Pocket guidebook to Carnatic music The veena

The veena, with its long history and tradition, is the best known south Indian string instrument, perhaps four centuries old in its present form. It has traditionally been considered most suitable for Carnatic music, as it is capable of producing the gamakas it abounds in with great depth and accuracy.

Four to five feet long, the veena consists of a large, hollow jack wood resonator and a long hollow jack wood neck ending usually in an ornate tailpiece. It has brass frets over which four strings run, bridged at the two ends between the tuning pegs and a small wooden bridge. These strings, used to play the dominant melody, are tuned to the panchama, the tonic shadja and their lower octave counterparts. Three more sympathetic strings, tuned to the tonic shadja in two octaves and the panchama, are used to provide a rhythmic drone. The veena is today held horizontally, with a resting gourd placed on the player’s lap; in earlier times, it was held horizontally. The performer sits crosslegged on the floor and holds the veena in front. The small gourd on the left touches the left thigh, and the left arm passes round the stem, to enable the fingers to rest easy on the frets.

The many parts of the veena—the neck, the stem and the body—are usually made separately and fused together later. A veena made of a single piece of wood is a rarity and therefore treasured. Such a veena is said to be more reverberant than the ordinary kind.


Govinda Dikshitar of the Tanjavur court first constructed a veena with 24 fixed frets, 12 for each octave. This was a key factor in the development of the system of 72 melakarta ragas. As many famous musicians and musicologists of the past were veena players, the techniques of playing the instrument contributed greatly to the evolution of the presentational styles of Carnatic music. The art of tanam playing owes a great deal to the instrument.


Muttuswami Dikshitar was a skilled vainika in the Tanjavur style. The Dhanammal school, pioneered by Veena Dhanammal strove to recreate the voice on the veena. The Karaikudi style, a branch of the Tanjavur style, pioneered by Karaikudi Subbarama Iyer and his brother Sambasiva Iyer, used advanced techniques that could play up to three notes together, and used the tala strings to great effect providing a pulse to the rendering. The Karaikudi school of veena playing has in recent times been best represented by such artistes as Rajeswari Padmanabhan and Ranganayaki Rajagopalan, and now KS Subramaniam, who runs Brhhadhwani, a teaching and research academy. The likes of KS Narayanaswamy and Kalpakam Swaminathan belonged to the Tanjavur school.


The self-taught genius S. Balachander integrated techniques from other styles with his own original, to form a distinctive style marked by long, slow, pondering passages of brilliance and virtuosity. E Gayatri, a child prodigy of the 1970s, later matured into an accomplished senior vidushi.

Venkatasubbayya brought the veena to the Mysore court in the early 19th century, where he was a court musician, and taught it to his descendants, Subbanna and Seshanna. Their style has produced legends like Venkatagiriappa and Mysore Doreswamy Iyengar.

Venkataramanadas, Emani Sankara Sastry and Chittibabu are the prominent vainikas of Andhra. From Kerala emerged MA Kalyanakrishna Bhagavatar and Trivandrum Venkataraman--part of a veena-venu-violin trio with N Ramani and Lalgudi Jayaraman--and Ananthapadmanabhan.

The veena, known for its low volume, is often played with a contact microphone in the present era. After being in the wilderness for over a decade, veena playing seems to be making a comeback to the concert platform, with several talented young musicians making a mark in it.


V Ramnarayan

 Posted by Sruti Magazine   August 03, 2012