Sonorous Sounds the Veena

By Dr. Rajiv Trivedi




Of all instruments that produce music, foremost is the Gatra Veena,1 where the vocal chords resonate musically. All other types of Veena were naturally later development inspired by it. Ancient forms that find mention in Shladhyaya Shabda Sutra of Veda are Kaand, Alabu and Sheel Veena. Among the ancient most are Kapisheersh, Karkari and Varanya Veena, also called Baan Veena. These find mention in RigaVeda.

Almost all plays of Kalidas, Bhasa and Shoodrak mention Veena. Legend associates Maharshi Bharat with MattaKokila,2 a variant popular during thirteenth century. The seven stringed Veena known as Sapta-tantri was named Chitra by Bharat. The nine-stringed veena was called Vipanchi.

Despite varying views, experts have concluded that Chitra and Vipanchi could be played with either finger or plectrum or with both. Kaand and Alabu of Vedic period evolved as Ghoshika and Mahati during Bharat’s period and later as Kinnari, Nakuli and Sapta-tantri. Some variants drew their name due to their shapes. Kachhapi resembled a tortoise and Kapisheersh was shaped like a monkey’s head. While today Saraswati Veena and Gottu-vadyam are in vogue in the southern part of India, Rudra Veena and Vichitra Veena are the major forms in North.

Apart from well-documented forms of Veena like Ektantri, Nakuli, Chitra, Vipanchi etcetera, there are 49 other forms of this stringed instrument that find mention in ancient texts. In pace with changing times and varying needs addition, alteration and modification in structure and playing techniques resulted in the numerous avatars of Veena. Due to its resemblance to tenth century Arabic folk instrument Rabab both of whose variants were played with bow, Chitra Veena was dubbed Rabab during the Mogul period. Tansen and his descendents developed it into an instrument for solo performance on level with already established Been. There were several prominent Beenkar-s patronized by Malawa royalty.

Well known contemporary Rudra Veena players are late Zia Mohiuddin Dagar and Ustad Asad Ali Khan. Since the very beginning, the preferred percussion for accompaniment is Pakhawaj or Mridangam. Performers of Rampur Gharana and Banares contributed to bring the Veena playing techniques to its zenith. Modeled on Dhrupad, Dr. Lalmani Misra of Varanasi developed a special style for Vichitra Veena called Misrabani. The southern styles of Veena playing popularized by composers like saintly Thyagraj, Muttu Swami Deekshitar and Shyamu Shastri were an attempt to conserve tradition and history. Carnatic musicians follow these compositions even today.

Vichitra Veena is a complete instrument incorporating full vocal range with more than four octaves. The four main playing strings and five secondary strings (chikaris), played openly with the little finger for a drone effect along with 13 sympathetic strings underneath endow it with unparalleled richness of sound. Any given Raga finds expression in entirety. To begin, all strings are first tuned to the notes of the raga to be played. Two plectrums (mizrab) identical to those used for sitar are worn on the middle and index fingers of the right hand to pluck the strings, and a glass ball (batta) is moved with the left across the main strings to create melody (there can be a distance of up to two inches between notes). Olive oil or butter is put on the strings to ease the playing action. Vichitra Veena had almost disappeared from the music scene in twentieth century. It was revived by Dr. Lalmani Misra who developed a special style Misrabani3for playing it. The style later on was applied to all string instruments, including Sitar and Sarod. Noted performers in the modern times are Pt. Gopal Krishna Sharma and Late Dr. Gopal Shankar Misra.


Vichitra Veena finds its southern counter-part in Gottu Vadyam. Vichitra Veena has evolved into two popular forms: Sitar and Sarod. However, it remains the only Veena to express three Gram-s, 21 Moorchhana-s and 22 Shruti-s, an ability it inherited from Ektantri, the sole Veena authenticated by ancient texts. Though the notes are eternally the same, the desirability of their combination changes with each discerning generation.

It is a praiseworthy effort to make our music known throughout the world with more and more instruments being adapted to Indian music. However, internationalizing our domain of musical nuances is not sufficient; they should be universalized. A start in this direction has been made and several new instruments have come in vogue taking Indian Classical music to the uninitiated. But that the ancient Veena-s hold their unequivocal place, unique identity and singular existence in Indian music cannot be denied.


References :

1 daravi gatraveena ch dwe veene gaanjaatishu | samaki gatraveena ch tasyaashshrinut lakshanam || 1.6.1 Naaradiya Shiksha [gatra:throat, larynx; veena:Chordophone]

ekam ishwarnirmitam naisargikam anya chaturvidham manushya nirmitam cheti panchprakara mahavadyanam| Naaradiya Shiksha, Sangeet Chudamani, Baroda Edition p .69

2 Mattakokila was first mentioned in Sangeet Ratnakar; in Valmiki's Ramayan the term Mattakokil is used hence it has not been proved yet that Maharishi Bharat played this Veena first. However Mahati Veena described by Sudhakalash (mahati naaradasya ch) and Nanyadev too sported 21 satrings with three gram-s and 21 moorchchana-s, hence it might be that the same instrument was known by different names. Bharatiya Sangeet Vadya, p. 111-12

3 Misrabani is a technique involving one-and-half note plucking with mizrab that explores to full complexity of such taal-s as 10 beats Jhaptaal, 14 beats Jhoomra, in slow-paced compositions, 14 beats Ada Char Taal in medium-paced ones.

Details of Shruti Veena


Documentary Film

...Shall Ever the Twain Meet? -- Dr. Ragini Trivedi

Time Theory of Raga-s

For views of musicians on aspects of music click here

Excerpts from Bharatiya Sangeet Vadya: Other Veena-s -- Dr. Lalmani Misra

Contemporary Problems for Indian Music -- Dr. Lalmani Misra

Excerpts from Bharatiya Sangeet Vadya: Swar-mandal -- Dr. Lalmani Misra

Bharatiya Sangeet Vadya published by

Bharatiya Jnanpith

18, Institutional Area, Lodhi Rd

New Delhi - 110003

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