The Veena's Place In The North and The South

I am not a veena expert though I have looked at it and sometimes touched it, perhaps thus unwittingly reserving a seat in some heaven. But the topic assigned to me doesn't call for expertise in playing the veena but only in conducting a survey. I have gathered facts from various sources and done some analysis. I will present what little I know.

Dr. R. Sathyanarana, who spoke yesterday was concerned with the sacred; I am bound to address the mundane, if not the profane. Dr. Sathyanarayana's realm was cultural anthropology,- mine can be described as sociology. Wazir Ali I have taken the turn of the century, more or less, as my starting point. First I'll deal with the shift in the status or position of the veena in the north, before I proceed south. When I say veena, I refer mainly to the Rudra Veena and the Saraswati veena, although what I have to say would seem to apply equally to the vichitra veena and the chitraveena (gottuvadya).

As I understand it, the been tradition in the north has not only been associated with divinities, as indicated by Ustad Asad Ali Khan yesterday, but also with the dhrupad tradition. Ustad Allauddin Khan and Ustad Rajab Ali Khan were two of the stalwarts who emerged out of the centres of excellence devoted to the been tradition.

 Rampur was a centre or nodal point where great beenkar-s like Wazir Ali Khan were the crown jewels. Allauddin Khan Saheb absorbed the beenkar tradition there, although he himself was initially not allowed to handle the veena. As many of you may know, he refused to make the veena his instrument when he was later allowed to do so by his ustad.

Allauddin Khan Saheb also served as a great transit point for the beenkar tradition, of the Senia gharana. Although he did not play the been himself, he could play a hundred other instruments, including many of his own creation, and including also some East-West hybrids. What is more significant is that, by adding an extra string or two to the sarod and the sitar, and by making needed adjustments to some others, he made them suitable vehicles for dhrupad-based instrumental music. Thus it is that, Ali Akbar Khan Saheb and Pandit Ravi Shankar became the onward carriers of the dhrupad-beenkar tradition. This was, as I see it, a significant turning point and ironical too. For, thanks especially to Allauddin Khan's inventive mind, the Rudra veena has been replaced by other instruments even with regard to dhrupad-based music.

Rajab Ali Khan of the Jaipur gharana was a great beenkar and he trained others to Zia Mob. become excellent beenkar-s. Among them was his son Musharraf Khan and his grandson Sadiq Ali Khan. Sadiq Ali Khan in turn trained his son Asad Ali Khan, whose artistry we were witness to at this samaroh. We could note that he handled the Rudra veena as it should be, sitting in the vaira Dahir asana position and holding the veena vertically.

Other beenkar-s of note in earlier times were Dabir Khan and Birendra Kishore Roy Chowdhury, Zamindar of Gauripur. Ustad Zia Mohiuddin Dagar, who was honoured by the M.P. Government before he passed away in 1990, was a beenkar as well as a vocalist. I had the privilege of meeting and knowing him in the United States. Despite his musical excellence, he was faulted for keeping the veena in a horizontal position while playing it. Perhaps what he did was symbolic of the shift in the veena's own position in the hierarchy of popular instruments: it was no longer standing up; it had fallen to a prone position.

In regard to the vichitra veena, the late Lalmani Mishra was an outstanding exponent and we have some three or four others still upholding the prestige of the instrument. I might mention Pandit Gopal Krishna Sharma, a disciple of Pandit Ravi Shankar, who served All India Radio for many years; Pandit Gopal Shankar Mishra, son of Lalmaniji; and Ramesh Prem.

But prestige is one thing; popularity is another. It is a fact, sad but true, that, with the decline of interest in dhrupad and the ascendancy of khayal, the veena has taken a back seat, its association with divinities like Siva notwithstanding.

The romanticism of khayal has captured the hearts of music lovers and, except a few, they have no place in their hearts either for dhrupad or for the veena.

In this age where the love of excitement has virtually replaced the search for tranquility, the Rudra veena faces an uncertain future, perhaps even a bleak feature. Even more striking than the feature that there are only a few practitioners, is the fact that few come forward to learn to play it. Today Asad Ali Khan Saheb is virtually a lone ranger, even if the whole world is his domain. Before I discuss what, if any, can be done to alter this situation, I would like to present the facts in regard to the south.

 The veena that has been in vogue in the south for some 300 years is the Tanjavur veena, also referred to as the Raghunatha veena. This is the veena as perfected by Govinda Dikshitar, father of Venkatamakhi, the architect of the melakarta scheme. It is today commonly known as the Saraswati veena.

 Dr. R. Sathyanarayana said in his talk that the veena is the most sacred symbol of Indian culture. Indeed it is the instrument that represents the cultural ethos of the nation.

It may not be an exaggeration to say that this fact is deepseated in the psyche of the people in the south. Raja Ravi Varma's picturisation of Goddess Saraswati holding the veena close to her bosom can be found  in its calendar version-s— in virtually every Hindu home. And with picturisations of some other divinities, it can be found in almost all Hindu commercial establishments as well.

If the veena is held in the highest esteem and virtually regarded as a 'divine' instrument even today in the south, it is because of its association with the divinities, though among the scholarly, some other factors may also carry weight.

The veena's association with vocal music has been another factor. According to B.C. Deva: "In a way, [the Saraswati veena] is the only self-contained veena today.... [This] veena has in itself swara, raga and tala - a potentiality which no other instrument has." [Musical Instruments, 1993 reprint). Perhaps this is why the veena is still considered as the instrument most capable of reflecting the key elements of singing, though it has been replaced as an accompanying instrument by the violin. I am not sure whether this particular description is quite accurate. Remember what Prof. Visweswaran said about the advantage conferred on the veena by the contact microphone in terms of making it more pliable an instrument for imitating vocal music.

Thirdly, great vaggeyakara-s like Muthuswami Dikshitar used the veena in composing songs and music. The cadence of the music of Dikshitar is very much linked to the cadence of music played on the veena.

Fourthly and this is very important  in Carnatic music, the veena has been given a significant role in teaching. For example, the veena has been considered the perfect instrument to demonstrate the different gamaka-s.

These factors in fact contributed to the veena, to some extent, influencing the style of vocal music. Presenting vocal music in a manner that mirrored music produced on the veena came to be considered the norm. It still is considered so by many. The other source of influence is the music played on the nagaswara which has shown the way to a more expansive treatment of the music, of the alapana, in particular.

 The pervasive presence of the veena in Carnatica can also be attributed to the factor that the south has produced a number of great vainika-s, as well as distinctive and unique stylistic variations.

 Over the generations, three broad styles emerged, namely the Tanjavur bani, the Mysore bani and the Andhra bani. (The outstanding vainika-s belonging to the Malayalam country are generally considered to represent the Tanjavur bani.)

The distinctive aspects of these major streams has been set out in an article in Sruti (April 1984) by Radhika Rajnarain of Bangalore.

The Tanjavur bani has been upheld by many stalwarts, but with individual touches. The legendary Veena Dhanammal is considered to have presented the quintessence of the Tanjavur tradition. The Karaikudi Brothers, Subbarama Iyer and Sambasiva Iyer, represented the artistic culmination of 10 generations of the Tanjavur tradition. Their approach is maintained with some individual touches by Rajeswari Padmanabhan and more faithfully by Ranganayaki Rajagopalan.

 S. Balachander too belonged to the Tanjavur tradition, even though he was a highly individualistic vainika. Others who should be mentioned in this context are K.S. Narayanaswamy and K.P. Sivanandam.

 Broadly falling within the same tradition were the outstanding vainika-s produced by the village called Manjapara, near Palakkad in Kerala. Of these, the last in line was M.K. Kalyanakrishna Bhagavatar, who died a couple of years ago.

The Mysore tradition gained distinction through the achievements of outstanding vainika-s like Seshanna, Subbanna, Venkatagiriappa, Doreswamy Iyengar and M.J. Srinivasa Iyengar. Prof. R. Visveswaran, who has a highly individualistic style, is proud to belong to the source of the great tradition but he prefers to describe his bani as his own.

The Telugu country has also yielded many outstanding veena vidwans. Notable among them have been Veena Venkatramana Das of Vijayanagaram, who was famous for his shatkala or sixspeed tana-s and who preferred to hold the veena in the vertical position (even as Karaikudi Subbarama Iyer did later); Sangameswara Sastry; Vasa Krishnamurti; and Manchala Jagannatha Rao. Again, Emani Sankara Sastry of this school, exhibited uniquely individual traits. Chittibabu, a distinguished disciple of Emani, died recently.

 This pride of great vainika-s attracted respect and held aloft the status of the veena, while the stylistic variations added spice to veena music.

In regard to the gottuvadya, it has grown in stature, thanks to stalwarts like Tiruvidaimarudu Sakharama Rao, K.S. Narayana Iyengar, Budalur Krishnamurty Sastry, A. Narayana Iyer and Mannargudi Savitri Ammal. N. Ravikiran, young but a master nevertheless, is the leading gottuvadya player today— he prefers to call the instrument chitraveena— and he is inspiring a few others to take up this difficult instrument.

 Despite the heights reached by its exponents, the veena was yet a chamber music instrument and, with the decline of chamber music and its virtual replacement by large concert hall performances, the appeal of veena music itself appears to have declined.

When S. Balachander began using the contact microphone some three or for decades ago— he demonstrated that the veenacould project music powerfully in a large concert hall also. The contact mike conferred some other advantages also. While the veena has always been considered capable of reproducing the sahitya and expert players gave emphasis to uchcharippu or articulation of the syllables, yet, in the hands of most practitioners in the south, it was inadequate to reproduce the musical aspects fully, the vocalisms. The contact mike has perhaps helped to overcome this apparent inadequacy.

Regrettably, Balachander's pioneering step has not helped to make veena music popular because, over the years, there has been a secular decline in the audience for classical music concerts of all kinds, even of vocal music. Summing up, the veena has had a better wicket in the south, but even here the rectangle is becoming sticky. While there are some established as well as very bright young vainika-s on the scene, the audience is rather limited. This, however, does not seem to have reduced the interest in learning. There are literally hundreds of young people learning to play the veena and most of them seem to be doing so well aware that they would likely never get opportunities, except rarely, to perform in the public. The radio is their best hope.

I now turn to some suggestions made in the Note prepared by sitarist Arvind Parikh and circulated by the organisers of this samaroh. I refer particularly to the suggestion that, while the 'matter' of music need not change, veena players need to modify the "manner" of presentation to meet changing audience expectations. "This is not to say that we should encourage playing to the gallery," explains the Note, "but surely one can envisage a deep and keener study of how to make veena music more interesting, a little bit outgoing...."

 In general, this advice may seem unexceptionable but there is the further proposal that the tempo or laya of the gat presentation (in Hindustani music) should be gradually increased or heightened (as is done with other instruments), leading to a crescendo or climax. Supposedly, this could be done without cheapening the quality of "our ancient tradition". The prescription is summed up as a call for a little more 'dignified excitement'. I suggest this is a contradiction in terms.

I would also point out that this approach is at variance with the ethos of Indian music which emphasises serenity, as against excitement.

 And in this context, I would say further: let us leave this climax business alone; let it remain the preserve of Western literature on sex.

 Yet I agree something needs to be done. The aim should be to create an audience for the 'dignified music' of the veena. For that matter, for Indian classical or art music in general.

 The problem is that the audience for recital hall performances is declining. It is a case of attrition. As the elder generation of listeners dwindles, as an unavoidable concomitant of ageing and death, replacement by new youthful entrants is less than adequate. The Ministry of Education of the GOI has pointed out how the youths of our country are alienated from our rich traditions. Thus it is that they, a large percentage of the urban youth at least, turn their backs on our traditional culture and art-forms and seek excitement in the Western popular music of various kinds. They have to be weaned back before we can expect them to begin to appreciate our wonderful musical heritage. It is not easy to do this because, even while the Governments' educational policy seeks to promote a scientific temper, we tend to mix up mythology and history when we talk about our music— even when we talk about it to our youngsters. The youngsters are confused, not enlightened.

While some thought has been given to this aspect, no concrete action programme has been launched yet.

SPIC-MACAY has, of course, been trying to bring the young into the cultural 'mainstream'. But, regrettably, it has little to show by way of practical results. I mean, in terms of large youth attendance of classical music concerts not organised by it. I suspect that this is so because SPIC-MACAY too is caught up in the 'star' syndrome.

Another feature needing attention is the blitz of cheap values projected on the home screen. The problem stares us in the face and strategies and attempts to overcome them are urgently needed. If they succeed, veena will also benefit, along with classical music in general.

I started with a reference to Dr. R. Sathyanarayana's talk. I hope that you can now see that what he said and what I have said are connected. We cannot envision the future without recovering our past, but we cannot build the future by merely dwelling on the past. There is no point merely talking about the glory of the past, or glory of the veena. The past must inspire the vision of the future rather than serve as a substitute for action.

Some Renowned Masters

Asad Ali Khan

Ustad Asad Ali Khan is virtually the only renowned player of the Rudra veena today. His family reaches back seven generations to the 18th century, but he is even more proud that the 'history' of the veena goes back at least 5000 years.

 Khan Saheb's ancestors were musicians in the court of Jaipur. Some of the musical instruments displayed in the museums in Jaipur and Alwar are reported to have belonged to these ancestors.

His great-grandfather Rajab Ali Khan of Jaipur, his grandfather Musharraf Khan, and his father Sadiq Ali Khan were all well-known beenkar-s and court musicians in Alwar. Sadiq Ali Khan later moved to the court in Rampur and it was there that Asad Ali Khan began his intensive 15 year training under his father. During this time, he practised at least 14 hours a day. Khan Saheb is the only surviving exponent of the Khandar bani. One of the four ancient styles of Indian music, this style derives its name from Khanda, a weapon of Rajasthan known for its precision, sharpness and force. The other aspect of his music is his adherence to the dhrupad form in playing the veena.

While Khan Saheb's technique and virtuosity are praiseworthy, his music is even more notable for the purity of style, its contemplative character and the serenity it evokes. A top-graded radio performer, he has been giving recitals both at home and abroad. He has performed in Afghanistan, Australia, England, Italy, the Netherlands and the U.S.A., among other countries. And critics both in India and abroad have lavished praise on him. He was described by one critic as "a musician with a mind." Asad Ali Khan lives in the nation's capital where he teaches music at the University of Delhi. He also conducts courses on veena-play in the U.S.

 He has won several awards over the years, including the Sangeet Natak Akademi award and the Tansen Samman. While music has certainly been a career for him, bringing fame and fortune, Khan Saheb, who was born in 1937, insists that music is in essence a form of prayer and that a musician has moral obligation to offer his music as a gift of peace and joy to all who listen to it.

Gottuvadyam Narayana Iyengar

K .S. Narayana Iyengar (1906- 1959), hailed as "the greatest ever" gottuvadya player, was an outstanding instrumentalist in the realm of Carnatic music. Although he showed keen interest in music at a very early age, he started learning it only when he was 14 years old. His first tutor was Kodaganallur K.S. Subbiah Bhagavatar. Later he received advanced training from Harikesanallur Muthiah Bhagavatar and gottuvadya vidwan Tiruvidaimarudur Sakharama Rao.

 He was enthusiastic about vocal music, as well as painting and photography, but it was the gottuvadya that attracted him the most. Through assiduous practice, he attained mastery over it, and, in the event, he and the instrument became inseparable in the minds of Carnatic music enthusiasts.

He died prematurely at the age of 53, but during the three decades plus of his performing career, he won both respect and admiration. He was featured in most of the major music conferences and festivals. He, in fact, participated in the cultural programme of the meeting of the Indian National Conference in Madras in 1927 which led to the establishment of the Music Academy in Madras. Narayana Iyengar performed not only all over India, but also abroad in Burma, Ceylon Narayana Iyengar (as Sri Lanka was then called), and Malaya.

Narayana Iyengar was top-ranked by All India Radio for which he performed regularly, including in the National Programme and the Sangeet Sammelan. His music can be heard today in AIR rebroadcasts, as well as in the 78 rpm discs he cut. Represented in the latter are Mokshamu galada (Saramati), Paiama pavana Rama (Poorvikalyani) and Vaishnava janato, Narsi Mehta's composition in Sindhubhairavi which became a favourite of Mahatma Gandhi.

Awards and titles he received include: Nadabrahma Vidya Varidhi and Gottuvadya Kalanidhi. The gottuvadya artistry of Narayana Iyengar was admired by royalty as well as common people, and by poets as well as political leaders. This is what Sarojini Naidu, the poetess of freedom, said about him. "In his hands, the gottuvadyam ceases to be an instrument, it becomes a subtle, living voice, capable of expressing every nuance of human passion." This living voice became still on the morning of 11 January 1959, soon after he played a recital for AIR Bangalore.

Narayana Iyengar's son N. Narasimhan, as well as his grandson N. Ravikiran, are maintaining the tradition established by him. Narasimhan plays the gottuvadya for the Vadya Vrinda of AIR-Madras. Ravikiran, is of course, the leading and best-known gottuvadya vidwan today. It is he who rechristened the instrument as chitraveena.

Laimani Misra

The vichitra veena is not an instrument easily mastered and, perhaps for this reason, there have not been too many wellknown exponents who have earned great reputations as players of this instrument. At the same time, the vichitra veena lends itself beautifully to the nuances of Indian art music. Artists who have mastered this instrument have been known for their classicism and traditional approach to music.

 One of the great players of the vichitra veena was the late Pandit Laimani Misra, who was born on the 11 August 1924 in a middle class Kanyakubja brahmin family. Even during his childhood, his parents could discern Lalmani's fascination with music and his aspirations in that direction. He had a natural talent for music and was very hard working, and these qualities enabled him, over time, to attain recognition as a luminous personality in music.

Even at a young age, Laimani learnt nearly 1500 dhrupad compositions from his guru, Swami Pramodananda Brahmachari. Later he learnt the khayal style from Mehndi Hussain Khan, a disciple of Wazir Khan who was a descendant of the illustrious Mian Tansen. He also learnt the Banarasi style of thumri from Pandeyji.

Laimani was still in his teens, when he became a victim of professional jealousy. Reportedly he had his vocal chords ruined when he chewed 'paan' containing vermillion which had been given to him. This forced him to turn to instrumental music for pursuing his musical inclinations He learnt to play the tabla from Shyam Babu and the sitar from Sukhdev Ray. He also learnt the jalatarang and was an All India Radio artist of this instrument. But none of these could really satisfy his creative urge. Thus, when in the late forties, he heard Abdul Aziz Khan playing the vichitra veena, he felt that this was the instrument which could respond to his imaginative and creative abilities.

Laimani Misra's first concert in 1949 at the Maris College (now the Bhatkhande Music College) in Lucknow was highly praised by S.N. Ratanjankar, the founder of the college. To start with, Misra used to play only alap and jod on the vichitra veena. But when he joined the dance troupe of Uday Shankar, one of the early cultural ambassadors of India, as music director  he functioned in this position from 1951 to 1954  he was exposed to a whole new world of experimentation regarding tonal qualities. With this experience behind him, Misra later on concentrated on improving the tonal quality of his instrument as well as the playing technique for the vichitra veena.

Misra's service in the field of music was multifaceted. He established a children's music research centre in Kanpur, as well as the Kanpur Orchestral Society. In 1947, he founded the Gandhi Sangeet Mahavidyalaya, perhaps the first music college in the country to bear the name of Gandhiji. He also served as Secretary of the Sangeet Parishad and Registrar of the Gandharva Mahamandal in Bombay.

In the year 1958, Omkarnath Thakur got Misra, almost by force, to join the Faculty of Performing Arts in the Banaras Hindu University, and establish an instrumental music department. This period saw Misra become almost a revolutionary on the academic front. It was here that he invented and built the 'sruti veena' and, using its frets a musician could produce all the 22 srutis. In 1974, Misra took up a project focussed on the music of the Sama Veda. The objective was to preserve all the living traditional recitations of Samagana. On the basis of the swara-s or the notes heard in the Sama Veda, he invented a new raga which he named as Sameswari. He invented some other raga-s as well— Madhubhairav, Baleswari, Shyam Behag, Jog-Todi and Madhukali. Lalmani Misra was basically a dhrupad artist and he was much concerned about the uplift of dhrupad. He initiated the first ever dhrupad festival in Varanasi in 1974, an event which still takes place annually.

There were other achievements as well to Misra's credit. He was the producer, director, script writer and music director of an opera titled Meera. He composed the memorable ballets on Ramayana and Buddha for Uday Shankar. He authored the book Bharatiya Sangeet Vadya published by Bharatiya Jnanpecth, Delhi. He also wrote Tantri-Nad, perhaps the only book available on different types of compositions for the sitar and an updated history of the sitar. Misra trained several disciples in different instruments like the vichitra veena, sitar, santoor, tabla, sarod, flute, jaltarang and violin, apart from vocal music.

Misra felt keenly the need for improving the facilities for holding music concerts and for helping musicians. He wanted wellequipped halls in cities where concerts could be held. He suggested the setting up of institutions of higher learning in music (like the conservatories in the West). He also pleaded for better service conditions for musicians in government service, grant of scholarships at the Central and State levels to young artists, formation of a union of musicians at state and national levels and separate channels on radio and tv for classical music.

Lalmani Misra passed away on 17 July 1979. The Madhukali Samsthan conducted a samaroh exclusively focussed on Pandit Lalmani Misra, 11-13 August 1995 in Bhopal. The Samsthan was formed in 1983 in memory of Lalmani Misra and has been holding such samaroh-s every year. It is also committed to the propagation of choir singing or vrinda gaan.

The vichitra veena tradition of Lalmani Misra is being carried on by his son and disciple Dr. Gopal Shankar Misra, who has a master's and a doctoral degree in music. An A-grade artist of AIR and Doordarshan, he plays the sitar as well as the vichitra veena. He also gives vocal recitals (dhrupad, khayal and light music) and performances on the santoor. He has composed several orchestral pieces and acted in two plays. Presently a Reader in the Faculty of the Performing Arts at the Banaras Hindu University, he has published several articles and a book on music for children.