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Updated: February 26, 2010 16:21 IST

Holding the veena aloft

Sriram Venkatakrishnan
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VEENA WIZARD: Venkataramana Das
VEENA WIZARD: Venkataramana Das

Venkataramana Das was a virtuoso vainika, who followed the almost extinct tradition of holding the veena vertically while playing. But tragedy struck…

The ‘Karunamritha Sagaram’ of Abraham Pandithar, written in 1917, has this entry on Venkataramana Das: ‘He is now veena vidwan at the court of Vizianagaram. Grandson of Veena Gururayachar. A distinguished vidwan in Sangeeta Sahityam and in singing ragam and pallavi. He has so mastered the veena by his tremendous practice that he could play even the most intricate music with the greatest ease and rapidity.’

By the time of his death, which occurred on February 28, 1948, he was completely forgotten. This was because of his sudden deafness, perhaps the worst fate possible for a musician, which afflicted him in 1926. It was left to Prof. Sambamurthy, that indefatigable chronicler, to collect all the available details on this vainika and write an article on him for The Hindu. This was published on April 14, 1951.

According to Prof. Sambamurthy, Venkataramana Das came from a family of vainikas who traced their lineage to Pachimiriyam Adiyappaiah, the composer of the Viriboni varnam. The veena lineage stretched back to seven generations from Venkataramana Das. He and Veena Seshanna of Mysore shared a common ancestry, for their grandfathers were brothers. The royal family of Vizianagaram were patrons of Venkataramana Das' ancestors and it was in that princely state that he was born on February 8, 1866, to Chinna Gururayacharyulu and Lakshmi Narasamma. Having been put through the paces, he emerged as a fine veena player. The training apparently included a routine of weight-lifting and push-ups and Prof. Sambamurthy records that the vainika's forearms were strong, stout and well-developed.

Distinct features

Sambamurthy wrote that the “the three striking features of his play were the remarkably rich tone that he produced, the unimaginable speed that he developed and the fecundity of his creative skill. He played pieces like ‘Koluvaiyunnade' (Bhairavi) and ‘Sri Subramanyaya Namaste' (Khambhodi) in amazing rapidity, every note of the composition in the trikala sangatis being heard with surprising clearness.” He could also play the sitar and the rudra veena with equal proficiency.

His veena was also not of the ordinary variety. “The rich tone of his veena was due to his impressive plucking and fingering, the shorter length of his veena which enabled him to tune the instrument to a high pitch and the thick strings that he used. The anumandara string of his veena was a double twisted metallic string. The large size of the gourd resonator on top and the veena being of the ekanda type (where the entire instrument is scooped out of one block of wood) were two other factors in producing the rich tone. The absence of the waxy ledge was a further cause for the richness. In his veena, he used a ledge of ebony and the 24 frets were screwed on to the wooden ledge. The fret proper was made of steel and it was welded on to a brass base plate. It was this brass plate that was screwed on to the ledge.”

Venkataramana Das followed the now almost extinct tradition of holding the veena vertically while playing. Today, this practice is followed only in the Srirangam temple during the Ekanta Seva.

Clear notes

During a performance of his at the Senate House, Madras, a thunderstorm broke and people rushed to shut the doors and windows. The vainika forbade them from doing so and they found that sure enough, such being the clarity and tonal perfection of his play, every note was heard. He was an active participant in the music conferences organised by Abraham Pandithar in Thanjavur from 1912 onwards. In 1916, he along with Pandithar, travelled to Baroda to participate in the First All India Music Conference. He also wrote a book – ‘Vina Rahasya Prakasika' -- in Telugu and this was published in 1912. Earlier in the century, even the domineering Lord Curzon was mellowed by his veena and having praised him, presented him with a pair of bracelets set in rubies.

In 1926, silence enveloped the life of Venkataramana Das. As Prof. Sambamurthy rather poignantly puts it, “he was lost to the world of music”. On his death, the street where he lived was named Veenavari Street. To Sambamurthy, it appeared to be a fitting commemoration rather like Wagner Strasse in Cologne, Germany. However, an acquaintance of this author could not locate such a street in Vizianagaram on a recent visit. According to Prof. Sambamurthy, the maestro had some rare veenas in his possession including one made of sampangi wood and another, a gift from the Maharajah of Mysore that had a “metallic spring suspended from the under side of the top plank of the bowl. When necessary the instrument was just tilted and the spring gave a ringing melodious series of sounds.” Wonder what happened to these?

(The author can be contacted at srirambts@gmail.com)

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