Something to fret about

The decreasing graph of its popularity is like a tragedy where every character makes an inconspicuous exit after a long powerful presence. Thanks to a few alert conservationists and scholars, several ancestral variants of the veena still rest as museum pieces. Sarangadeva in his magnum opus ‘ Sangeeta Ratnakara’ mentions ten types. His contemporary, the Andhra poet Palakurki Somanada listed out another forty-one in his ‘ Panditaaradhya Charitra’! Almost none exist today, even as artistic impressions. Enough ink has been consumed on stories of its mysterious origins, fanciful myth and recounted history of the veena. By India’s independence, it was deified to become the country’s national instrument. In spite of all the superlatives attributed, the veena has faced a steady decline with its evidently meagre presence on the concert stage and festival circuits.

Over the years, even the coveted Margazhi season with all its thousands of concerts across hundreds of venues has a pitiable number of solo veena recitals. A severe fissure in teaching methodologies added to the younger music enthusiasts distancing themselves from it to other whimsical distractions. Several veena veterans blamed technological invasion for this decline. The amplification of its sound box also meddled with the quality of music it produced. While that is one argument, several performers have remarked how the instrument needed to change with the times and how it migrated from salon concerts to the proscenium. This shady growth-tangent of the instrument, affected its voice in the process.

While veterans found it easy to blame youngsters for not taking up the instrument full-time, very few ventured to do anything about it. At an institutional level, the effort remained deplorable. Some of the country’s top-most centres for music education don’t as much have a teacher, let alone a department or any syllabus on the instrument. For one thing, it turned out that the veena really wasn't that much easier to master like the others that replaced it eventually as an accompanying instrument. Like a neglected and helpless grandmother between rejecting members of her family, the veena continues to stay in the hands of a few individual activists who do their bit by organising exclusive festivals to popularise it.

Once the most ideal and the wanted instrument for measuring one’s artistic capabilities, only a century later, the veena seems to fade out of the concert spaces and public memory, so much so to seek attention for itself into such dismal measures as exclusive festivals.

About half a century after it was introduced for solo recitals, the instrument succeeded in sliding its way into television and cinema.

Composers and music directors began introducing it, often because it made for being the most accessible instrument with well-trained by out-of-work artistes. With its huge frame and aesthetic demeanour, it even had an excellent screen presence. While the post-globalisation era saw the rise of the Indian artiste to a global stage, the veena found a scarcity of acceptance.

Apart from an S. Balachander, it never found a Ravi Shankar or an Ali Akbar to put it on an international pedestal it deserved. This decline also resulted in its minimal usage in orchestral compositions, both for music and dance. Over time it got shelved away into the black hole of musical obsolescence forever in its original form, only to remain an antique exhibit in elite households. Media-struck artistes didn’t pursue the veena for commercial reasons.

Being less portable like other instruments, it resulted in limiting an artiste’s travel and exposure; a risk no one wanted in jet-setting times when cross-country festival-hopping became the decree. Several companies experimented and produced friendly electronic modifications of the instrument. But the sound was never the same.

Today the melody of the original veena is only referred to in nostalgia. Barring a few individual activists who propagate it, if the veena is not taken up actively as a State initiative and at an institutional level, it will need a life-support system soon.

It would be Carnatic music’s greatest loss if what we have now ends up as a museum-piece.

( Veejay Sai is a writer, editor and a culture critic)

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Printable version | Apr 4, 2020 2:53:17 PM |

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