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Veena Making in Tanjore

The Veena is India's National musical instrument, and one of the most ancient. It is mentioned in the Vedas and the ancient treatise on art and music, the Natyashastra. Saraswati, the goddess of learning, is depicted playing the veena, and in the ancient texts, Narada is credited with inventing the instrument. It is also said that various gods and goddesses reside in different parts of the veena – Shiva resides in the body, Parvati in the strings, Vishnu in the bridge and his consort, Lakshmi, in the main resonator.

The art of veena making is as ancient and divine as music itself, but it is rapidly dying. While several art forms die a slow death because of lack of patronage, more than 100 families in Thanjavur in Tamil Nadu, have kept the veena making art alive and have passed it on through the generations.

Tanjore in South India has been the hub of Tamil religion, culture, art and architecture for over a thousand years. Tanjore was ruled by several dynasties like Nayaks, Marathas and Vijayanagars and its golden age was the Chola period. Though many art forms have declined over the years because of lack of royal patronage, the art of veena making is still practiced by a handful of families in the Tanjore region.

For these families in this popular temple town, known more for its paintings that the South Indian style of veena made here, it is daily grind as they set about making the Tanjori Veena, more commonly known as the Sarawasti Veena.

Even though the work of making a veena is painstaking, delicate, time-consuming and involves superior craftsmanship, it needs years of apprentice to achieve a reasonable level of skill, essential to make a fine veena. Some craftsmen are engaged in carving the jackfruit wood, others shape it with chisels and scalpels and finally, the various parts are assembled. The body of the instrument is carved with beautiful designs of goddesses, flowers and bird motifs. After varnishing and gold – papering comes the most important work involving strings and tuning – the fretwork. The current form of Saraswati veena includes 24 fixed frets on a long wooden fingerboard.

The veena's design comprises a kudam (large resonator), which is carved and hollowed out from a log of seasoned wood, this is attached to a tapering neck called a dandi and a long fingerboard, on which 24 brass or bell-metal frets are fixed with the help of raw beeswax, charcoal powder and a little resin. At the other end of the wooden fingerboard is a mythical dragon head (yali) which is a recurring motif in Tamil religious art. Two rosettes made of either ivory or animal horn adorn either side of the top board of the resonator. There are also three tuning pegs and seven strings that need to be tuned. Making one instrument takes about 20 days from start to finish.

When a veena leaves the workshop, it is not necessarily perfect, that comes from usage, as it attains a certain sonorous quality over time. It is said that when wood ages, it turns from yellow to brown or red and the renonance improves. The two kinds of veena made in Tanjore are – the Ottu veena in which different parts are made separately and assembled, and the Ekantha veena, carved out of a single jackfruit tree in its entirety, which produces the most beautiful sound.

This city of Tanjore is also home to Brahadeeswara Temple, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, built in the 11th Century AD. The Brahadeeswara Temple is considered to be one of the best specimens of South Indian temple architecture. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and was constructed by Rajaraja Chola I in the early 11th century. Shivalinga is amid the prime attraction of this temple which is 2.7 m in height. The temple is also famous due to its uniqueness as among the greatest glories of the Indian architecture.

To conclude, there is still a demand for veena and enthusiasm in the younger generation in learning Carnatic music, which predicts well. However, only time will tell if this ancient craft will survive or die with the face of modernization.