Clutching the Intangible: Conserving Veena

By Ragini Trivedi



From the ancient lore and legends to its modern practice, music has been appreciated and practiced by the learned and uninitiated alike. The most universal of performing arts, music is such a natural activity that people hardly think of it as something more than a "gift" or "skill". In India, right from the Vedic ages, music has been a perfect science, the premises of which have proved to be true on the modern principles of sound. Thus Hindustani Sangeet or classical music due its integration with Indian life-style, has been an example of continuous intangible heritage.  When the shift from community or higher authority to individual occurred, the best indicator of empowerment of the individual was his ability to listen to music of his choice. ICT based delivery systems now train the four year old to express himself through his personal ‘taste’, but there is little training in how to develop that ‘taste’. At a much deeper level, the ‘Gharana’ or school system of music has been endangered less because of material difficulties (pupils living with family of Guru for 15 or more years) and more because the learner no longer has musical silence necessary to understand and develop musical skill of that particular school.

For some years now, UNESCO maintains a representative list of practices identified as Intangible Cultural Heritage of a given nation. But even before this this supreme body had realized the importance of oral tradtion and aesthetic practices. In 1996 it released a compact disc of Indian music which carried renderings of Raga Kausi Kanhada by Dr. Lalmani Misra on Vicitra Veena. Music of Pt. Lalmani Misra. UNESCO Collection. Published by UNESCO and AUVIDIS. 1996In the current list, three elements from India are the Vedic chant, Kuttiyattam and Ramlila. Even an ordinary Indian would be astonished on learning that only these three elements are being listed as intangible heritage of India. There are numerous such practices; far more so, structures of appreciating and transmitting the intangible, that portray trans-material orientation of this land. Still, a good starting point for such conservation projects would be the Indian music system. Recognition of Veena as an ICH element shall not only check the general erosion in production and appreciation of good music, it shall also revive an interest in invisible arts. Elements of Veena-playing involve social, cultural, musical and academic aspects. These have always generated a dialogue within Indian public. Recent global awareness has also connected rest of the world to India, its culture and music. The Indian musicians have practiced the ancient art with sole objective of serving the Muse or Saraswati, independent of any religious bindings. Thus, visibility of Veena-playing reaffirms the cultural unity of this nation. With a growing number of global students and practitioners, the art of Indian music in general and Veena-playing in particular, exemplifies the concept of global family.

Visibility for transmission and conservation for Intangible Heritage is an urgent need in India, where youth of communities engaged in such activities leave their innate skill and talent and take up other activities simply because they are unaware of its importance. It is a natural outcome of the rapid process of modernization, urbanization and globalization. Erosion of local economy, social and civic systems through industrialization, broad-based development strategies fostering displacement and environmental imbalances result in loss of traditional skills and practices. Small action groups get formed to take up particular causes but lacking organizational skills and financial support, fizzle out once the initial, binding emotional force is spent. Burdened with the chore of earning daily bread, the average man is hardly motivated to take steps to conserve the abstraction of “intangible cultural heritage”, despite his acknowledgement of its loss or erosion. At all levels there is a clear understanding of losing some or other vital ingredient of their lives, but limitation of this loss to their personal life-style and inability to appreciate it as intangible heritage worthy of preservation leads them to a treat it with resigned indifference. In some cases they shun practice and training of such arts / crafts considering them to be a liability in earning bread and butter. Inscription of Veena and other elements would help revival of arts and craft and link the disjointed modern life-style to finer feelings that evoke fraternal affection, harmony and peace in society.

As the efforts of State and committed persons continue to accord rightful status to musicians and craftsmen, gradually the self-effacing involvement of this community shall reintroduce the nobility of thought and deeds which binds and strengthens any society. Today, with focus only on financial gains, people disregard sharing, commitment and selfless service and therefore discourage the youth from taking up artistic activities that yield little monetary reward. People have forgotten such simple things like sitting cross-legged on floor, the soothing effect of silence and meditation that frees them from nagging awareness of the ‘here and now’. Great masters charm even such people, but as they lack a continued focus on classical art-forms, the materially inclined are not convinced on a long-termed basis. Recognition of various elements like Veena as elements of Intangible cultural Heritage is certain to bring about a change in the present materialistic orientation of the people by highlighting the necessity of aesthetic ability and sense of appreciation to enjoy the material. It shall also strengthen the sagging confidence of a large coterie of communities who retain their traditional skill through mutual inter-dependence and weave a harmonious tapestry between rural and urban, folk and the classical, material and the ideal. An Indian Veena is the product of the planter, the weaver, ironsmith and the painter, and numerous other practitioners of art and craft.

Since its independence the Indian Government has taken measures to safe-guard traditional arts and crafts including Veena by protecting the art-form, individual artistes, community of craftsmen and enhancement of appreciation in people.

Inscription of Veena shall strengthen steps and measures already in practice; moreover, various arts have traditionally been integrated into daily routine of an Indian household, thus possible harm due to visibility is almost nil.

Measures of Safe-guarding ensure livelihood, creative personal space to artistes, platform for interactive dialogue and growth of art-form.

Priority dictates that education, followed by livelihood integrated with community interaction alone shall safeguard the tradition of Veena-making and Veena-playing. In modern times a clump of institutions developed throughout the nation in the following manner would emulate the earlier loose-but-organic structure. Proposed, music conservatories with emphasis on Veena be established by competent bodies, where for 10 to 12 years all aspects of Veena playing along with milieu and ethos contributing to its essence, be taught to young aspirants. Channels, through formation of choirs and orchestra, should be created to provide livelihood to musicians and open avenues for direct interaction between them and community. Some of the measure proposed by stake-holders and independent thinkers are given below.

1. Conservatories: Two each every couple of years for two decades would begin to yield teacher-performers in twelve to fifteen years. Dr. Lalmani Misra not only revived Vichitra Veena, he perfected a unique style which steered free of traditional vocal one emulating Dhrupad or Khayal. This style involves deep understanding of strings and percussion at once. Only a programme of dedicated learning spanning twelve to fifteen years can ensure conservation of such styles as well as exploring innovation. With decline of traditional Guru-Shishya Parampara and increasing visuality, only a conservatory free from interfering tedium of competitive life-style, can hope to understand the illusive essence of Indian music.

2. Choral / Orchestral groups: Ten each year at different locations which provide livelihood to performers, creative space to artistes and integration with local residents through regular programmes. Today, many talented youngsters leave music as they pursue more concrete career goals; they pine for it but find no outlet throughout their working life. Participation in an orchestra provides outlet to such talent within their routine and regular contact with like-minded persons strengthens them psychologically. The core group of musicians too finds scope for practice and innovation with these talented amateurs. They would also be helping in keeping alive the musical tradition by imparting music lessons to young learners.

3. Ensuring 40 – 20% space in school syllabus for Fine Arts / ICH studies including Veena for first ten years. As it is, the false belief in the prowess of technology as the sole vehicle of progress has taken its toll in Indian schools. It was only in a few schools, that too in four or five states of India, that music was taught as a subject and not merely a hobby class. In the past two decades, even these few schools have closed down music departments with few takers for music studies. Most students who offer music as discipline for study at college level, have had no formal training of music at all.

4. An innovative approach to teaching music and fine arts is required. Curriculum for ICH studies to generate ICH philosophers and facilitators should be designed at college / university level. Other activities like courses in Performing Arts, that are already in practice, should be continued with greater concern. ICH Curriculum would involve experts and academics from the fields of fine-arts, humanities, archaeology and even science to deliver required inputs for specific courses -- organization of events, activities or planning, conducting long-termed appreciation exercises.

5. Ekandam Veena by Veena-maker Krishnamoorthy, Thanjavur. 2009  Training Programme under the master Craftsmen – Young enthusiasts should be attached to master craftsmen as trainees to learn traditional manner of crafting instruments. Support from competent bodies and scholarship should be granted so that while they learn they can also support their families.The master craftsmen who have learnt this art through heredity should be identified and rewarded on the national level creating visibility and drawing talent from the younger generation. Innovative and restorative work should also be rewarded to encourage young craftsmen to work with renewed enthusiasm and zeal. Krishnamoorthy from Thanjavur is one such veena maker who tries to incorporate modern beliefs into his design. He has crafted Ekandam Veena with the picture of Sai Baba on the neck. Considered an avatar Sai Baba took Samadhi in 1918 and within these ninety years he represents divinity to a large section so that the instrument traditionally dedicated to Saraswati bears his picture.

6. Monetary support to instrument makers – The instrument makers who are already living below poverty line are hard pressed to make the instruments which are in demand. The skilled Veena makers should be given monetary support from the Government to continue their work. A co-operative on regional level may be formed which provides regular work to craftsmen and supplies instruments to public and private sector organizations like schools, museums and other institutions.

7. Appreciation Activities: Normally categorized as a) Festivals, b) Museums c) Exhibitions, the appreciation activities have been going on since time immemorial but to ensure a formal structure the government has created several bodies that often act independently of each other. Yet, a great part of achievement is through independent non-governmental organizations and short-lived societies. A programme for mobilization of these would help in strong revival of Veena tradition. However, yeoman work is possible only through well-designed appreciation events amongst children and youth.

8. Academic Growth: Seminar/ Workshop/ Conference. Inter-language translation of ancient and contemporary literature related to Veena, music and aesthetics. Veena, considered the mother of all string instruments in India was the medium used by sage Bharat to establish Indian musical notes as well as the 22 micro-tonal units called Shruti-s. The relation established is mathematically proven, indicating that a mathematical approach to understanding aesthetics is possible through study of Indian music. Veena ought to be studied in this novel manner initiated through creation of Shruti-Veena by Dr. Lalmani Misra.

9. Supporting Innovation through awards, scholarships and grants in these areas: Instruments, Musical Expression – Mechanical / Electronic / Software. Notational representation of Indian music – both, Veena and vocal – along with development of software should be promoted. Institutions like Omenad have initiated research in these directions.

The heard melody was first seen on Veena; unless determined measures secure the instrument, the music shall not be heard any longer.


Bhāratīya Shāstrīya Sangīt: Shāstra, Shikshan Va Prayōg. Collection of Essays in Indian music.

Eternal Truths

Sonorous Sounds the Veena

Measure for Measure?

Vichitra Veena: Innovations and Practices

Veena : Manifestation of Intangibility

Shruti Veena: Manifestation of Bharat’s Gram and ChatuhSarana -- Dr. Lalmani Misra

Contemporary Problems for Indian Music -- Dr. Lalmani Misra

Rishi Tradition in Music education -- Dr. Bageshri Joshi

Ideal Objectives And Music Syllabi

Musical Tracks

Excerpts from Bharatiya Sangeet Vadya:Other Veena-s

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