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Close up of a veena being played.
A portrait of Veena Dhanammal, legendary Veena player

Veena (also spelled 'vina', Sanskrit: वीणा (vīṇā), Tamil: வீணை, Kannada: ವೀಣೆ , Malayalam: വീണ, Telugu: వీణ) is a plucked stringed instrument used mostly in Carnatic Indian classical music. There are several variations of the veena, which in its South Indian form is a member of the lute family. One who plays the veena is referred to as a vainika.



The veena has a recorded history that dates back to the Vedic period (approximately 1500 B.C.E.)

In ancient man, the tone vibrating from the hunter's bow string when he shot an arrow was known as the Vil Yazh. The Jya ghosha (musical sound of the bow string) is referred to in the ancient Atharvaveda. Eventually, the archer's bow paved the way for the musical bow. Twisted bark, strands of grass and grass root, vegetable fibre and animal gut were used to create the first strings. Over the veena's evolution and modifications, more particular names were used to help distinguish the instruments that followed. The word veena in India was a term originally used to generally denote "stringed instrument", and included many variations that would be either plucked, bowed or struck for sound. [1] [2]

The veena instruments developed much like a tree, branching out into instruments as diverse as the exotic harp-like Akasa (a veena that was tied up in the tops of trees for the strings to vibrate from the currents of wind) and the Audumbari veena (played as an accompaniment by the wives of Vedic priests as they chanted during ceremonial Yajnas). Veenas ranged from one string to one hundred, and were composed of many different materials like eagle bone, bamboo, wood and coconut shells. The yazh was an ancient harp-like instrument that was also considered a veena. But with the developments of the fretted veena instruments, the yazh quickly faded away, as the fretted veena allowed for easy performance of ragas and the myriad subtle nuances and pitch oscillations in the gamakas prevalent in the Indian musical system. [3] As is seen in many Hindu temple sculptures and paintings, the early veenas were played vertically. It was not until the great Indian Carnatic music composer and Saraswati veena player Muthuswami Dikshitar that it began to be popularized as played horizontally.

"The current form of the Saraswati veena with 24 fixed frets evolved in Thanjavur, during the reign of Raghunath Nayak and it is for this reason sometimes called the Tanjore veena, or the Raghunatha veena. Prior to his time, the number of frets on the veena were less and also movable." - Padmabhooshan Prof. P. Sambamurthy, musicologist. [4] The Saraswati veena developed from Kinnari Veena. Made in several regions in South India, those made by makers from Thanjavur in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu are to date considered the most sophisticated. Sangeet Ratnakar calls it Ektantri Veena and gives the method for its construction.

While the Saraswati veena is considered in the lute genealogy, other North Indian veenas such as the Rudra veena and Vichitra veena are technically zithers. Descendants of Tansen reserved Rudra Veena for family and out of reverence began calling it the Saraswati Veena.


About four feet in length, its design consists of a large resonator (kudam) carved and hollowed out of a log (usually of jackwood), a tapering hollow neck (dandi) topped with 24 brass or bell-metal frets set in scalloped black wax on wooden tracks, and a tuning box culminating in a downward curve and an ornamental dragon's head (yali). A small table-like wooden bridge (kudurai)—about 2 x 2½ x 2 inches—is topped by a convex brass plate glued in place with resin. Two rosettes, formerly of ivory, now of plastic or horn, are on the top board (palakai) of the resonator. Four main playing strings tuned to the tonic and the fifth in two octaves (for example, B flat-E flat below bass clef - B flat- E flat in bass clef) stretch from fine tuning connectors attached to the end of the resonator. across the bridge and above the fretboard to four large-headed pegs in the tuning box. Three subsidiary drone strings tuned to the tonic, fifth, and upper tonic (E flat - B flat- E flat in the tuning given above) cross a curving side bridge leaning against the main bridge, and stretch on the player's side of the neck to three pegs matching those of the main playing strings. All seven strings today are of steel, with the lower strings either solid thick gauge wire or round wound.

Playing technique

The veena is played by sitting cross-legged with the instrument held tilted slightly away from the player. The small gourd on the left rests on the player's left thigh, the left arm passing beneath the neck with the hand curving up and around so that the fingers rest upon the frets. The palm of the right hand rests on the edge of the top plank so that the fingers (usually index and middle) can pluck the strings. The drone strings are played with the little finger. The veena's large resonator is placed on the floor, beyond the right thigh. The photo of Veena Dhanammal more accurately illustrates how the veena is held than the more fanciful Ravi Varma painting.

Like the sitar, the left hand technique involves playing on the frets, controlled pushing on the strings to achieve higher tones and glissandi through increased tension, and finger flicks, all reflecting the characteristics of various ragas and their ornamentation (gamaka). Modern innovations include one or two circular sound holes (like that of the lute), substitution of machine heads for wooden pegs for easier tuning, and the widespread use of transducers for amplification in performance.

Religious Associations Within Hinduism

Goddess Saraswati depicted playing the veena

The patron Hindu Goddess of learning and the arts, Saraswati, is often depicted seated upon a swan playing a veena. Lord Shiva is also depicted playing or holding a vina in His form called "Vinadhara," which means "bearer of the vina." Also, the great Hindu sage Narada was known as a veena maestro.[5] and refers to 19 different kinds of Veena in Sangita Makarandha. Ravana, the antagonist of the Ramayana, who is also a great scholar, a capable ruler and a devoted follower of Shiva, was also a versatile veena player. Scholars hold that as Saraswati was goddess of learning, the most evolved string instrument in a given age was placed in her hands by contemporary artistes.

The Ramayana, the Bhagavata and Puranas all contain references to the Veena, as well as the Sutra and the Aranyaka. The Vedic sage Yajnavalkya speaks of the greatness of the Veena in the following verse: "One who is skilled in Veena play, one who is an expert in the varieties of srutis (quarter tones) and one who is proficient in tala attain salvation without effort." [6]

Many references to the veena are made in old Sanskrit and Tamil literature, and musical compositions. Examples include poet Kalidasa's epic Sanskrit poem Kumarasambhava, as well as "veena venu mridanga vAdhya rasikAm" in Meenakshi Pancharathnam, "mAsil veeNaiyum mAlai madhiyamum" Thevaram by Appar. [7]

Each physical portion of the veena is said to be the seat in which subtle aspects of various gods and goddesses reside in Hinduism. The instrument's neck is Shiva, the strings constitute his consort, Parvati. The bridge is Lakshmi, the secondary gourd is Brahma, the dragon head Vishnu. Upon the resonating body is Saraswati, the bridge Lakshmi. "Thus, the veena is the abode of divinity and the source of all happiness."- R. Rangaramanuja Ayyangar [8]


Scholars consider that today four instruments are signified by Veena which in the past has been used as generic name for all string instruments. They are the Tanjauri (Saraswati) Veena, Rudra veena, Vichitra veena, and Gottuvadhyam veena (also called the Chitra veena).

Modern day evolving of the veena include the Sruti veena (more an instrument for theoretical demonstration than for actual playing) that was constructed by Dr. Lalmani Misra in early 1960's on which all 22 srutis can be produced simultaneously, [9] the Ranjan Veena and the Mohan veena (a modified form of guitar with sympathetic strings), invented and popularised by Pandit Vishwa Mohan Bhatt and often confused with ancient Indian musical instruments.

Contemporary Situation

Veena represents the system of Indian music. Several instruments evolved in response to cultural changes in the country. Communities of artists, scholars and craftsmen moved around and at times settled down. Thus Veena craftsmen of Kolkata were famous for their instruments. Similary, Rudra Veena was given a new form which came to be known after the craftsmen of Tanjour as Tanjauri Veena. Modern life-style is no longer limited to definite routine within a small locality, thus along with performers and teachers of Veena, the community of craftsmen is also on decline. Attempts to start institutions of instrument-making have been made, but there is a strong need for conservatories which focus on all aspects of Veena. As a state party to UNESCO Convention 2003, India has identified Veena as an element of Intangible Cultural Heritage and proposed its inscription in the Representative list of UNESCO.

Tone and acoustics

Nobel Prize-winning physicist C.V. Raman has described the veena as having a unique construction. The string terminations at both ends are curved and not sharp. Also, the frets have much more curvature than any other instrument. Unlike in guitar, the string does not have to be pushed down to the very base of the neck, so no rattling sound is generated. This design enables a continuous control over the string tension, which is important for glissandi, produces more harmonics than any other instruments.[citation needed]

Some believe that the beeswax beneath the frets acts as a noise filter.[citation needed]

Famous veena players


  1. ^ Bonnie C. Wade (2004). "Music in India". Manohar, 90-93.
  2. ^ Padma Bhushan Prof. P. Sambamurthy (2005). "History of Indian Music". The Indian Music Publishing House, 208-214.
  3. ^ Padma Bhushan Prof. P. Sambamurthy (2005). "History of Indian Music". The Indian Music Publishing House, 208-214.
  4. ^ Padma Bhushan Prof. P. Sambamurthy (2005). "History of Indian Music". The Indian Music Publishing House, 203.
  5. ^ Bhag-P 1.5.1 Narada is addressed as 'Vina-panih', meaning "one who carries a vina in his hand"
  6. ^ Padma Bhushan Prof. P. Sambamurthy (2005). "History of Indian Music". The Indian Music Publishing House, 202, 205, 207.
  7. ^ "See above".
  8. ^ Bonnie C. Wade (2004). "Music in India". Manohar, 93.
  9. ^ Shruti Veena: the Sound Link

External links


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