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Strings, Winds & Beats – The Veena



When one mentions the word ‘veena’, listeners of south Indian Carnatic music will think of an instrument quite different from what followers of north Indian Hindustani music will imagine.

Both north and south have more than one type of veena. And though all of them are stringed instruments and even look more or less similar, the tone and playing techniques are quite different.

In Carnatic music, the most common type is the Saraswati veena. However, the chitraveena, or gotuvadyam as it is also known, also has a following. In Hindustani music, the Rudra veena was played a lot in the past in the dhrupad form of music. The vichitra veena, though similar to the chitraveena, is also used.

While all these are traditional forms of the veena, the name Mohan veena is also heard often in Hindustani music today, thanks to its exponent Pandit Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, who essentially adapted the Archtop guitar. While the guitar was played in Hindustani style by Pandit Brij Bhushan Kabra, the Mohan veena was evolved through additional improvisations and sympathetic strings developed by Bhatt. We shall talk of the Mohan veena in a subsequent article which will focus on how certain western instruments have been adapted for Indian music.

In this article, we shall focus on the traditional veena, beginning with Carnatic music and Hindustani music. But before going further, the term veena has been used for stringed instruments played in a horizontal or semi-horizontal position.

Carnatic music – Saraswati veena: After the violin, the Saraswati veena is the most popular melody instrument in Carnatic music. The name is derived from the fact that Goddess Saraswati is often depicted playing or holding the instrument.

Goddess Saraswati


Dating from the Vedic period, the Saraswati veena is one of the oldest instruments of the region. It is mentioned in many pieces of ancient literature, and well-known practitioners from that era include the Hindu sage Narada and Ravana, the Lankan antagonist in the Ramayana. Ravana’s instrument has also been called the Ravanahatha, though many Indian musicians played it later.

Around four feet in length, the Saraswati veena has a large resonator and a small gourd, while the main neck has frets. The gourd is placed on the player’s left thigh while the resonator is placed on the floor. The performance is often accompanied by percussion instruments like the mridangam and ghatam.

Some of the earliest greats in veena playing included the doyenne Veenai Dhanammal and Veene Sheshanna, both well-known in the 19th century. Veene Venkatagiriappa was also among the early players.

Veenai Dhanammal, Chitti, Prince


In the 20th century, many legends popularised the instrument, and the best known were Doraiswamy Iyengar, Chitti Babu, S. Balachander and Emani Sankara Sastry. Others included Ranganayaki Rajagopalan, Rugmini Gopalakrishnan, Prince Rama Varma and Mangalam Muthuswamy.

The contemporary players include the extremely popular E. Gayathri, Jayanthi Kumaresh, Jaysrri-Jeyraaj, Narayan Mani and Nirmala Rajashekar.

An interesting bit of trivia is that renowned jazz guitarist John McLaughlin got attracted to Indian music after hearing S. Balachander play the Saraswati veena over the radio. He was so mesmerised by its beauty that he decided to explore more and more of Indian music.

And yes, many would have also known that A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, former President of India, also played the Saraswati veena as a hobby.

Carnatic music – Chitraveena: Compared to the Saraswati veena, the chitraveena or gotuvadyam has had a much fewer number of exponents. Today, of course, the major star is N. Ravikiran, who has not only done some fantastic Carnatic concerts and recordings, but has also experimented by collaborating with western orchestras.

Though its use can be traced to north Indian dance music, the chitraveena is today exclusively used in Carnatic music, and has also been played in duets with Hindustani musicians. It has no frets, and 20 or 21 strings, and is played with a slide like the Hawaiian guitar or like the north Indian vichitra veena.

The chitraveena was first popularised by Sakharam Rao, but it was Narayan Iyengar of the Mysore palace who really expanded its fame. KkjRavikiran is his grandson. And besides the traditional chitraveena, he has developed a modern version called navachitraveena.

Among the other exponents, Seetha Doraiswamy is better known for playing the jal tarang (a melodic percussion instrument using bowls of water), but also plays the chitraveena and a variant called the balakokila.

Hindustani music – Rudra veena: Rarely played today, the Rudra veena is the only melody instrument used prominently in the dhrupad style, one of the earlier forms of Hindustani music. The instrument became less popular after more people took to the surbahar and later the sitar.

Zia Bahauddin Dagar, Jyoti, Shrikant


The term Rudra veena is derived from Rudra, another name for Lord Shiva. Its length ranges from 54 to 62 inches, and it has two large resonators connected by a fretted surface. In a concert, the earlier generation normally played with the backdrop of only the tanpura, the stringed drone instrument, whereas later ‘beenkars’ were accompanied by the percussion instrument pakhawaj in the latter part of their performances.

The Rudra veena has been played for generations, and even the Sufi saint and multi-instrumentalist Baba Inayat Khan practised it. But of all players, Zia Mohiuddin Dagar was primarily responsible for reviving the instrument as a solo instrument.

Though his father Ziauddin Khan Dagar discouraged him from experimenting with its basic form, Mohiuddin made certain innovations later. After his death in 1990, his son Bahauddin Dagar carried his tradition forward.

Among later players, Asad Ali Khan of the Jaipur beenkar gharana took the instrument to further levels, and even popularised it abroad on regular tours. In fact, he had many foreign students and was unhappy that many Indians didn’t take to the instrument.

Other well-known Rudra veena exponents include Shamsuddin Faridi Desai, Suvir Misra, Bande Ali Khan and Bindu Madhav Pathak, whose son Shrikant Pathak represents the younger generation. Very few women play the Rudra veena, and Jyoti Hegde is the best-known among them.

A modification of the instrument, called the Shruti veena, was created by musician and researcher Lalmani Misra, though it has been used more in demonstrations than in actual concerts. As for the Rudra veena, it is barely played today, despite the phenomenal efforts by many.

Hindustani music – Vichitra veena: This instrument is quite similar to the chitraveena in that it has no frets and is played with a slide. It was often used to accompany the dhrupad style of singing, and had almost become extinct till it was revived by Lalmani Misra.

Despite its wonderful tone and the pakhawaj accompaniment, the players are by and large not well known even among hardcore classical audiences. Some of them include Gopal Krishan, Shri Krishan Sharma, Brahm Sarup Singh, Anurag Singh and Lalmani Misra’s son Gopal Shankar Misra.

Gopal Krishna, Radhika, Anurag


The first woman to play this instrument is Radhika Veena Sadhika. The instrument has quite a few players in Pakistan Gianni Ricchizzi has taken to it passionately.j

Innovations- Chandra veena: Chandra Veena is an attempt to bring out the best of Rudra Veena and Saraswati Veena in a single instrument. Its known practioner if Balachander (not to be confused with S. Balachander), disciple of Zia Mohiuddin Dagar and vocalist Zia Fariduddin Dagar. This instrument has been based on Saraswati Veena but designed by him, based on the needs of dhrupad. This involves more sustain and resonance, better bass response and wider frets for deflecting more notes in a phrase.

Overall, though their importance has decreased in Hindustani music, there is quite a following for the Carnatic veenas. And the best thing about any of the instruments mentioned above is their tonal quality, and the ability to relax listeners through their sheer melody.

Narendra Kusnur

Author: Narendra Kusnur

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