A brief history of the Veena

The veena is considered the queen of Indian musical ninstruments. Its history can be traced to the time of the ‘Vedas’, which describe it as ‘the embodiment of beauty and prosperity’. Occupying the premier position among the celebrated ‘Vadyatrayam’ – the Veena, Venu and Mridangam – the instrument is also mentioned in the ‘sutras’ and ‘arayankas’, the sacred books of the Vedic period. The present form of the veena is a polyphonous instrument designed and developed by Govinda Dikshitar during the reign of Raghunath Naik of Tanjore. It is often called the Tanjore veena or the Saraswati Veena.

In ancient times, the term ‘veena’ was used for all stringed instruments. All stringed instruments are believed to have originated from the hunter’s bow, having since passed through several stages of evolution. After its transformation from the primitive bow, the veena spawned numerous string instruments throughout the country ranging from the single-stringed ‘brahma veena’ to the multi stringed ‘Shatatantri Veena’ more commonly called the ‘santoor’.

The music of the veena is infused with qualities of divinity, gentleness, peace and sensuality.


The Repertoire

Saraswati or the Tanjore Veena

The veena has a fretted finger-board with four strings for playing the notes and three drone-cum-‘tala’ strings. ‘Nada’, the melody of the veena, is infused into the instrument from its inception, but the ‘dhvani’ or the sound produced, depends on the playing technique.

A versatile instrument, the veena can be played in various styles such as classical, light music, bhajans or even western music with equal ease. Its seven strings affect the ‘saptaswaras’ or the seven primary notes of Indian music. The veena’s four main strings run over the metallic frets and are attached to pegs on the neck of the instrument. The three side strings lie flat over the top of the body and are secured to the main bridge. The instrument is held on the ground, longitudinally, in front of the player, and partially supported by the left thigh.

Veena playing requires an elaborate finger technique. It is considered the perfect instrument for effectively employing the technique of playing on two ‘sthayis’ or octaves simultaneously. Composers, who were vaineekas, have composed special types of compositions like the ‘tayas’ and ‘chitta tanas’, to help veena players develop finger techniques of the left hand and plucking techniques of the right. Indeed, the distinctive style of presenting Carnatic music has grown largely around the veena, and its many noted musicians, musicologists and composers have been veena players.

Veena, the Divine musical instrument revered through the ages, is the source and vehicle of Nada and of serene and sublime spiritual feelings in ethereal language. It is sonorous in its articulations of a deep musical message.

Its origin can be traced to the Vedic period. The yajnas, rituals and chanting were accompanied by playing of different kinds of veenas and its prescribed tunes. The two most popular epics of India, the Ramayana and Mahabharata contain episodes in which veena figures and so do we learn from different Buddhist text the importance of the veena. The Khantivadi Jataka tells us that Veena formed an important part of an orchestral band (vinadini tuyani). Similarly, the ‘Sakka Panha Sutta’ mention playing of veena along with singing by Gandhaarva Panchasikha before Devendra (Lord of angels) addresses Lord Buddha. Natyasastra of Bharata the most important work on the performing arts of India mentions the origin of Gandharva or the music which pleases the Gandharvas is the song, a veena and a flute. Again in Brahdasi, the 7th Century AD treatie on song and music, Matanga Muni says that 5033 tanas could be produced only either in Satatantri Veena or a veena with 36 strings. Matanga known as ‘Chaitrika’ was himself a player of Chitra veena. Other musc treaties like the 2nd century AD Tamil Silappadikaram and the encyclopaedic work Abhilasitartha Chintamani of Chalukya king Someshwara of 12th Century deals with music and dance and stresses the importance of the instrument.

The Veena, central to our heritage of music, represents the confluence of the science of musical sounds and the Indic philosophy of harmony and tranquility. It is the quintessential symbol of the musical and spiritual traditions of India – an acoustic vehicle for spiritual voyaging.