Attracted by his uncle’s veena making, Govindaraj set out to uphold a tradition

When others got carried away by the mellifluous music and actor Sivaji Ganesan’s stupendous screen presence in the song “Pattum naane bhavamum naane…” from the classic film Thiruvilayadal, one youngster got attracted to the instrument the actor had in his hand, the Macha Veena.

Then 20-year old Govindaraj got attached to it for the simple fact that it was made by his uncle, Subbiah Asari.

“Listening to my family elders saying that one of my uncles had made the Macha Veena and the film crew bought it for Rs.10,000 at that time, I also wanted to make one,” he says.

Following the footsteps of his uncle, Govindaraj decided to master the business of veena making. Now in his sixties, he is one of the half-a-dozen veena makers who know the art and intricacies of the trade, from selecting the wood to setting right the sruthi.

Thanjavur is synonymous with veena making. In fact, though there are many veena making units in various parts of the country, the Thanjavur veena, also known as Saraswathi veena, reigns supreme for its superior quality of sound.

There are above 100 families involved in veena making as a cottage industry but only a few know all the aspects of the craft.

Every group of people does certain tasks. Some carve out the wood while a few make the handles and some are involved in drawing the lines on the ‘paanai.’

Unlike many, Govindaraj became an expert in all aspects of carpentry in veena making. But he depended on musicians for ‘suram serthal’ and ‘melam kattuthal’ until he faced an embarrassing situation in Kerala.

He delivered a veena to a master at Thiruvananthapuram but the musician was upset as the instrument was not properly tuned. “When the master told that I had failed to learn veena’s uyir naadi, I realized my mistake,” he says.

At the age of 25 he searched for a guru and learnt vocal and instrumental music from Kalyani Bhagavathar for a fee of Rs.30 some four decades ago.

“We need to understand the swaras so that we can speak music through the veenas,” he says.

Nowadays, artisans use jackfruit wood to make veenas. Long ago, it was fig (athi) wood that was commonly used.

Similarly, for the decorations on the edges of the instruments, artisans used deer horn and ivory. After the ban on using animal parts, they have started using fibre materials.

Govindaraj along with his son G. Ramesh Suriya makes both Ottu Veena (in which the bowl is joined to the neck) and Ekanda Veena (in which the bowl and neck are carved from a single piece of wood). Ramesh Suriya, after completing an ITI course in carpentry, has joined his father. He carves out interesting and intricate designs on the veena. But most people prefer images of Goddess Saraswathi. On request, he also decorates the carvings with diamonds and pearls.

With declining interest in the instrument, life has become pathetic for veena makers. On an average, a craftsman can make two to three veenas in a month.

Govindaraj says that he makes a net profit of Rs. 2000 per veena.

He regularly supplies instruments to Poompuhar and to shops in Bangalore, Tirunelveli, Chennai and Malaysia. Govindaraj also gets regular work repairing instruments.

“The string would get worn out and to maintain the Veena, you need to change the strings every three years,” he says. “I love to teach the art of veena making to interested people.”