiation.

The music produced by the veena and is beautiful geometric designs not only have a cultural significance but also an academic significance in our country.

The Geographical Indication (GI) tag given to these veenas has also helped in ensuring their authenticity and preventing counterfeit products to take over the market and reduce their profits. This tag also makes these veenas extremely popular and significant, not only in India but all over the world.

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Myths & Legends

It is believed that sound resides in every nook and crevice of this universe, within all moveable and immovable objects, possessing the same quality as space or ‘aakash.’ Thus, various Indian musicians and masters defined sound as ‘nad’ or ‘nad brahma’ or ‘cosmic sound.’ The speed or gati of the music also play an integral role in music creation and the same are used in music in the form of swar (note) and laya. Thus, music is considered to be a natural art that emerges from the very birth of human beings.

Since the vocal cord has been granted to each and every individual by God, it is believed that the vocal cord is the primary and natural source of music. Our ancient masters have termed the vocal cord as ‘gatra veena’ or bodily instrument for this purpose. Thereby, all stringed instruments were created and envisaged on the basis of the human vocal cord.

According to another point of view, music has been created by Brahma who is the creator of the Vedas. After this creation, Brahma handed over the art form to Lord Shiva who then handed it over to Saraswathi. This is why Saraswathi is also referred to as ‘Veena Vandini.’ Narad, who was a great Gandharva sage, learnt the art from Saraswathi and taught it to other Gandharvas and the Kinnaras. Then Bharat, Hanuman and others mastered this art and propagated its usage all over the world. The term ‘Gandharava’ was used as a synonym for music or 35 sangeet. Tumbaru, a great sage, was believed to be the best amongst the Gandharavas. There are many references to other great Gandharvas such as Kambal, Ashvatar and Narada and their expertise at playing the Kachchhapi Veena.

Goddess Saraswathi is considered to be one of the most important figures for music in Hindu mythology since she symbolizes knowledge and a love for music. There are various prayers that have been devoted in her praise of her.

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“Salutations to Devi Saraswati, Who is pure white like Jasmine, with the coolness of Moon, brightness of Snow and shine like the garland of Pearls; and Who is covered with pure white garments, Whose hands are adorned with Veena (a stringed musical instrument) and the boon-giving staff; and Who is seated on pure white Lotus, Who is always adored by Lord Brahma, Lord Acyuta (Lord Vishnu), Lord Shankara and other Devas, O Goddess Saraswati, please protect me and remove my ignorance completely.”

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History

The Indian culture has an extensive historical background that depicts the evolution of music and in particular, the significance of the veena. These historical facts can be derived from excavations, inscriptions and seals found at the site of the Indus Valley Civilization and other ancient scriptures with specific references related to music of that time.

In the pre-Vedic civilisation, the excavation site showed traces of a flute, a stringed instrument similar to the veena and a music instrument made out of leather. In addition to this, there were also some figurines of dancing women extracted from the site of the Indus civilization. The conclusion drawn from this was that these individuals were civilized and cultured and made use of instruments for their amusment and used dance as a form of expressing joy and happiness.

The Rig Veda, which is the oldest of all Vedas, contains references about a stringed instrument such as the Veena. During that time, it was referred to as ‘Van’ and this ‘van’ was the source of all veenas that came into being later on. The Vedas also contained references of the different types of ‘van.’ Vans from one-string (Ek Tantri) to hundred-string (Shapt Tantri) were prevalent at the time. In the initial phase the strings were made up of ‘Munj’ (one type of grass). The 13 wooden frame of Van was made from Udundar or Gullar wood and it was covered by red skin leather of ox or bullock. The ten holes were made below the wooden frame, through which the strings made up of ten grass threads inserted. “From this ‘Van’, later on, one-string, two-string, and seven-string Veenas were made.

After the Rig Veda, the Yajur Veda Samhita provides us with a description of music. In this text, for the very first time, the word ‘veena’ has been used. Therefore, it was during the period of this text that ‘van’ came about to be known as ‘veena.’ Since that time, the veena and its prevalence has continued.

It is believed that the human vocal cord is god-gifted and hence is called the ‘devi veena.’ The Manushi (man-made) veena is modelled after the devi veena and is also called as the Daravi Veena. The Aaranyakas contains a detailed description of manufacturing methods, types, shapes, and various parts of the Veena made from wood. For example, the methods of making the Tumba or a gourd-like portion of a Veena, dand (stick), its holes and the strings are mentioned.

Various historical figures are also known to have a close association with the Veena. Charumitra, the maid servant of Tishya Rakshita, the wife of King Ashoka, was known to be an excellent Veena player.Samudragupta, who was Chandragupta’s son, was also an excellent veena player. It was also said that during this period, the magical power of music increased manifold and classical music started gaining widescale acclaim.

All the way from the sculptures found in Barhut and Amaravathi to today’s commercial trade- the veena has been an extremely fascinating instrument for sculpting. In different time periods, the veena has been depicted in different shapes and sizes. Therefore, the construction and design of a veena offer significant evidence of the time period it was built in.

The earlier Veena was in the shape of a boat or a bow. It was a harp-like instrument with open strings (called Jya) made out of guts. This instrument is mentioned in Tamil literature and is described as 'Yazh'. Even by the 7thcentury AD, we find an evolution in the early Veena, held vertically, with a resonator at the base, and plucked open strings. This is the 'Parivadhini Veena' for which the Kudimiyamalai inscription of music lessons in the seven root ragas was designed by Rudracharya at the command of the Pallava King Mahendra Vikrama Varman I, in Pudukkotai, Tamilnadu.

Therefore, we can conclude that the veenas have a rich historical significance in Indian culture, especially in South India.

Design

The veena has a total of 7 strings wherein 4 of them are the main strings that pass over the feet and are attached to the pegs on the neck and the remaining 3 are used for drone and rhythmic accompaniment. These strings pass over an arched bridge made of brass and lie flat over the top of the body and aresecured to the main bridge.

The position for playing the veena is usually cross-leggedwith the instrument held tilted slightly away from the player.The small gourd on the left rests on the player’s left thigh and 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. Sometimes the performer sits cross-legged upon the ground as before but holds the veena vertically. M.S. Subbulakshmi, a renowned singer with the placed the body of the instrument in front of him or on his lap. This method of playing is more popular in Andhra Pradesh.

Like the sitar, the left hand technique involves playing on the frets, controlled pushing on the strings to achieve higher tones, glissandi through increased tension, and finger flicks, all reflecting the characteristics of various ragas and their ornamentation (gamaka). Modern innovations include one or two circular sound holes (like that of the flute), substitution of machine heads for wooden pegs for easier tuning, and the widespread use of transducers for performance amplification.

The famous Seshanna and Subbanna of Mysore, Venkataramana Das of Vizianagaram, Dhanammal of Madras and the Karaikudi brothers Subbaraniier and SambasivaIyer, have been the greatest exponents of the veena in the south.

Though the traditional Veena making is followed by the craftsmen, they also adapt to changes that are demanded by the customers. For the past 15-20 years, the peacock Veenas have been manufactured by these craftsmen.

Along with professional and ornamental Veenas, these craftsmen also make Swarnamandal, Tambura, Tabla set, Violin and Sitar. They have also started making some products in rosewood as demanded by the customers. These craftsmen do not experiment and primarily focus on creating new things on the demands of the customer.

In order to maintain a continuity in our cultural heritage and preserve this unique craftsmanship, the Craft Development Centre was set up in 1994 for the manufacture of Bobbili Saraswathi Veenas in different designs and the ‘Gift Veenas’ in different sizes and designs. This has ensured that our traditional handicrafts do not decline in the face of modernization and global trends.

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Challenges

In rural India, gender stratification and sex preference are the most fundamental problems that impact the lives of the citizens. Even though education is provided to both male and female children, in a case where the resources are less, the males are given more preference. However, one cannot deny the progress that has taken place. These days women are seenhelping their family in work. They act as the actual backbone and driving force for the development of the family and are seen helping their male counterparts in fields,shops, households, and other places.

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