As the sombre strains of the Bobbili veena fade into the sunset, Sumit Bhattacharjee takes a look at the indigenous instrument's storied history and sad present.
Pedda Rayudu, the 15th descendant of the Rajah of Venkatgiri and the founder of the town and the kingdom of Bobbili, was a connoisseur of the arts. The royal instrument was the veena and it was the men of Bobbili who played the instrument in court. The veenas, then, were imported from Thanjavur. They were, in other words, Thanjavur veenas.
The Bobbili veena came much later, during the 19th century, and its birth is believed to hark back to a concert at the royal court, after which the king showered compliments on his highly regarded master craftsman Sarvasidhi Achanna, saying that he had the ability to create anything. This prompted a challenge from Ch. Musanana, a maker of veenas from the Vizianagaram kingdom. Would Achanna be able to craft a veena? Within two months, Achanna responded with an instrument that came to be known as the Bobbili veena.
The story now shifts to the present day, to the Sarvasidhi family in Gollapalli village, near Bobbili in Andhra Pradesh. Forty families, all from the Sarvasidhi clan, make a living by manufacturing the musical instrument. Sarvasidhi Achutanarayana, the great grandson of Achanna, says, “There is no formal training involved. The children get drawn towards it, as they grow up watching the elders carve and create the masterpieces. As in the guru-sishya tradition, each child is put under the tutelage of one senior member. The induction normally happens when they are five years old. They pick up the art by making small wooden toys, initially. There is no compulsion or restrictions. Even girls learn the art.” This is how it has been for seven generations.
Bobbili veenas are made from jackfruit wood, and a full-size veena stands out from the ones made at Thanjavur, Mysore, Kerala or Nuzvid because of the lion's head carved at one end. The frets of Bobbili veenas are made of bell metal, while other veenas use brass. Earlier, the Bobbili veenas were known as “ekanda veena”, as they were made or carved out of one single piece of wood. But due to the paucity of good jackfruit wood, the veenas now have two joints. The other veenas have two or more joints.
Veena exponent Jayanthi Kumaresh says, “Bobbili veena is known for its quality of wood. Other veenas like the ones manufactured in Mysore are made of rose wood. I buy veenas from a maker in Bangalore who owns a jackfruit farm.”
Achutanarayana agrees that wood is the most important ingredient. “The wood has to come from a jackfruit tree which is at least 20 years old. It should be seasoned and it should have the required kind of grain to suit the manufacturing.” For the Sarvasidhi family, procuring good jackfruit wood has become a problem and the government does not encourage jackfruit farming. “That's the reason why we have stopped manufacturing the Ekanda veena.”
The Bobbili veena also stands out from other veenas because it is smaller in size. Jayanthi says, “The casing is much thinner compared to the others and the sound is shriller and more aristocratic. The treble is more in Bobbili veenas when compared to the others, where the bass is more. But now, many professionals tend to customise their instruments. They pick up the best from each variety and tailor-make veenas to suit their need.”
It was Chitti Babu Challapally and Dr. Emani Sankara Sastry from Andhra who gave the Bobbili veena international recognition. Jayanthi says, “The Andhra style of playing on Bobbili veena is considered attractive. The technique is different and the speed is more.”
Achutanarayana echoes the strain of concern found in older practitioners of other arts and crafts, who fear that their traditions might vanish. “The present generation is not very keen on taking up the craft. They are well educated and they intend to take up jobs in cities. Unless the government finds a way to make the trade lucrative, it will be difficult to hold them back,” says Achutanarayana.
The trade has never been lucrative. To keep the home fires burning and to save the art from sinking into oblivion, these veena makers started their own co-operative, the Sharada Veena Society, in 1959. But the orders were still dwindling, due to the declining patronage of the wealthy. Finally, with the intervention of the state government, a Craft Development Centre (CDC) was set up in 1994 at the Bobbili Fort, and it was later shifted to its present building at Gollapalli village.
Veena exponent and teacher Ramavarapu Vijaylakshmi feels that the demand is shrinking as the love and passion for classical music is dwindling. “Earlier, parents would send their children, especially the girls, to learn some form of music, be it instrumental or vocal. But today, they would like to see their children as dancers, cricketers and academic scholars. This confuses children, who are already bombarded with pop music and dance through the television.” The drop can be attributed to other reasons like academic pressure, says veena exponent Pappu Padmavathi. “Also, the veena is one of the most difficult instruments to learn. It takes at least 10 to 12 years to reach the first level of professional playing.”
At a time the craftsmen were finding it difficult, T.V.K. Sastry of Bharat Cultural Integration Committee came to their rescue. He placed orders for miniature veenas, which the Madras Telugu Academy started presenting as mementos during its cultural shows and festivals. “The tradition of gifting the instrument was initiated by the kings of Bobbili,” says Achutanarayana. “The veena was the royal gift to visitors from neighbouring states and the United Kingdom.”
Today, there are more orders for miniature veenas than for the full-size ones. The CDC manufactures 200 to 300 miniatures a month and earns to the tune of Rs. 1 lakh. The craftsmen make them in four sizes — 9 inches, 13 inches, 18 inches and 24 inches long — and the veenas are marketed by the AP Handicrafts Development Corporation (Lepakshi).
But this isn't enough. To sustain this great tradition at Gollapalli, the Government needs to look into jackfruit plantations and add value to the CDC. More veena schools need to be started in order to increase patronage. But who, and how will you tell youngsters to take up the profession?