The veena — ever so soothing, but now falling faint

The veena has a rich past, but over the years it has seemingly lost its importance to other instruments, particularly the violin, say artistes. Special Arrangement

The veena has a rich past, but over the years it has seemingly lost its importance to other instruments, particularly the violin, say artistes. Special Arrangement  

Mohan veena, Vichitra veena, Shiva veena, Sunadavinodini electronic veena. With the way the traditional Saraswati veena is assuming new avatars every year, including portable ones, one would think there is a huge demand for the instrument in professional concerts. But strangely, while the level of innovation increases, the number of veena concerts has been dwindling in the past five years.

So much so that out of the nearly 300 major classical music concerts held as part of the Ramanavami season this year, which is now in the last leg, there have been barely 15 veena concerts — that is just 5% of the total number of concerts.

Organisers, musicians, field experts and connoisseurs have noted a gradual decline in following for the seven-stringed instrument, as compared to vocal and violin recitals, which continue to be popular concert choices. The Ramanavami concert series is a case in point.

The biggest banner — Chamarajpet Ramaseva Mandali — has organised nearly 50 concerts, with just one veena performance (by Anuradha M.). “Over the years, we have featured several well-known names, but how many are available on the list year-on-year? It’s difficult to find new names among veena players who readily agree to a three-hour classical jamboree like ours,” says S.N. Varadaraj of the mandali while agreeing that the veena’s importance has come down from his heydays.

“Even as I fully accept the decrease of the veena on stage, more and more local artistes in khanjira, ghata and morching are seen taking part in jugalbandis, to the appreciation of the audience. Newer veena artistes are hardly seen,” he says.

In the nearly 25 concerts at the Seshadripuram Ramaseva Samiti, just one senior veena artiste, Suma Sudhindra, was featured; there was a junior concert, too. “We do give importance to all the instruments, and have one concert each of veena, flute, violin and mandolin every season. Of course, vocal has its major share, but that’s because there are far more vocal musicians in comparison,” says Revathi Tarakaram, treasurer of the samiti.

There same goes for Rama Bhaktha Bhajana Sabha, Vani Kala Kendra, Karanji Anjaneya Swamy Trust, and Jayarama Seva Mandali, with veena artistes getting minimal stage time.

‘Lack of professionals the problem’

Seven to eight decades ago, the veena, the national instrument of India, was the star accompaniment to musicians. “The veena was the main accompaniment to the vocalist decades ago, but its importance gradually waned because of its poor volume. However, when the acoustics improved, the violin took over with a better throw of sound and continuity,” says veena artiste Shanthi Rao.

The veena continues to be taught and performed by thousands in the country, says Ms. Rao, but the number of professional players has remained constant. “It is not that there are not enough veena players in the country. Karnataka alone has nearly 2,000 veena players. The Sahasra Veena Ensemble of the Sri Sri Ravishankar Ashram showcased 1,000 artistes, all from Karnataka,” she says. But what is marked is the absence of a new lot of professionals, she says.

Both Suma Sudhindra and Anuradha had 75 veenas brought together on a single platform for the Chamarajpet Ramaseva Mandali to celebrate its 75th anniversary a few years ago. “Yes, they were all musicians from Karnataka,” says Suma Sudhindra. “While there are several hundreds seen in every veena school who learn for the love of the instrument and are good artistes, it is their choice to remain amateurs or enter the ‘cutcheri’ scene. Bengaluru alone has nearly 25 professional artistes,” says Ms. Sudhindra.

The veena, with its strings near-mimicking the human voice, has a hoary tradition. It was the single instrument that moulded three different schools — the Mysore, Thanjavur and Andhra baani (styles) — in Carnatic instrumental, and its importance increased by leaps and bounds when iconic artistes such as Veena Seshanna and Veena Venkatagiriappa received royal patronage at the Mysore court. Later, Emani Shankara Shastri, S. Balachander and Chitti Babu, along with artistes from Karnataka such as Veena Doreswamy Iyengar and R.K. Suryanarayana, made waves on concert platforms.

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Printable version | Feb 22, 2020 11:02:55 PM |

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