Veena artiste B.Sivakumar shares with Aruna V. Iyer how he has kept the ancient veena alive
As a 21-year-old computer programmer, veena artiste B. Sivakumar and his friends mostly hung out at the various sabhas in Chennai: “We were looking for inspiration when we went to over 300 concerts in a year,” he recalls. Today, nearly 20 years later, that inspiration is manifest not just in his onstage performances, but transcends into his efforts to keep the ancient veena alive.
“For a few years between 1995 and 2005, there seemed to be a dearth of solo veena performers and a noticeable dip in the number of learners as well,” says Sivakumar. He explains that the veena’s large size made it impractical to transport it. “The saraswati veena can easily be damaged or broken during transit and can be repaired only by its traditional makers in and around Thanjavur,” he says. Over the years the saraswati veena, perfected between the 16th and 17th centuries, has evolved multiple times and today, the demand is for a light-weight, easily portable version that does not compromise on its musicality.
Around six years ago, Sivakumar began working on a design that would address all the limitations of the veena: “By making slight alterations to the girth of the gourd and the width of the frets; by replacing natural material with lighter, artificial fibre; and by reducing its total weight up to three kilos, I was able to design a veena that could be slung over the shoulder, and produce further enhanced notes.”
Ever since he perfected his design, complete with a resonance hole, a sound post (generally found in violins) and a cushion to make up for the loss in height, Sivakumar has added a number of performances abroad to his repertoire.
Today, a top ranking staff artiste with AIR Tiruchi, he has given around 2,000 concerts in India as well as places in Sri Lanka, UAE, France and U.S.A. “While there are several schools of thought involved in playing the veena, the Thanjavur baani is probably the only school that lends itself so beautifully to the gayaki (vocal) style,” he says. There are other schools like the Andhra and Mysore schools that concentrate on melodic improvisations and the Bobilli school that focuses on bringing out the instrumental style (higher speeds and playing with chords) rather than the vocal style.
Catering to the audience
Sharing his observations on audiences for each school of thought, Sivakumar feels Carnatic music is equally split between the artistes’ creativity and the compositions themselves, unlike Hindustani music, where the compositions are interpreted and improvised to a large extent depending on individual creativity. “The audience in South India is tuned to the set compositions and come to your concerts expecting to hear faithful reproductions, while the crowd elsewhere is more open to experimentation.”
With its adept reproduction of the human voice, the veena can be played solo without the need for accompaniments. However, there are certain conventional instrumental combinations like the veena, venu (flute), violin, or the veena, sitar, sarod, and santoor (for jugalbandis) and, non-conventional combinations with western instruments like rhythmic pads, organ, guitar and drums. “The veena, with its innate capacity to play chords, can easily be paired with western instruments and lends itself to experimentation.”
Sivakumar, through his interactions with Chitraveena Ravikiran, has also learnt how to adapt techniques involved in playing the chitraveena (an instrument that predates the veena and has no frets) into his own style of playing the saraswati veena. “Everything that we play is based on the vocal composition, which can be played using various instruments,” he says, “however it is the timbre quality of each instrument that qualitatively differentiates the music for the listener.”
Technology and research
Sivakumar is also a teacher whose students are often virtual presences brought to him via the internet. He has been conducting veena lessons for NRIs and a few foreigners over Skype for the past three years. “While online classes are a good option for advanced learners and those looking to revive their skill, they aren’t meant for beginners who need to be taught in person,” he says. Though it increases the network of his students, lessons on Skype can face many hurdles like poor network and the time lag, “which make it impossible for the teacher and student to play along with each other.”
When he is not touring places for concerts or giving lessons over the internet, Sivakumar keeps himself busy with the research work for his Ph.D thesis on how regular exposure to Carnatic instrumental music can positively influence the memory and attention of school children. His sample included class VII students, who were made to listen to the said music for 20 minutes every day for a continuous period of three or four months in 2012.
Out of the 25 students observed, 21 showed drastic improvements in retention and concentration, according to Sivakumar.
“Through my study I hope to prove how mandatory exposure to music has positive influences over their learning capacities,” he says. He recommends the inclusion of music lessons within the curriculum, rather than treating them as extra-curricular activities. In the future, he plans to expand his study to the deeper effects classical music has on special children as well.
A recipient of various awards and recognitions both inside India and abroad, Sivakumar feels the evolution of the veena into a portable instrument has reignited the interest in its learning and opened up newer vistas abroad.
“Audiences abroad are more open to instrumental Indian classical music than vocals because it transcends the barrier of language and has a global appeal.”