The Chembur Fine Arts Society, one of the foremost cultural organisations in Mumbai, is going places with its innovative and pioneering efforts in promoting and propagating Indian music and dance. The recent thematic annual conferences on Carnatic music have certainly caught the imagination of the music-loving public. The last three years have witnessed detailed discussions and demonstrations on the Musical instsruments of Carnatic music. The first conference, on String instruments, was held in February 1999. Spread over two days, it highlighted in detail the various stringed instruments used in Carnatic music. Whereas the first day was dedicated to string instruments of Indian origin, like the Vina, Chitravina etc, the second day covered instruments of western origin that have been successfully adopted in Carnatic music (Violin, Guitar, Mandolin etc). The participants included top-notch instrumentalists. Wherever possible, different schools and styles were also featured. The conferences in 2000 and 2001 covered Wind instruments and Percussion instruments respectively.

In the coming weeks, Carnatica will bring you the papers presented by the participants at these Conferences.




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- By R Jayanthi

"Serene Strains", "Immortal Sounds", "Sublime Sounds", "Subtle Instrumental Chemistry" – these are some of the expressions which one comes across in the reviews of capitivating Vina recitals. The music of the Vina has a glorious tradition, particularly in the regions south of the Vindhyas. Vina is as old as the Vedas, which are  considered to be the bridge between mythology and history. Our holy scriptures contain valuable references to music and Vina (Maasil Vinayum). Down the ages, music has been cultivated as a medium of communication with divinity, and Vina as the most suitable vehichle for that path. According to the Yajnavalya Smriti, one who is adept at playing the Vina, who is well versed in sruti and jati, and is also a master of Tala, will attain salvation without difficulty.

Origin of Vina:

The Saraswati Vina is one of the most ancient stringed instruments of India. Its origin can be traced back to the ancient Yazh, a stringed instrument, similar to the Grecian harp. Bharata, in his Natya Sastra explains the theory of the 22 srutis in an octave with the help of two experimental Vinas.

The Vina then went through several innovations and modifications. In its current form, the instrument can be attributed to Raghunath Nayak (17th century) of Tanjavur, Tamilnadu.

Structure of Vina:

The Vina is 1.5 m long and is made, traditionally from jackwood. It has a large sound resonator (kudam) with a thick, wide neck, the end of which is carved into the head of a dragon-like mythological animal, called Yali. A small resonator (surakkai) is attached to the underside of the neck. The Vina has 24 metal frets embedded in hardened beeswax mixed with charcoal power.

The 24 frets of the Vina define two complete octaves, each of twelve notes. The four strings of the Vina, in theory, can be used to play music over three and a half octaves. In practice, most Vina artistes use only three strings, and of those, the third (bass) one only rarely. It is said that the fourth string is included to balance the bridge and to have an even number of strings. Be that as it may, it is nevertheless always tuned appropriately and can indeed be used in playing the instrument.

The frets, made of round bell metal, are fixed across a pair of wax bridges on the dandi (neck). The special compound wax is coloured black and has properties adjusted for pliablity while being fixed, and for strength and rigidity once it sets. A set of four playing strings and three Tala or side strings are structured over the frets across a bridge on the kudam (sound resonator) and are held by wooden pegs. However, in modern times, some artistes have replaced the modern pegs with guitar keys for a firmer grip as also to ensure sruti alignment even while forcefully handling the instrument. Fine-tuning is achieved by moving tiny beads over brass loops that hold the strings down, over the other end of the kudam. Traditional decorations along the edges and over the face of the resonator were once crafted out of ivory or deer-horn but is now-a-days replaced by coloured vinyl.

The Vina is held with the resonator to the player’s right and the surakkai on the left thigh. The right hand forefinger and middle finger gently pluck the strings while the little finger, in upward strokes, strike the three Tala strings, vibrating in unison and chiming with a regular beat. While the right hand produces the sound (Nada), the left hand, which comes under the Dandi to allow the fingers to rest on the frets, is used to manipulate this sound into notes or swarasthanas. The evocation of all the subtleties and nuances of the music rest primarily on the technique of the left-hand fingers. They may be placed simply between two frets for a ringing, unadorned note or can glide from note to note, or execute little jumps to land lightly on another fret or for oscillation of notes. In Vina, oscillation of notes is achieved by pulling the strings away, while remaining at the same fret to produce notes in succession, leading to what is known as sanchara. Its main attraction is the mellow tonal quality which is capable of evoking a meditative atmosphere.

Types of Vinas:

There are three types of Saraswati Vinas - Tanjavur, Mysore and Tiruvanantapuram, named after the places where they are created. The Tanjavur Vina is heavily ornamented and hence is relatively heavy. Mysore VInas are less ornate and the bowl or resonator in front tends to be larger. Tiruvanantapuram Vinas are longer and lighter.

Vina and its divinity:

Vina is one of the three celestial instruments having references from Vedic times, as mentioned earlier. The fact that Saraswati, the Goddess of Arts, is always identified with Vina only symbolises that music (synonymous with Vina) has primary importance among all forms of fine arts.

Ancient scriptures and literature reveal that Sage Narada who is believed to have blessed Tyagaraja with his treatise on Sangeeta Sastra was himself an exponent in Vina and played an instrument called Mahati. It is intresting to note that the scriptures and Purana-s have called Vina by various names. Saraswati’s Vina has been referred to by names like Vipanchi, Kacchapi, Vaiki etc; Vishuavasu’s Vina has been called as Brihas, and Tumburu’s as Kalavati.

Legends have it that Sage Agastya was also a Vina exponent and once had a competition with Ravana in Vina, wherein Maha Meru stood in judgement. Lankeswara Ravana, who was musically inclined, was also an accomplished Vina player. As per legend, to appease Lord Siva, he once cut one of his heads and also his body nerves, made a Vina and played Samagana.

In the 66th sloka of the Soundarya Lahari, there is beautiful anecdote which goes thus. Once, Goddess Saraswati is singing the praises of Pasupati through her Vina in the presence of Devi Parvati, who at an exhilarated moment vocally exclaims at the beauty of the music. That simple exclamatory ‘Aaha’ of Devi is sweeter than the music itself, making Saraswati blush and stop playing and she silently wraps her instrument.

In Lalitha Sahasranamam, Lord Hayagreeva refers to the same incident in sloka 11, by saying ‘Nija Sallapa Madhurya Vinirbhartsita Kacchapi’. Mahakavi Kalidasa is believed to have commenced his poetic streaks with his famous ‘Manikkya Vinam Upalayantim’. In Rajarajeswari Ashtakam, Adi Sankara has mentioned ‘Vinavenu vinoda manditakara veerasana samasthita’.

Coming to Tamil literature, perhaps an early reference can be traced to Tiruvalluvar's well-known Tirukkural in verses 66 and 279, wherein the pure Tamil word Yazh is used to refer to Vina. In the 70th song of Abhirami Andadi, Bhattar extols the beauty of Goddess Parasakti who is seen by him, among other things, with a Vina in her hands.

Talking of legends, one very important personality who needs mention, in a discussion on Vina, is Guru Raghavendra of Mantralaya. There is a story that he sang his own Bhairavi composition 'Indu enage Govinda’, playing Vina just before entering Brindavana, for which song, his golden vigraha (idol) of Santanagopalamoorty came alive and danced in full public view. This happened just about 300 years ago.

What we have seen are but a few glimpses on divine references of this pracheena (ancient) musical instrument, which is a precious part of the priceless heritage of India.

Contemporary music scene:

During the last two centuries, the four southern linguistic areas have evolved their distinct style (bani) of Vina playing i.e., Tanjavur, Andhra, Mysore and Kerala, and each school boasts of eminent Vina players like Dhanammal and the Karaikudi brothers (Tanjavur bani), Sangameswara Sastri and Venkatramana Das (Andhra bani), Subbanna and Seshanna Bhagavatar (Mysore bani and Kalyanakrishna Bhagavatar (senior, Kerala bani). The characteristics of each school have been passed on to the next generation through the guru-sishya parampara (teacher-student tradition). At the same time, an individual musician’s attitude and perceptions also strongly operate to create variations in the fingering technique within the same tradition. In more recent times, we have the example of the gifted Vina player, late S Balachander evolving his own style, largely out of his own inspiration and perspiration.

In our examination, we find to our dismay this antique instrument is no match for other melodic instruments in its capacity to reach out to large audiences in concert halls. Fitting of the contact mike to the instrument results in distortion of its unique sound. This hoary art is an exacting mistress and it takes years to master the instrument. The instrument also poses problems in transportation with its long size. Tuning the instrument is also a job, not to speak of problems in its maintenance. 

Fortunately, the problem posed by the unwieldy size of Vina is receiving attention. A Chennai based Vainika-cum-engineer has designed the Balavina, which is 27 inches long and has a 10" kudam and weighs just 2.5 kg (half the size of the noraml Vina). Another senior Vainika, Padmavathy Ananthagopalan has designed a Vina which can be split into parts for transportation comfortably and assembled at short intervals at the place of performance.

On the future of Vina, the situation is not as dreary as it may appear. However, music-promoting bodies should do much more to encourage Vina music in concerts. It must also be admitted that Vina recitals, except of course by star performers, are hard to come by in regular monthly concerts of Sabhas or even in prestigious music festivals.


Related links: Vina: Its exalted status in Carnatic music - E Gayathri - Part 1
                     Vina: Its exalted status in Carnatic music - E Gayathri - Part 2
                     Yazh to Guitar - Prof. V V Subramanyam
                     Musical Expressions