Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Mellifluous Veena

THE  MELLIFLUOUS   VEENA—Its Divinity and Antiquity<b></b></b>

       While music, whether vocal or instrumental, has been considered divine all over the world, Indian music is considered divinity itself.  The very fact that we use the term ‘Gandharva Veda’ for music makes it abundantly clear that music was literally of celestials that explored the melody and gamaka of the Samaveda. Infused with profound transcendental meaning, Sruti and Raga and Laya sublimated human emotions in art leading to Madhura Bhakti. In fact, right from the days of Maharshi Narada to recent times represented by  saints like Jayadeva, Meera, Chaitanya, Tulasidas,  Kabir, Purandara, Tyagaraja , Annamacharya. Muthuswamy Deekshitar etc, music has represented virtually the rhythm of the Hindu way of life. Whether it is vocal or instrumental, Indian music has always remained divinity itself.

           Among the ancient classical musical instruments, the Veena has always remained the prima donna among Indian musical instruments. Temple paintings and scriptures associate the Veena with the Hindu pantheon of gods and goddesses in one form or the other. Goddess Saraswathi, the presiding deity for all Fine arts and education, holding a Veena is the first example of the sacredness of the Veena.

           The antiquity of the Veena could be traced back to the Vedic times. In fact, in the Rigveda we come across two terms ‘Vaana’ and ‘Kshona’ both of which refer to the Veena. The Taittariya Samhita of the Yajurveda refers to the playing of the Veena by two vainikas while the third accompanied them on the vocal music. We also learn that during the performance of the Ashwamedha Sacrifice, Veena accompanied the Vedic Mantras. One of the Mantras recited during the Yajna says “This, the Veena, is verily the embodiment of Beauty and Prosperity”. 
        There is an interesting but little known legend illustrating the magic of the sonorous notes coming out of the Veena. Once the sages, who were performing a Yajna in a forest, were troubled by a fire-spitting dragon that impeded their sacrifice and caused them untold miseries. So, they sought Brahma’s help. Brahma wondered if his consort Saraswathi could tame the dragon with her music. Saraswathi agreed and hid herself in the forest and played on the Veena. The dragon, attracted and bewitched by the melodious music, stopped its destruction and went in search of the source of the elusive melody. Soon it relinquished its havoc and developed such a yearning for the mellifluous music that it became restless without it. Finally it prayed to God to let him know who was producing the music.
          Saraswathi then appeared before the dragon and played the Veena. The enchanted dragon pleaded for salvation and a permanent place near the music. Satisfied by the earnestness of the seeker, Saraswathi agreed to the request of the dragon and replaced the peacock [which became her vahana] in her Veena with the dragon’s head so that it could always remain an integral part of the Veena and hear the music always.
          There is another interesting episode in the Rigveda from which we can infer that in ancient days Veena was played early at dawn. It is said that Sage Kanva was once captured and imprisoned by the demons and was kept blindfolded in a dark room. The condition for his relief was that with his eyes completely blinded, he should be able to tell the time of the day. Hours passed, night passed into day and at the break of dawn he heard the melodious notes of the Veena. He knew that the day had dawned since it was the practice in ancient days to practice Veena at the break of dawn. He told the captors that it was dawn without letting them know the source of his answer. He was set free.
         A great deal of religious significance is attached to the Veena and its components. Parts of the Veena are said to represent various gods. According to ‘Sangitha Ratnakara’ of Sarangadeva, even the seeing and touching of the Veena takes away several sins and confers Moksha. The Veena’s danda represents Shiva, the strings represent Uma, the shoulder represents Vishnu, the bridge represents Lakshmi, the gourd Brahma and so on. Thus, the several parts of the Veena represent various gods and goddesses and are capable of bestowing prosperity. The 24 frets are supposed to represent the 24 letters which form the Gayatri Mantram while the four strings represent the four Vedas. 
         The wood used for making the Veena is jack wood which is considered sacred. In Kerala it is considered that Goddess Mahalakshmi resides in the jack wood and it brings prosperity to the Veena player. It is on this account that the Veena is particularly worshipped during the Navaratri festival. In ancient days, wood from jack trees grown in the temple courtyard was used to make the Veena. It was believed that such wood absorbed the resonance of the temple bells. Nowadays other types of wood are also used.   
          The strings of the Veena in Vedic times were made of spun grass known as ‘Munja grass’. Sinews of an animal called Godha was also used for the strings in respect of some Veenas.. It was much later that the metal wires came into use. The best known Vedic Veena was called ‘Maha Veena’ and it had 100 strings of the Munja grass. This instrument was played with sticks. It was also called by the name ‘Shatatantri Veena’ Veena with 100 strings]. Probably this could have been the forerunner of the present day ‘Santoor’ popular in Persia and Kashmir which also has 100 strings and which uses two rods to produce melodious music. Goddess Saraswathi’s Veena has 7 strings and is called ‘Kachhapi’. The Veena held by Maharshi Narada is called ‘Mahati’ and it has 4 strings. Lord Shiva is said to have used a Veena called ‘Analambi’ and it has only one string.
          Ever since the Vedic Age, the Veena has constantly remained in the centre stage of the world of instrumental music in India for the past thousands of years. Its greatness and sanctity has been hailed by several scriptures as also by several saints, poets and singers as would be evident from the following representative references:
        1. We learn from the Valmiki Ramayana that Ravana obtained Lord Shiva’s grace by pleasing him with his playing on the Veena.
        2. It is said that Ravana was so fond of  the instrument that his flag was painted with the picture of a Veena
        3. In the ‘Uttara Rama Charitam’, Lava and Kusha, sons of Lord Sri Rama, sang the entire Valmiki Ramayana to the accompaniment of Veena in the  court of Lord Rama during the Ashwamedha Sacrifice.
        4. Bharatha Muni in his Natya Shastra refers to two Veenas by name Chitra and Vipanchi
        5. Acharya Shankara in his Tripura Sundari Stotram refers to two Veenas by name Vipanchi and Vallaki.
        6. Kalidasa in his composition ‘Shyamala Dandakam’ says that Goddess Sharada uses a golden Veena since he refers to the same by the word ‘Manikya Veena’. He also refers to a Veena by name ‘Mayura Veena’ which was peacock in shape in his popular drama ‘Malavikagnimitram’
        7. Bhasa in his drama ‘Pratijna Yougandharayana’ refers to a Veena called ‘Ghoshavathi’ which was played by Raja Udayana.
        8. Saint Tyagaraja has sung in his famous composition ‘Mokshamu Galada’ [Saramathi Raga and Adi Tala] thus:  ‘Veenavadana Loludou Shivamana’ meaning that Lord Shiva resides in the mind of the Veena player.
         The present form of Veena is very much different from what it was in ancient days in shape, size and design.  Today’s Veena is a polyphonous instrument designed and developed by one Govinda Dikshitar during the reign of Raja Raghunath Naik when the Naiks were ruling Tanjore. Hence it is also known as Tanjore Veena. The instrument has a fretted fingerboard with 4 strings for the notes and 3 drones cum tala strings. 
           While the Veena is generally held horizontally, the renowned Veena Vidwan Venkatarama Das of the Vijayanagara Kingdom had the rare distinction of holding it vertically and playing on it. This type of playing the Veena was therefore referred to as ‘Urdhva Veena’. Another great Vainika Vidwan who had this distinction was Sri. Sangameshwara Shastry from Andhra Pradesh who lived between 1874-1931. He was an ardent devotee of Goddess Lalitha. By virtue of his ardent practice and expertise, he possessed a high degree of perfection. Gurudev Ravindranath Tagore was so much fascinated by Shastri’s talent that he took him to Shantinikethan, enjoyed his recitals for some time and lavished presents on the great Vainika Vidvan.  Shastri breathed his last while playing the Ananda Bhairavi Raga on the Veena.
           Such is the sanctity of the Veena that Maharshi Yajnavalkya in his “Yagjnavalkya Smruthi’ writes:
“Veena Vadana Tattvajnah Shruthi Jati  Visharadah
Talajnascha Aprayasena Mokshamargam hi Gachchathi”
Meaning “One who is well versed in Veena playing with the principles well understood   and who has mastered Sruthi, Jati, Raga and Tala, attains salvation without effort”

“Saa  Me  Vasatu  Jivhagre  Veena  Pustaka  Dharini”

-May Goddess Saraswathi, holding the Veena and the book, always reside in my tongue.



Article No. 605--The Melliflous Veena--Its Divinity and Antiquity
Created : December 18, 2010 8:22 AM

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