Even before the pandemic, the gigantic, gorgeous, hand-made Saraswati veenas of Southern India were at risk of extinction. Meenakshi J explores how this centuries-old instrument, and the craftspeople who make it, are trying to adapt with the times.
“Veena-making is a laborious process and involves a lot of skill and precision,” says 70-year-old M. Narayanan, one of the few remaining makers of India’s national musical instrument, as he welcomes me into his home and backyard workshop in Thanjavur, some 350 kilometers south of Chennai. “Our family has been conscientiously handcrafting this divine instrument for over three generations now.”
Diligently and skillfully cut, chiseled, shaped and assembled out of the highest-quality jackfruit wood, beeswax and charcoal, the Saraswati veena, with its four-foot-long wooden body, is considered sacred—and has even bagged the first GI (Geographical Indication) tag for any Indian classical instrument.
As Narayanan, who’s won awards for his craft, excuses himself to take a call, M. Murugesan, Narayanan’s apprentice for the last 40 years, pitches in. “Every handcrafted veena takes at least a month from start to finish,” he says.
For Narayanan and Murugesan, and the few remaining craftspeople like them, making this instrument is a labor of love, and turning passion into profit hasn’t been easy. “Of late, there’s been a dearth of good-quality jackfruit trees in and around Thanjavur as most of the groves have been converted to residential plots and sold,” says Narayanan on his return. “Escalating costs and difficulties in procuring raw materials are major reasons for a decline in this craft.”
Another issue is the fact that veena-making isn’t exactly an in-vogue career choice for the younger generations. “They prefer everyday carpentry over this craft, as the daily wage earnings are much higher there,” says Narayanan. “Both my sons have taken up different professions, one in Singapore, the other in Chennai. This family craft is about to end with me.”
Thanjavur, perhaps best known for the Brihadishvara Temple, is the spiritual and literal home of the Saraswati veena, which takes its moniker from Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of learning, art and wisdom (who’s often depicted holding it).
During the first stages of veena-making, jackfruit wood is chopped using a hatchet, its pulp scooped out with scalpels then chiseled into a deep gourd-shape. Then comes the neck, the tuning box (which extends into an ornamental dragon’s head), a support for the body, and a bridge for the 24 brass frets, which are embedded with beeswax and charcoal.
A wooden lid then covers the kudam (resonator) over which a wooden bridge is placed to facilitate the passage of metal strings. Intricate carvings adorn the lid and joints, while the strings are wound around giant, beautiful rosewood tuning pegs, and a secondary gourd is attached to the top of the neck. The result is a classical stringed instrument that resembles something like a gigantic, ornate guitar.
The veena is traditionally played in India’s northern and southern regions. The Saraswati veena of southern India is considered a descendant of an early lute and harp, while the veenas of the north are technically related to the European Zither. The veena is one of the oldest Indian musical instruments, dating back to the the first millennium BC, judging by references in Vedic writings.
The most common way of playing a modern Saraswati veena is by holding it in a horizontal position, a little away from the body. A vainika (veena player) sits cross-legged on the floor while the large kudam is placed on the ground to the right, with the secondary gourd (a kind-of pumpkin-shaped leg) resting on the player’s lap. The left arm is then passed beneath the neck so that the fingers rest upon the metallic frets, while the right-hand palm rests at the edge of the kudam.
“Chennai music stores and schools used to place orders for Saraswati veena every two to three months, especially just before the festival season. But this lockdown has forced many events to be cancelled—including the Madras Music Season, the biggest festival of all. We have sold just eight to ten instruments since March when the country went into a lockdown. And there isn’t monetary support from the government for us artisans”.
Sitting in this posture, a vainika uses his or her left hand for the frets, while the right index and middle fingers pluck the four main strings, and the three ‘drone’ strings are played with the right little finger.
As you might have guessed, veena playing is incredibly confusing and difficult for first-timers—it’s not surprising that the veena is considered one of the toughest musical instruments to learn and play.
In the larger room of Narayanan’s workshop, the floor is strewn with various shaped logs, metal tools, sandpaper and cans of varnish, while the smaller room contains antique wooden trunks, probably serving as toolboxes, alongside numerous veena in different stages of their making, neatly stacked against the wall. If not for the lined-up veenas, the place could very well be mistaken for a wayside carpentry shop.
In the earlier days of veena-making, it was common to use rosewood, sandalwood, stag-horn and ivory, but now that most of these are banned, veena makers have switched to jackfruit wood. “The quality of wood is of utmost importance,” Narayanan says.
Today, there are just seven or eight artisan families in Thanjavur—possibly the only ones in the world—who have the expertise to craft these sacred instruments. And the agile, neatly coiffed Narayanan is one of the few aachari (wood craftsmen) who continue to make handcrafted veena from home. Over the decades, hundreds of veena makers have learnt the craft from this handful of aacharis by serving as apprentices, and subsequently branched out to open their own workshops elsewhere.
The recent pandemic and the subsequent lockdown of many months has only added to the woes of these craftsmen. “Chennai music stores and schools used to place orders for Saraswati veena every two to three months, especially just before the festival season,” says Narayanan. “But this lockdown has forced many events to be cancelled—including the Madras Music Season, the biggest festival of all. We have sold just eight to ten instruments since March when the country went into a lockdown. And there isn’t monetary support from the government for us artisans”.
The lifting of the lockdown in phases has brought much cheer to Thanjavur’s veena-makers in the last two months. Orders have started coming in but, in a cruel twist of fate, there are no longer many skilled artisans available.
According to Narayanan, many makers—especially the apprentices—have shifted permanently to carpentry in order to feed their families. Accharis like him have been relegated to making the occasional veena upon request.
“This is an antique art,” Narayanan says. “Of course, you can manufacture violins with machines and use fiber to make electronic veena, but the tonal quality of our handcrafted ones are superior… If the government does not support us, my generation may be the last of the expert veena makers, and this divine stringed instrument will vanish forever.”
Meenakshi J is a freelance writer and blogger who documents cultural and travel stories through art, architecture, heritage, vegetarian food and traditions, combining it with soft adventure and social responsibility. She also reports on people who are passionate about handicrafts and collect heirlooms.