The veena makers of Thanjavur

Out of noisy, cramped workshops in Thanjavur emerges the melodious and graceful veena. But the craftsmen who handcraft the instrument are struggling to keep this ancient art alive.

Updated - November 17, 2021 11:07 am IST

Published - July 11, 2015 04:15 pm IST

Finished and unfinished veenas in Narayanan's store room. Photo: Aparna Karthikeyan

Finished and unfinished veenas in Narayanan's store room. Photo: Aparna Karthikeyan

Something is burning. You can smell it as you walk down the narrow passage. The smoke is just a tendril but the coloured gum, melted with a hot rod and applied to the decorative plastic strip, reeks like singed rubber. Sekar applies the green and pink gum and shaves off the excess with a blade. Then, he hands the half-finished veena to Muthukumar to place the wax strips on the fingerboard.

The two craftsmen work for M. Narayanan (65), whose family has been making veenas for generations. His workshop — on South Main Street, Thanjavur — makes four-five instruments a month. Each veena is made by several skilled craftspersons. Sekar is hollowing out the resonator ( kudam ) for the next. What was once jackfruit wood is cut, carved, shaped and assembled. After varnishing and gold-papering, it’s taken to another craftsman for fretwork, strings and tuning.

The veena is India’s national instrument, and one of our most ancient ones. Yet, the Thanjavur veena industry is hardly flourishing. Narayanan (President, The Thanjavur Musical Instruments Workers Co-operative Cottage Industrial Society Limited) tells me that with every generation, the number of craftpersons is dwindling.

In his workshop, half-a-dozen men are hard at work. Sunlight slants in, and picks out the hand-carved details on a veena ; the brass frets shine. Speaking above the noise of the hammers, chisels, drills and blades, Narayanan points out to the various parts of the Ottu veena , which are made separately and assembled. Each part requires a full day’s work. The other type, Ekantha veena , is carved out a single jackfruit tree in its entirety. Once he’s done listing — and adding up the costs — I ask if there’s any money in it. “Not really; which is why we’re all in debt.”

Today, in Thanjavur, around 15 families make the veena . “Perhaps half of them will quit by the next generation,” says Narayanan. Across the road, N. Govindarajan (55), a third-generation veena tuner, is checking the pitch of a new instrument. His father Narayanan Achari was a very popular craftsman. All the older vidwans knew him. Govindarajan picked up his skills while a youngster. “I’m not very educated, but I had an ear for sruti (pitch) and I’ve been doing this for 40 years.” But his skills will, very likely, fade with him. “I have no sons. And nobody seems keen on picking this up. I’d like to teach, but where’s the interest?” Upstairs, his daughter teaches her students to play the veena . Her instrument — over 40 years old — was tuned by her grandfather. In older veenas , the nadam (tone) is better. When she plays it, the notes are clean and clear. The students sit in front of a Saraswati idol. The goddess has a veena on her lap.

Veenas are always made with jackfruit wood. Its tonal quality is excellent, and it ages very well. The logs are cut to shape in Thanjavur’s Sivaganga Gardens, where the association procures and stocks the wood. It’s then taken to the workshops. Senthil Kumar (34) works alone in his, smoothening an upturned resonator. A fifth-generation craftsman, he feels the margins are down to 10 per cent of what his grandfather earned. “It’s also because of inflation, everything is so expensive!” Raw material and labour costs have doubled. “But,” he clarifies, “not the price of a veena .”

Veena making is not a skill that can be mastered quickly; it’s not an instrument that anybody can make. “It’s very difficult,” Narayanan says. “There’s not a single stage that you can call easy.” To begin with, the sizing is very precise. And the only measuring scale they use? “Eye precision. And experience.” That, unfortunately, doesn’t fetch the premiums it should. Instead, the instrument — a work of art — is sold as a ‘product’, whose price is determined by the cost of raw materials and labour.

In Narayanan’s father’s time, jackfruit wood was easily available. There were many orchards in the area (which have now been chopped down, and sold as real-estate). Now, they have to travel to Panruti to source the 30-40-year-old wood.

The other big difference is the demand. “So many educated, young people learn instruments now!” But the makers don’t really benefit, as they rarely sell directly to the clients. “How will they find us? We work out of small workshops, some even from huts. The buyers go to the air-conditioned musical showrooms, which have a good stock and selection.” In principle, it seems like an arrangement that should work well: the makers don’t end up with old or unsold pieces. However, for an instrument that retails from Rs.12,000-25,000, the craftsperson earns around Rs.300-500 a day. And that, Narayanan says, barely covers their living expenses.

Running the business from home is also problematic. (The houses are mostly rented. How, he asks, can you buy a house when you make Rs.300 a day?) Even though it is a cottage industry, rising labour costs, scarcity of wood, and commercial electricity rates shoot down any promise of profit. Typically, the family is called on to help. But Narayanan’s sons “realised there’s very little income in this.” One is an engineering graduate settled in Singapore; the other an MBA, working in Chennai.

There’s also little by way of a safety net. Narayanan is pinning all his hopes on the recently awarded Geographical Indication. “Thanks to advocate Sanjai Gandhi, ‘Thanjavur Veena’ has been registered.” Interestingly, Thanjavur Veena is the first musical instrument in the country to be awarded the GI. “The law (Geographical Indications of Goods (Registration and Protection) Act 1999) is to protect the interests of producers of goods having geographical indications, which roughly means an indication that identifies such goods originating or manufactured in an area where the given quality, reputation or other characteristic is essentially attributable to the geographical origin. The GI ultimately can and should benefit the manufacturers by improving their conditions of life, and prevent fakes from being passed off as the real thing,” says Justice Prabha Sridevan (Retd), also the Chairman of the Intellectual Property Appellate Board (Retd). Globally, there have been GI success stories, like France’s Champagne. “No other wine — produced elsewhere in the world, with the same grape varieties and similar manufacturing methods — could be called ‘Champagne’. They had to be sold as ‘Sparkling Wine’,” she says. This protected the interests of the manufacturers and their unique product.

Narayanan wants a similar turnaround. “We were told more people will come here directly to buy the veena , and that the name (Thanjavur Veena ) will be globally known.” But the law itself might not bring about miraculous changes, without state support. The state must support the producers’ efforts to source wood and market their goods. “There’s no sales tax now; that’s helpful,” says Narayanan. “And, the government music colleges create demand.” But these are not enough. Pensions for elderly craftspersons and training centres to teach the craft are vital. “Then, you’re preserving the craft, the tradition.”

In his house, Narayanan proudly shows me an exquisite carved veena . The resonator has Ashtalakshmis carved on it. The front panel has Saraswati; the neck is decorated with creepers. “This will fetch Rs.35,000-40,000. May be a foreign tourist will buy it.” Many foreigners visit the workshops. “They admire our handiwork. They praise our efforts to keep alive traditions.” But praise alone, he says, does not raise families above the poverty line. And neither can it keep a craft alive.

This article is part of the series ‘Vanishing Livelihoods of Rural Tamil Nadu’ and is supported under NFI National Media Award 2015.

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