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Re: Veena in SriRangam

From: Vidyasankar Sundaresan (vidya_at_cco.caltech.edu)
Date: Fri Mar 07 1997 - 14:09:50 PST

On Thu, 27 Feb 1997, krish wrote:

> One of the missed news on SriRangam, is the house of a carpenting
> craftsman who lives in the the North or South Chittira Street
> near the temple. From the Palamaram, he hones out the whole veena.
> I visited him in the 70's and have taken slides of the development
> of the veena from the tree trunk  to a display instrument. What was
> striking was his toolkit, ith not a single power tool. The resonator
> is carved out and the wall thickenss is half an inch or less.
> I am sure the interiror surface irregularities should e minimal and
> he had never heard of computer simulation or optimization.

Srirangam, Tiruchi and Tanjavur still have some of the best Veena makers
in south India. Of the Veenas I have seen, the interior surface is
extremely rough. The outer surface is made really smooth, with decorative
lines, called "parangikkai keeththu" (stripes like a pumpkin) and
polished. Doing this well is a very difficult art. My guru says that there
are not many artisans today who can make these stripes well nowadays. The
master artisan of this century was one Narayana Asari in Srirangam, but
his sons have not continued in the art. 

It is my opinion that the thickness of the wood (about half an inch)
results in a lot of acoustic inertia, and the Veena kodam (resonator box)
does not vibrate very well, for all its size. In contrast, the sitar,
which has a seasoned gourd rind as the kodam gives a much more intense
sound. Actually, the thickness and quality of the top-plate are more
important than that of the kodam in determining the intensity and timbre
of the Veena. I feel that the Veena can be much improved if our artisans
learned to optimize the top-plate construction. But I doubt if computer
simulations or power tools are going to help such an effort. 

One interesting thing that my guru also pointed out to me is that the
south Indian Veena has been purposely designed for suitability in
religious use. Except for the bees-wax used in the fret board, there is
not a single animal product in the Veena. Only metal strings are
used, unlike other stringed instruments which use gut. Thus, the Veena can
be played even inside the garbha-griham of a temple. This is a privilege
that instruments like mridangam and nadaswaram do not enjoy. These other
instruments are usually only allowed in the outer prakarams of the
temples. 

> It was one of the most thrilling scenes  to have witnessed his
> accomplishments. I regret I did not buy an instrument from him,
> though it was the only thing my wife wanted from India. My problem 
> was transportaing it. Later I did buy one in Bangalore but had to
> leave it there since the airlines refused to let bring it as 
> an accompanied baggage.

To carry a Veena as an accompanied baggage, you might have to end up
buying an extra ticket. Still, the cramped seats and small overhead bins
in most aircraft make me suspect that it would be a problem to transport
carefully as accompanied baggage. 

Airlines officials can be persuaded to allow Veenas as check-in baggage.
To do this, you must have a sturdy, shock-proof case with a lot of
styrofoam or other packing inside, to protect the Veena. It will be
oversize, and you might have to pay extra for the unusual size of the
item. But you can make use of the extra space in the box to pack clothes,
which will double as additional protection. You also have to pull some
influence, insist that it travel with you on the same aircraft, and if
possible, try to personally oversee the loading of the Veena into the
cargo level. After this, keep praying that there be no damage! 

When you land, immigration and customs people will ask you unpleasant
questions, because of the shape and size of such a box. I found my name to
be useful when I brought my Veena for the first time to LA. When the
customs man looked inside and said it looked like a sitar, and then
compared the name on my passport to Ravi Shankar, I just kept quiet and
gave a noncommittal smile. I didn't feel like telling him we were not
related! 

Vidyasankar