A family of musicians in the city of Mysore, in Karnataka, has a unique family heirloom — a beautiful 300-year-old veena. The veena is India’s most ancient Indian stringed instrument.

Instrument with a Human Tone
Instrument with a Human Tone [Illustration by Shiju George]
The veena is a poly chord instrument, that is, it is made of several strings. Each string produces a certain tone, which other strings cannot duplicate. Melody is produced when the strings are plucked.

The Deccan Herald reports that the veena belongs to a family of well-known veena players or vainikas, as they are known. Veena maestro, Veene Shamanna, came from this family. Shamanna was one of the renowned musicians of the Mysore Royal Durbar or Court of the Wodeyar rulers of Mysore, over 300 years ago.

In those days, it was the practice among royal durbars to patronise the best talent of the region. Their prestige and fame depended on their ability to attract talented artists.

Durbars like those at Mysore were the hub of artistic and intellectual activity, and drew the finest musicians, artists and intellectuals of the period, to them.

It was to be part of the charmed circle at Mysore, that Veene Shamanna’s grandfather, Lakshamana Bhagwata travelled from Thanjavur, in Tamil Nadu, in 1728. With him came his prized veena. He was appointed to teach the veena to the princess of the Wodeyar family.

His son, Rama Bhagvata, was an expert in playing the instrument. Then came Veene Shamanna, who became musician-par-excellence in the court of the Wodeyar rulers. He credited a large part of his success to his veena, which by then, had acquired quite a reputation.

Shamanna’s cousin Subramanya Iyer, was the author of the first book on veena in Kannada, ‘Sangeetha Samerasa’. He, too, played the fabled veena.

Veene Shamanna’s instrument is one of the oldest in the country. The surprising thing is, it is still intact. The veena weighs about five kg. Despite having been used by so many people, notes played on the veena are as effective as before.

Saraswati Veena

Veene Shamanna’s veena is an example of the famed Saraswati veena, the queen of all veenas. The Saraswati veena is very versatile and the most beautiful of all veenas. It holds a special place in Carnatic music, the classical music form of south India.

The Saraswati veena’s present structure was developed at Thanjavur around the 17th century. The instrument is made entirely of wood.

In Hindu mythology, the veena is known as the instrument of Goddess Saraswati, just as the flute is that of Lord Krishna. Saraswati is the Goddess of all muses and is known as the veena pustaka dharini or one who holds the divine source of sound and wisdom. That is why no picture, icon or poem of her is complete without the veena and the ‘pustaka’ or book, writes B.C. Deva in ‘Musical Instruments’.

The myth of Saraswati and the veena

A story in the Vedas beautifully illustrates how Saraswati came to be associated with the veena. The gods and asuras (demons) were fighting over Saraswati or Vani (speech) as she was known for she represented the power of sound or speech. Each group wanted the power of her speech for the chanting of mantras in their ‘yagna’ or vedic sacrifice.

But Vani ran away into the forests, and took away speech with her. She made the drum, flute and the stringed instrument or veena speak with her natural voice.

Finally of course, she was convinced to return and serve the yagna as mantra. And that’s how the veena is said to possess a sound that is the closest to the human voice.

Tracing the sound of veena to the hunting bow

The veena is the most ancient stringed instrument known in India. It enjoys a very superior position in the hierarchy of Indian musical instruments.

The first mention of it occurs in the Rig Veda, the earliest example of a literary work in India. The Rig Veda is a compilation of 1028 hymns in homage of the Vedic gods, composed and memorised over 3000 years ago.

The origins of the veena lie in bow-shaped harps. Did you know that the harp, in turn, traces its origins to the hunter’s bow?

The twang of the bowstring probably gave early humans the idea of attaching a set of parallel strings to the same bow. They found that different notes could be obtained and the harp was born as a result of their efforts.

Different kinds and different sounds
The veena has evolved over the centuries and there are many different types played. The ‘villadi vadyam’ found in Tamil Nadu and Kerala is one of the simplest.

The Vedic veena known as the ‘maha’ or great veena, on the other hand, had 100 strings of spun grass and was played with two bamboo pieces!

The Sitar

To the followers of Indian classical music, especially the southern Carnatic music, the mention of veena brings to mind the name of musicians like Veena Balachandar and Chitti Babu, who revealed the genius of the instrument to music lovers.

Today, however, the North Indian version of the veena, the sitar, is more popular. It is a long-necked lute, and could be the invention of 13th century Persian poet-musician, Amir-Khusrau.

But the sitar was not considered a respectable Indian instrument till a century ago. Any outsider who wanted to learn the veena used be taught the sitar by traditional veena ustads (maestros). It was believed to be lowly enough for the learning of those not part of the ustad’s gharana or family.

Now of course, the sitar is the wonder instrument from India. Renowned classical musicians like Pandit Ravi Shankar have brought the sitar centrestage in recitals within Indian and abroad.

The veena, in contrast, seems to have entered a quieter phase. It is as if it is waiting for Saraswati to speak through it again.