A glimpse into the life of renowned veena maker Gangadhara who passed away in Mysore recently.
It was way back in 1972. Veena N. Lingachar challenged his son if he could make melam for a veena (the portion of the veena where the frets are fixed)? The son said “Why not?”
Thus began the journey of veena maker Gangadhara, whose dexterous hands created and mended innumerable veenas, which produced vibrant music in the hands of people such as Veena Doreswamy Iyengar, M.J. Srinivasa Iyengar, Chitraveena Ravikiran, M.K. Saraswathi, Veena Rajalakshmi and many others.
He imbibed this art through his maternal grandfather, Puttachar. They were a traditional family of veena makers. His great grandfather Puttadasachar was the veena maker in the court of Mysore. His mother Nagamma was so fond of veena making that she often told her son, “Even if you don’t go to school, I am not bothered. My only wish is you learn to make the veena, which very few can do.” Gangadhara used to say this was the greatest inspiration and led him to become a veena maker. His young, keen eyes absorbed the nuances of veena making while sitting on the pyol of his old rented house.
The real challenge for any veena maker is the preparation of the melam. The kudam (the big bowl), dandi (fret board) and vyali (the curved end with the dragon) can be made by any worker mechanically without much effort. But, the preparation of a melam needs a skilled artisan with a sensitive ear for music. It needs perfect ‘sruti jnanam’ to place frets at the appropriate distance to produce the exact and perfect swara sthanams. This ‘sruti jnanam’ was cultivated in him by the asthana vidwan S.N. Mariyappa who frequented his father’s shop every day. He made the boy tune the tambura often. This tuning and fine-tuning created such a perfect sense of sruti in Gangadhara that he never used a harmonium to fix sruti sthanams of different swaras in the melam.
He used to say, “The veena speaks. When the four strings are tied to it and plucked they will tell in their own language the sruti of each swara and its place. We should be sensitive enough to understand its language.” Gangadhara believed that to understand the soul of the veena, he should learn to play the veena. He started learning from Nagappachar and later continued under the tutelage of vidwan R.K. Padmanabha.
Another challenging task is the fixing of the jawari or jeevala. The jawari enhances the tonal quality of the instrument. Gangadhara was so adept at it that even sitar players would come to him to get the jawari fixed. He was a true artist who enjoyed making the veena. A veena would in fact take shape before your eyes while he spoke about the process of making it.
Often, he felt that there was not much of a difference between the Mysore and Thanjavur veenas. The Thanjavur veena was more ornamental and hence looked more attractive. Well seasoned jack wood is the best for making veenas. He always preferred bronze for making frets (mettu). Brass looks attractive and bright but it will spoil the tonal quality of the instrument. Veena strings are usually acquired from Kolkata. They are actually manufactured in Germany and are brought through an agent in Kolkota. He was deeply disturbed over the fact that the production of veena strings had almost come to a standstill in Karnataka. “Earlier very good strings were available, but our fancy for things foreign endangered the very production of good strings,” he would say.
Gangadhara was very meticulous in the use of the raw materials as well as tools. He felt that an artisan should prepare his own tools. All modern tools of carpentry cannot be used in veena making. It is a very skilled and sensitive work and involves lots of subtleties. He used the maravajra for joining different parts and bee wax for preparing the melam. He believed in the traditional wisdom as it was time tested. But then he was not blind to the changes taking place around him. He was a witness to the onset of the fibreglass veenas. He didn’t reject them and had the wisdom to understand that even they were needed in these changing times when people were being attracted to music. He used to say: “I recommend the fibreglass veena to beginners as the traditional wooden ones are very expensive. Unless one pursues it as a career, it would be a waste for them to buy such a costly instrument.”
Gangadhara was greatly concerned about the authentic tonal quality of a veena. He was not for using either pick-ups or contact mikes even though he sold them and fixed them to the veena for those who wanted them. He didn’t even approve of the use of the finger rings to pluck the strings. He said that it produced a metallic sound which spoilt the tonal quality of the veena. He always felt that strings are to be plucked with the nails. He also felt that wooden pegs (biradai) are better suited for the veena, but of late the use of steel keys has increased. He said that once the gear of the steel keys is worn out, the strings become loose and tuning goes off key.
He had a feeling that there was a change in the attitude of youngsters. The old-timers knew how to make some minor repairs in case of emergencies. Youngsters become panicky and come running even for a very simple, small repair.
Apart from being a talented and skilled artisan, Gangadhara was a very perceptive person. He noticed that more and more middle and lower middle class women were pursuing the veena and the number of young men who took up the traditional skills like veena making was dwindling.
He also understood the tragedy of the local products losing ground in the face of global competition, the job preference of society in view of the fat salary fetched by other jobs. These hard realities unwound themselves whenever Gangadhara spoke.
His demise has created such an irreplaceable vacuum, especially among veena artists.