The Saraswati veena is a plucked, stringed musical instrument from India whose origins date back to around 1700 BCE. This veena (also spelled vina), a member of the lute family, as are the chitra, vichitra, and rudra veenas.
Dr. Tara Rajendran is a classically trained veena player (as well as a medical doctor – please see our companion article about her). In a recent email exchange with MakingMusicMag.com, she explained that the Saraswati veena “is named after the Hindu goddess of knowledge, music, art, speech, wisdom, and learning, Saraswati, who is usually depicted holding or playing the instrument. The Saraswati veena is from the south Indian/Carnatic classical musical [tradition], whereas the sitar, a structurally similar instrument is part of the north Indian/Hindustani classical musical [tradition].”
The Saraswati veena is often part of many celebrations and rituals including baby showers and weddings, she added. A player of the veena is called a vainika. A veena is similar in appearance to the sitar, but smaller and with fewer strings.
A modern Saraswati veena has 24 fixed, scalloped frets, made from brass or other metal, and held in place with bees’ wax. This veena has four playing strings and three rhythm (drone) strings; five of these strings are made of steel, two are of brass and all are of differing gauges. The instrument measures approximately four feet in length and features a large resonator (kudam) carved from jackfruit wood. Its tapered neck (dandi) is hollow, to accommodate the drone strings, and ends with a pegbox that curves downward and is decorated with a dragon’s head (yali). The Saraswati veena also features a second gourd resonator at the end of the neck near the pegbox.
Tradition holds that the Saraswati veena is a manifestation of the human body, with the kudam representing the skull, the dandi and its 24 frets representing the spine, and the yali representing the curved tailbone.
Tuning and Playing
“The ideal tuning frequency for a given Saraswati Veena appears to be interconnected to the body’s resonant frequency,” Tara said. “The harmonic scale used in classical Indian music is rooted in the quality of string vibrations.” This, Tara explained, is because the bridge’s curvature ensures that each string, no matter where on the neck it is fretted, will always vibrate at a tangential angle to the bridge and will thus excite the drone strings, regardless of the mode in which the music is being played.
The four playing strings are tuned in two octaves to the tonic and the fifth of the appropriate raga, while the three drone strings are tuned to the tonic, the fifth, and the octave above the tonic. [Note: As defined by “The New Harvard Dictionary of Music,” the term “Raga” refers to “Mode in Indian music. Besides the designation of a particular scale, a raga includes other modal prescription such as pitch ranking, characteristic ascent and descent patterns, motives, use of ornaments, performance time, and emotional character.”] The playing strings stretch over a curved wooden bridge, which is covered by a convex brass plate; the drone strings stretch over a smaller bridge that extends from the main bridge on the player’s side of the instrument.
Tara explained that the veena is played horizontally in a sitting, cross-legged position. The large resonator rests on the floor to the vainika’s immediate right, while the gourd resonator on the neck rests on the player’s left thigh.
She said the right “index and middle fingertips are used to pluck and [the fingers of the left] hand are used to simultaneously swoop up and down the frets. Along with this, you make upstrokes with the three rhythm (drone) strings using the right little finger” at rhythmic intervals.
Tara also named several vainikas who have been influential over the years:
- Veena Sheshanna (1852-1926) – The first vainika to play the instrument horizontally, rather than vertically, he was also a great composer and is believed to be the originator of the Mysore style.
- Dhanammal (1867-1938) – an accomplished singer and soloist on the veena. “She is unanimously known as Veenai Dhanammal and the prefix ‘Veenai’ in her name speaks volumes about her mastery and legacy,” Tara explained. “Her systematic raga elaboration is unparalleled. Dhanammal’s style of veena rendition, is still regarded as a yardstick for tradition and depth of expression.”
- Karaikudi Subbarama Iyer (1883-1936) & Karaikudi Sambasiva Iyer (1888-1958) – These brothers were known for their stage presence, brilliant tone, and contrasting playing techniques; Subbarama held his veena vertically while Sambasiva played his horizontally. “Subbarama Iyer was known for illustrating of distinct melodic improvisations on a line of text within the structure of the composition. His control over tempo was exceptional.” Tara said. “Sambasiva Iyer was known for his outstanding exposition of tanams.” [Note: “tanam” refers to “a pulsed form of melodic improvisation in Carnatic music” according to the “New Harvard Dictionary of Music.”]
- Mysore Venkatesha Doraiswamy Iyengar (1920-1997) – “One of the greatest Saraswati veena exponents of modern India, he is praised for his tonal purity along with his impeccable raga expanse,” Tara said. “Doraiswamy remained a purist and stuck to the acoustic Veena and stayed away from contact microphones.” He was an acknowledged “maestro” of the Mysore style.
- Emani Sankara Sastri (1922-1987) – Tara called him a “creative genius and integrationist” who combined the Carnatic and Hindustani traditions and performed with eminent Hindustani instrumentalists,” she said. “Shankara Shastri illustrated versatile expressions on the third and fourth strings of the veena [and] he explored the veena to create a range of sounds, including something that resembled wind instruments.”
- Chitti Babu (1936-1996) – Arguably one of the greatest vainikas, who became a legend in his own lifetime,” Tara said. “He evolved a distinguishing identity, which is in all respects his own. The hallmarks of his unique rendition style are tonal quality and versatility.”
Listen to the Saraswati Veena
Tara Rajendran: Lamplit Evenings/Raag Desh: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCNPlGwKzm3wrJ33kirdbKOA
Tara Rajendran: Pink Petals/Raag Brindavani/Vrindavani/Chordae Tendineae: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gtyn1jWKzu4
Emani Sankara Sastri: Performance in Pittsburgh, 1984: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ovQngRcvFIo
Chitti Babu: Kommallo Koila “Cuckoo Song”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=86jDVswa6nw
Chitti Babu: Samajavaragamana: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=99RsYpqA_0g
[Photo courtesy Dr. Tara Rajendran]